Whether we like it or not, teenagers are complicated creatures. From being sweet, wholesome, and talkative kids who cannot wait to tell you stories about their day, they can become moody, temperamental, and impulsive adolescents who prefer to stay glued to their phones and answer your questions with grunts and eye-rolls.
Don’t worry, it’s really part of growing up. “There is a science behind this change in behavior during the teenage years,” assures Dr. Margaret Mae Maano, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist. “During adolescence, teenagers experience changes in their bodies and brains and these changes don’t take place at the same time. The first part of the brain to develop would be the limbic system, or the part that deals with emotions, which will explain why teens can become moody. The last to develop would be the prefrontal cortex, which is the decision-making part of the brain, and explains why teens are more prone to engage in high-risk behaviors.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States, this brain remodelling will continue until the teen turns 25, so it’s important that adults around them be a steady and constant presence to protect them from the negative impacts of their impulses.
In addition, the combination of a developing brain and experiencing so many physical, emotional, and social changes may make teens ill-equipped to handle stress and cause them to develop mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, teens could always turn to their friends for mental health support,” says Dr. Maano. “But now that schooling is online, this support system is no longer as accessible. It’s up to the adults in the house to become their source of strength and support.”
Just because your teens seem withdrawn and reticent does not mean that they will not appreciate your efforts to maintain a close relationship; you just have to approach them the right way. Below are some ways you can connect with your teenagers and get them to open up (even if they seem like they don’t want to):
1. Make family meal times sacred. Aim to have the family complete during one meal time each day and institute a no-gadget rule at the dining table. This creates a safe space where family members can share how their day went or talk about whatever is on their minds. “When family mealtimes are the norm, this will ingrain in our teens’ minds that their parents will always make time to listen to them,” says Dr. Maano.
2. Ask open-ended questions. This allows teens the opportunity to open up on their own terms and the freedom to talk about what they are comfortable to share.
3. Keep the conversations stress-free and casual. Limit the lectures. “The key is to actually listen to what your teen says,” points out Dr. Maano.
4. Tone down the criticisms, turn up the praise. “Sometimes, that positive statement from you may be the only good thing they have heard in a long time,” Dr. Maano says.
5. Don’t demand compliance; opt for negotiation. “Because teens are at a stage when they are trying to develop independence from their parents, they may not respond positively if we force them to do something,” opines Dr, Maano. “Instead of imposing your will, help them come up with a better way to handle their issues. Teens may not want you to solve their problems for them, but some guidance would be great.”
6. Ask them about their opinions about what is going on in the world. This is a good way to understand what is going on in their minds. “It also makes them feel respected and valued,” points out Dr. Maano.
7. Be clear with your family rules, such as non-school related screen time, smoking, swearing, etc. Everyone in the household should be in agreement with the rules and even adults should be bound by them; if some parts of the rules are contentious, negotiate during family meal times.
8. Pick your battles. Don’t fight with your kids over every infraction committed. “Teens feel omnipotent, that diseases and dangers do not apply to them. They also tend to be experimental, so for example, they may try to smoke or drink alcohol out of curiosity but then stop on their own,” explains Dr. Maano. As a parent, the most you can do is guide them in making their own decisions. And if you do catch your teen disobeying your rules, such as skipping class, smoking, or drinking, address the issue calmly. Don’t lecture them because they will only shut you out. Find out why they started doing it, then negotiate on getting them to stop. If there are consequences, help them face up to it; and if they stop, commend them for making a good decision.
9. Allow them some liberties but give them additional responsibilities at home as well. Giving them responsibilities also means that you are trusting them as a young adult and boosts their confidence.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you find yourself facing an issue beyond your control or expertise, ask help from your child’s school counselors, your pediatrician or adolescent medicine specialist, or from mental health professionals. Dr. Maano gives some examples:
- If you catch your teen doing drugs, this will require professional intervention.
- If you and/or your teen are uncomfortable talking about sex or reproductive health, find another trusted adult whom he or she can talk to, like their pediatrician. “But as early and as often as possible, I encourage parents to teach children about respect for the body, that private parts should remain private. If your daughter feels she is not ready to have sex with her boyfriend, tell her it is ok to refuse and say no. And if your son has a girlfriend and she says no, he should respect that as well.”
- Finally, self-harm and suicidal ideation should be treated as a cry of help from the teen. “Consult a mental health expert right away,” Dr. Maano advises. “If your child is reluctant to see a mental health expert, he or she might be more comfortable talking to their school’s guidance counselor first. The counsellor will be the one to recommend further evaluation.”
There are no hard and fast rules for parenting. “The good news is the majority of teenagers go through adolescence without any problems,” assures Dr. Maano. “Just be a constant presence in their lives, talking to them, listening without judgement, and keeping an open mind. Step back and allow them to discover things on their own. When your teen knows that you are just there, ready to listen, he or she will open up to you when they are ready.”
If you or your teen needs someone to talk to, MindNation psychologists are available for teletherapy sessions 24/7. Book a session thru bit.ly/mn-chat.