Have a Question? Need Parenting Advice? Ask Michael Hawton

By the time your offspring are starting high school, you should have to rely less on outside-in parenting strategies and more on their new and improved ability to exert self-control.

And more than just noting this improvement, which is a good thing, I will say this. While there will be times when your teenager won’t be able to exert self-control (everyone has bad-hair days) and hormones and sleep problems and stress will affect this ability, you won’t do them or yourself any favours by colluding with views held by some people who say that the adolescent mind goes offline for eons of time. The people who hold this view say teenagers’ brains are undergoing some kind of prolonged neurological refurbishment. But, I really don’t entirely buy this view. Apart from anything else, this doesn’t make developmental sense. You know those people who say that the teenage years are like a new expressway being constructed and, as the road works are being done, bottlenecks stop them thinking.

I’m not meaning to take on the academic establishment here, but really? Are we really dividing the minds of teenagers who have self-control and those that don’t? Surely, we’re not saying, are we, that as far as our teenage sons or daughters are concerned, some have self-control and some don’t? One of my well-known colleagues says more than once in his latest book, “Teenagers are all accelerators” – and you can read by implication, they have no brakes. How offensive is a view like that to the very large group of teenagers who actually do exercise self-control?

While writing about the plane travellers’ frustrating experiences on long plane flights, New York Times columnist, Stephanie Rosenbloom said, “Self-control is not a neat, unitary concept. It’s not as if some people have it, and some don’t”. Self-control then, is most-likely on a spectrum – even for teenagers and some are better at it than others. The older teenagers are the better at it they become – and it’s a matter of degree – not a matter of having it or not having it.

While stress, hormones and lack of sleep and other factors can affect anyone’s ability to exert self-control, we also know that developmentally a young person’s has some ability to exert self-control and we should rightly expect this of them.

You see, except for a small number of people (such as those with brain injuries or personality disorders) nearly everyone – including the vast majority of teenagers – has some ability to ‘catch’ themselves before they flip their lid. Nine times out ten you can assume that they can catch themselves before they lose control.

So, do you see how it works?  Age is one thing – and we should notice them getting better at not overreacting as they get older – but whether your teenager chooses to use this capacity to hold-it-together is quite another.  We can encourage a teenager to use their mind by ensuring that they get proper sleep.  But, we also need to call them to account for their behaviour, recognising that they are entirely capable of putting their mental brakes on and behaving appropriately if they apply themselves to that task.

– Michael Hawton, MAPS

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