Building healthy relationship in our Teenagers

Last week I attended a free seminar on “Building healthy relationships in our Teenagers” that my local council hosted. It focused heavily on the role that parents play in raising their children. The first speaker, clinical psychologist Colleen Hirst, said that teenagers need to develop skills to leave the nest or to leave the home. But in our modern culture the parent relationship has often changed to one of embarrassment. Kids need to be educated to know about healthy contact with those of the opposite sex, healthy content and healthy conduct. We lose our kids in our communication. Focusing often on what we think we have said, but rather the golden rule is “the meaning of the message in the receiver”. Colleen Hirst sited research by Altar and Fray, saying parents and adults need to develop good cohesive relationships with teenager. By celebrating key events like birthdays, develops a sense of belonging. Being flexible with our teenagers and having a wide embrace to encompass all that they bring and being able to walk with our children. Communication needs to be positive and avoid the negative. Parents and adults need to model a positive way of being.

Colleen Hirst broke the stages of the teenage years into 3 groups. 12 to 15, or early teens, where teenagers have rapid physical changes begin to explore who they are as their body changes. Raising questions like “why is that so”. Parents should not ignore those questions as they are healthy part of development. The second group 15 to 18, or mid-teens, where teenagers seek a great deal of independence and try and break connections with their parents. Asking questions “who am I”. This is natural but parents should not fully disengage even if the child wants this. Parents need to remain part of the conversation in a loving and inclusive manner. Finally, 18 to 25 years, or later-teenage years, with questions like “where am I going”. Teenagers want to take risks and experiment in order to initiate themselves into adulthood.

Across these three groups are three competing challenges in the teenage years. Expressing yourself versus fitting into the peer group and conformity. Competing with a image of perfection versus social appeal, feeling included. And developing a sense of independence yet needing support for parents and other significant others.

Colleen Hirst spoke about an explosion of brain development that begins from age 12. There is a lot of neuron pruning which occurs. Between 12 to 18 is the best time to learn a new language. Teenagers are able to learn at twice the speed as they would at age 30 or 40. Our individualised culture does not help us with this development. Humans are designed as social beings. Thus, we learn very readily in relationship with each other. In previous centuries the village or community would play a significant part in raising children. Where uncles, relatives and even neighbours modelled good adult behaviour. Colleen Hirst said that only 10% of what adults say is actually modelled, whilst, 90% of what adults do and behave is learned. However, our culture places significant emphasis on the thinking, logic, and the rationale dimension, the 10%, whilst, the way we are designed as people is to learn through physical relationships not verbal. How parents and adults behave greatly influences who they are becoming.

During the teenage years, teenagers seek independence. They want to be separated from their parents as they explore the notion of what it means to be an adult. The psychiatrist said that parents and adults must stay engaged in the conversation. Not to run away from problems. But, rather enter into conversations even though our children may say “I don’t want to talk about this”. Thus, parents must set times and create spaces in their daily and weekly routines where they can engage with their children. But with consideration and flexibility in mind of what the teenager is going through.

Emotions increased greatly during the teenage years. For girls it occurs much earlier. At 12 or 13, whilst for boys, later, may, 15 or 16. With puberty, teenagers have a surge of emotions where they struggle to interpret. A need to re-produce, have children, and find a partner becomes important. Without good boundaries and a sense of worth and self-concept confuses the forming of the teenage psyche. Mixed into this family break down, divorce, and peer pressure adds to this confusion. Relationship with friends and boyfriends and girlfriends are going to fall apart. This is natural. Parents are to model how to repair ruptured relationships. Parents and significant adults need to be a safe haven where teenagers feel safe and gain a sense of worth and belonging by being with you. We need to minimise yelling and screaming at all costs and maintain calm. There are a series of strategies or tools. One, listening to what is happening without parents always trying to fix. When someone hears what is going on helps us regulate our emotions. Second, parents need the capacity to de-escalate situations. Third, Teenagers need to name it to tame it. For girls, friendship groups change rapidly. This is natural. Fourth, engage as parents, do not disengage, even if teenagers want to disengage. Fifth, encourage children to think, to think about things objectively away from emotions, to develop their pre-frontal cortex. This separates us from the animals. During the pruning where neurons are disappearing, parents and adults need to model wise counsel. The parent’s role is not to fix everything, but rather listen to what they are going through and provide opportunities for activities. It may be going and kicking a ball in the local park, or where dad might want to take their child on a date where they buy a coffee and have a chat.

In the last 2 generations there was a noticeable absence about the conversation around the topic of “sex”. It is important that parents are willing to have this conversation. Even if parents do not feel adequate starting the conversation and about sex. They need to. Parents and adults lived experience and wisdom helps to form the child into healthy concepts around sex which navigate and explore the meaning of sex for our children. “Sex” should not be seen as a dirty word, but, spoken about in a healthy manner. With contact, content and conduct in mind. If not, when issues like pornography appear, teenagers will have a more negative image from their own friends or the media to shape their understandings.

Healthy development in teenagers requires parents and other adults to be involved. This begins through a willingness to enter the world of our children. Our increasing pressure from work, and culture can prevent us from giving over of ourselves to our children. Children should not be left alone to work this out. But see issues around teenage development and even mental development as natural.

Strong relationships are like a buffer when kids make mistakes. We need to love our children enough to be uncomfortable. It is never too late to start talking more openly and wisely with our children. When we share we need to be calm. Males need male role models more especially. Mentors, other than parents, play a significant part in shaping values. Who are these mentors? Parent with your child as if you can see who they are becoming as adults. Not just in what you say, but, in what you do. Even when children cannot see your they see through you. Your job is not to be a best friend, your job is to be a parent.

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01 June 2021

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