by TIM SMITH
Young children usually aim to please their parents, whether their reward is candy, a new toy or even just a smile and a high five. As any parent who has raised a teenager will tell you, life does not stay that simple forever. Gone are the days when mum or dad’s advice is golden and everyone is keen to play their role in maintaining a happy family life. Welcome to the world of the teenager.
According to adolescence expert Tana Matthie, however, if you nurture your relationship and develop a mutual respect with your child, those late childhood years can be as wonderful as they are sometimes bewildering.
“Teenagers can seem very irrational, emotional or impulsive. It’s to be expected and can be even more so if you are not quite prepared for it,” said Ms Matthie, a counsellor at Family Centre. “As parents, we are used to our young children aiming to please us. But with a lot of teenagers, your respect has to be earned. You can’t just crack the whip and demand it.”
Many counsellors swear by the saying that “rules without relationship can lead to rebellion”.
“If we can develop the sort of relationship with our kids that we are able to communicate with them, and they are able to come to us, then hopefully we are going to develop that bond or mutual respect,” Ms Matthie said. “Once you have that mutual respect, they are more likely to respect our judgment and our advice. It doesn’t mean they are always going to take it, but that’s the hope!”
First, parents need to understand what their children go through during adolescence, which can begin from as early as 10 years old.
Hormonal changes can lead to mood swings and more intense emotions, while physical changes include a growth spurt, hair appearing in different parts of the body and the voice getting deeper. Parents may also notice a smell, even if the child seems oblivious.
Sometimes teenagers can seem like they’re coping very well, which may mask the fact their brain is not fully developed until they reach their mid-20s.
“If you have a conversation with a teenager, especially if it’s not your own, you can have a really intellectual, two-sided conversation, and see they are really bright and know what’s happening,” Ms Matthie said. “But there’s still that part of their brain that’s not fully developed. As adults, we have to remind ourselves that there might still be some irrational behaviour some of the time.
“They can tell us they understand the risks and they might be healthier and stronger than some of us. Yet still, there’s more mortality levels for that age group. That’s partly because they are engaging in risky and even erratic behaviour.”
Peer pressure often plays a key role.
“Our youths are trying to figure out who they are,” Ms Matthie said. “When you are with this peer group that is engaging with those more risky behaviours, you might be taking part because you want to be accepted.”
Risky behaviour might include experimenting with drugs and alcohol or being sexually active, and consequences might include addiction, an STI or teen pregnancy.
“As adults, we are worried about these things,” Ms Matthie said. “They are more worried about being ostracised by their peer groups, being teased or bullied for not following the crowd.”
So how can we offer good advice – especially when it might feel our teenager will be inclined to do the opposite of what we suggest?
“If you have a decent relationship with your child, you can use your knowledge of the child to figure out how much you should get involved,” Ms Matthie advised. “You can be less intrusive or more intrusive. You can trust your child to make decisions and be more of an adviser. You might let them know that if they make a mistake, you are there to help. That sort of communication is better than just dictating what you should and shouldn’t do.
“The times we can do more than just advise are when we see things happening that might cause harm. It’s important to let our kids see what we notice.”
Warning signs vary from teenager to teenager, but you should look out for any behaviour or mood that is not typical for them. Ms Matthie noted some young people in Bermuda may find adolescence particularly difficult if they are considering they may be part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Some adolescents find it really hard to be open about who they are and who they want to be, whether at school or with their families or among their friends. It’s a concern,” she said. “You are feeling a lot of emotions, and might not be sure how you are going to fit in. It’s not uncommon for them to have anxiety and to feel depressed.”
Anxiety has also increased because Covid has kept young people away from their peers. Being able to spot when something is wrong – and finding ways to help your teenager deal with it – once again comes down to building that relationship.
“You can’t force that,” Ms Matthie said. “Try to incorporate it into everyday life. Connect and engage, try to share their interests. If parents do this on a regular basis, once a month, that’s helping to build that sense of engagement and rapport. So, if they do have issues, they are going to come to you, because you are creating that safe space. If parents take the time to have that conversation, hopefully that’s going to let them see we have their best interests at heart, so they can be more open with us.”
And, if ever you feel frustration getting the better of you, Ms Matthie stressed: “As parents, we shouldn’t take it personally! Sometimes we think they are doing it on purpose to annoy us. But usually, they are not even considering us when they make that rash decision.”