Preparing for the teenage years
Every stage of parenting has its challenges, but for many families, the teenage years are the most difficult. The transition from childhood to young adulthood can be a rollercoaster for kids, and when your home is full of raging hormones, it can be hard to keep your cool.
But there are ways to smooth this rocky road. ‘I see a lot of parents who are very worried about their teenager, feeling frazzled and not sure where to turn,’ says Cai Graham, therapist, coach and author of The Teen Toolbox (£12.99, Rethink Press). ‘The problem is that if we’re feeling unsure, our teenagers can smell it a mile off, and we end up walking on eggshells around them.’
The good news is that while every child will have their ups and downs as they enter their teens, there are plenty of things you can do before they reach this stage to help the whole family navigate it as easily as possible.
1. Establish ground rules – but know when to relax them
Every child needs boundaries, even when they’re on the cusp of adulthood, but teenagers are renowned for testing them to their limits. The key to making rules that your child can keep is involving them in the process.
‘We know, for example, that teenagers will want to go out with their friends, so sit down together and agree on what’s reasonable in terms of where they can go and how long they can stay out,’ says Cai. ‘If your child has signed up to the rules, they’re less likely to break them.’
It’s also important, however, to know that sometimes, rules can be relaxed. ‘If your child normally isn’t allowed out on school nights but their favourite band is playing on a Wednesday, you might want to make an exception to the rule,’ Cai suggests. If your child knows you’re reasonable about the ground rules, they’re less likely to challenge them.
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2. Increase their independence
Most teenagers crave independence, but letting go of your hold on your child can be nerve-wracking. The best way to play it is to increase their independence gradually as they approach their teenage years. You might start letting them walk to school on their own or leaving them at home for 10 minutes while you pop to the shop. As they earn your trust and get used to their new independence, they can then take bigger steps, like going into town with a friend or catching a bus on their own.
3. Learn their learning style
Homework can be a flashpoint as your child enters their teens, with the volume building as they move up to secondary school. They’ll need to develop independent study skills, and part of that involves identifying how they learn best: their ‘learning style.’
‘Some people learn best by writing things down; others learn by listening or watching videos,’ says Cai. ‘The trick is to work out what works for your child.’ Some kids, for example, do their best work when there's music on in the background, so don’t insist that they do their homework sitting at a desk in silence: let them find the way that works for them.
4. Be social media aware
Social media is a minefield for kids, with issues from friendship dramas to online grooming to contend with. Banning your child from social media is unrealistic and is likely to result in them using it behind your back. Instead, accept that they will use it, but encourage openness about what they’re doing online.
‘Get them to explain their world to you, by showing you how their apps and games work,’ Cai advises. ‘If we take an interest in the small things they’re doing everyday, they’ll know they can come to you with the big stuff, too.’ It’s sensible to familiarise yourself with the various apps they use: the NSPCC Share Aware campaign is a comprehensive guide to social media platforms and the potential risks.
5. Listen to their opinions
We all go through periods where it feels as if we’re constantly nagging our kids, and it can become a vicious circle: the more we nag, the less they listen. But they’re not the only ones who need to brush up their listening skills.
‘Most of us enter into a conversation with our children purely to put our point across, rather than to listen to what they have to say,’ says Cai. ‘Get into the habit of looking at the issue as if you’re a fly on the wall, seeing both sides of the argument. It’s okay not to feel in control all the time.’
6. Work out how to communicate
Teens are not renowned for being the best communicators, but if open conversation is the norm in your family before your child hits their teenage years, they’re more likely to carry on being open with you.
‘The trick is to work out how they prefer to communicate with you,’ Cai says. ‘Some children will open up while you’re baking together; others have their best conversations in the car. And make sure you aren’t permanently attached to your phone: if your child is brought up in an environment where people don’t really listen, you can’t expect them to listen themselves.’
7. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Dirty coffee cups in their bedroom, soggy towels on the bathroom floor… Teens can be difficult to live with, but relaxing your standards a little and letting some things go can be the difference between a harmonious household and an explosive one.
‘If you can pick your battles – just as you would with a toddler – you can cut down on unnecessary arguments,’ Cai says. ‘Your child needs to know that you’ve got their back – not that you’re on their back.’
8. Don’t micromanage their time
Today’s kids have busy lives, and when they move up to secondary school, there’s often more to fit in than ever before: homework, clubs and activities, music or sports practice, socialising with friends. You may feel like you have to hover over your child to make sure everything gets done, but it’s important to give them the freedom to manage their own time: a skill that will serve them well in later years.
‘We can put a lot of pressure on our children to get the highest grades and join the best teams, but sometimes, they get to the point where they’re fed up of being organised,’ Cai says. If their homework doesn’t get done and they end up in detention, they’ll learn from their mistake and choose a different path next time.
9. Focus on the positives
Teenagers often get a bad press, but kids don’t necessarily turn into monsters the minute they hit puberty. Instead of focusing on the negatives of your child’s behaviour as they approach their teenage years, try to see the positives.
‘Teenagers can be horrible, but they’re also adventurous, compassionate and creative,’ says Cai. ‘They thrive on independence, but they also need home to be their sanctuary. If we can treat them as adults in the making and be on the same team, we can give them what they need most: love, respect and understanding.’