How to be a great parent to teenagers

Posted on 30 December 2019

From chatterbox to moody stranger: what do teenagers need from a parental relationship?

For most parents, the teenage years are characterised by two things – pushing boundaries and tantrums that take you back to the time when they were toddlers. Harsha Kalanjee, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Sandton, offers expert insights.

Teenagers have a strong need to assert themselves which makes them want to experiment. Teens will often dabble in substances (such as marijuana, alcohol and other drugs), sexual activity and other behaviours that may put them at risk for injuries. The decisions that they make at this point in their lives have real-life consequences.

One of the major challenges is to identify when your teenager is not simply experimenting but is actually struggling. The first sign is when they turn to substances or self-harm to cope with emotions that are overwhelming. Some of the danger signs to look out for include a sense of hopelessness, anxiety, social withdrawal and negative thoughts. Many teenagers tend to use marijuana to cope with the anxiety as it tends to ‘take the edge off’. As parents, your first reaction is likely to be to lecture them on the dangers of substance use.

One way of ascertaining whether your teen is experimenting – or struggling – is to ask what the substance does for your teen and then to listen to what you are told. Validating your teen’s feelings is important as it allows them to see that what they are going through emotionally is normal. It is your role to show them that emotions can be overwhelming but need not be threatening.

In short, you need to learn to trust your teenage and respect some of the boundaries they are trying to set. At the same time, this does not mean allowing them to do as they please. It is important that you encourage and praise efforts to make changes especially when it comes to emotional regulation. For example, complimenting your teen for handling a potentially emotional interaction without becoming angry or rolling their eyes at you is not only reinforcing the positive behaviour but also acknowledging that you are respecting that your teen is not a child anymore.

Spending time with your teen is also vital. This can be as simple as going to the movies together or having a meal together at their favourite restaurant. Understand there will be times when your buttons will be pushed. When this happens, being calm and emotionally regulated will go a long way towards harmony in the home. One way of doing this is by acknowledging what your teen has shared with you and expressing how this has made you feel.

If you are feeling negative emotions, express this by saying: “I am feeling rather annoyed or angry about what you have said. Maybe better for us to discuss this once we have both had time to calm down.”  It is then important that you and your teen do in fact discuss this ideally about an hour or two after the incident. Follow-through is vital as it also validates your teen’s feelings and thoughts as well as your own opinions.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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