Positive Parenting: Assisting your Adolescent to Thrive

Wellbeing is a crucial part of the Wellington education offered here at Wellington College International Hangzhou. Every pupil has weekly wellbeing sessions scheduled with their tutor or homeroom teacher covering a variety of age-related topics that are important for a pupil’s emotional development. One particularly relevant topic and very important part of the wellbeing program is the discussion related to changes which occur during puberty. During these classes, pupils are introduced to the physical changes which occur during puberty and discuss why these changes are necessary. Pupils have the chance to ask questions about these changes and are given information as to where they can seek advice if they have questions.

Partnered with these puberty education classes, we are lucky enough to have access to Dr. Emily Hill, Clinical Psychologist. Her knowledge and expertise helped provide what I see as the missing link, a scientific explanation for the sometimes undesirable changes we see during development in adolescence. During the parent talk before Chinese New Year, she highlighted to parents and teaching staff that we often look at the negative side of this stage of development and challenged us to flip things around and see the positive. She has kindly agreed to summarize her key points in this article for parents who were unable to attend and has answered some key questions parents had after the session.

Dr. Emily Hill Clinical Psychologist

When I ask parents which word they would use to describe adolescents, invariably the same sorts of responses arise; ‘moody’, ‘difficult’, ‘lazy’, ‘rebellious’. It’s understandable that we think of these negative stereotypes – adolescence can be a hugely challenging time for parents – and for the adolescents themselves. However, it is important to recognise that there are some incredible advantages and abilities associated with the adolescent brain and that it can benefit parents, educators and adolescents to understand this broader view of the adolescent developmental period.

The adolescent brain is undergoing dramatic changes which are thought to prepare the adolescent to be independent from their parents. These changes drive the adolescent to seek the company of their peers – friends become as important as family, to be interested in novelty and the unfamiliar, and to take risks. Clearly all of which are necessary in helping the adolescent make the transition from childhood and dependence to adulthood and independence. Another incredibly positive change relates to emotional intensity. While this has an obvious downside, the upside is a burning passion about issues, interests, and relationships.

Another astounding aspect of the adolescent brain is that creative and innovative thinking reaches its peak during this developmental stage. This means that adolescents are at their most capable of looking at problems in novel ways and applying innovative solutions to them. This tenacity, entrepreneurship, passion, self-belief, and willingness to take risks, is clearly a developmental advantage and we shortchange adolescents when we only recognise the negative stereotypes mentioned above. Indeed, leaders in the field of neuropsychiatry suggest that because of these neurological advantages, we should enlist the support of adolescents in solving global problems.

One of the most helpful strategies a parent can adopt is ‘open listening’. Essentially this means listening without interruption. As a parent, it can be tempting to provide unsolicited advice in an attempt at fixing the problems of our children. However, this can be annoying and frustrating for the adolescent and may reduce the likelihood of them confiding in their parents. Listening – in and of itself – is a valid solution. People generally just want to be heard and being able to express yourself to a receptive audience is cathartic. And of course parents can ask if their adolescent wants advice or further action once they have had a chance to talk.

So how can we manage the challenging aspects of adolescence while encouraging the developmental superpowers of adolescents? Well, the first thing is to adopt a compassionate and empathic view of the adolescent brain, understand the negative aspects in context and recognise that they come with some pretty incredible positives. By understanding that the changes that occur during adolescence are necessary developmentally, rather than wilful bad behaviour, and by encouraging the expression of the positive aspects, it will make life easier for both parents and adolescents.

While understanding, compassion and respect are key, it is important to note that a parent/child relationship is not a friendship, but rather has clear boundaries and limits and a distinct hierarchy. It can be tempting to spoil or indulge our children – we all want our children to be happy – however, children and adolescents need boundaries and limits to feel safe. It is their role to test them and push against them. Saying ‘no’ to your adolescent is helpful in teaching them how to deal with disappointments in life, it develops their self-discipline, and it provides them with an opportunity to manage emotional experiences. All of which are necessary skills in preparing them to be psychologically balanced adults.

Having said that, ‘picking your battles’ – or letting some undesirable behaviour go without comment – is a necessary strategy in minimising conflict. If parents can recognise irritability and moodiness as relating to changes in brain chemistry, and overlook some expressions of this, it is likely to make the role of parenting easier. It also means that when parents respond to the important issues, the adolescent may be more likely to pay attention.

Seeking to understand the interests, passions and peer group of your adolescent is another helpful approach and promotes respect and compassion in the relationship. Encouraging their interests and passions is also highly protective in a psychological sense. Rather than unstructured time to devote to passions and interests being viewed as an indulgence, it should be seen as a powerful form of creative exploration and a necessary adjunct to academic success.

At the conclusion of my recent parenting workshop, I asked the audience to again use a word to describe adolescents. I was heartened to hear words such as ‘creative’, ‘vulnerable’, and ‘passionate’ being used. It seems likely that having a more compassionate and broad-minded view of adolescence would result in more respectful and empathic relationships between parent and adolescent. Albeit with conflicts (as occur in all healthy relationships) but perhaps the reduced incidence and more successful resolution of such conflicts.

Creativity is the key to innovation and entrepreneurship, social and political change. The importance of creativity cannot be over emphasised. Therefore, adolescent-led, rather than adult-led, investigative learning, open-ended ‘passion projects’, and time to explore interests are essential in promoting the love of learning necessary to being engaged with studies and ultimately achieving highly. Time for interests and passions also promotes positive emotions which are increasingly understood to be essential to learning.

A number of questions were received following the talks which Dr. Emily Hill has summarised into a few key themes:

Q: My child is rebellious and does risky things, what should I do?

It is important for parents to understand the context for rebellious behaviour, that is, that the adolescent is being driven to be independent and to seek novelty and risk. Rebelliousness is effectively hardwired into them. These behavioural changes result from changes to the reward circuitry of the brain which mean that it is more rewarding during adolescence to engage in risky and rebellious behaviours. Parents should be willing to allow some minor rebellious behaviour, such as having an untidy room, go unchecked in the interests of promoting harmony. They should, however, be very clear about behaviours that are unacceptable and unsafe and provide necessary consequences, such as the removal of privileges, if these behaviours occur. The adolescent brain is not fully formed and while risky behaviours might be rewarding, adolescents appraise risks differently to adults and thus require their parents to set limits. Given the biological need and payoff associated with rebelliousness and risk taking, it may be helpful for parents to consider whether there are any ‘safe risks’ they could allow their adolescent to engage in, such as indoor rock climbing, or perhaps allowing their adolescent a little greater personal expression in their appearance outside of school hours.

Q:How can we help adolescents deal with their emotions?

The emotional intensity of adolescence can be overwhelming and confronting as it may be the first time in your adolescent’s life that they have felt feelings of such magnitude. The most helpful starting point is education, that is, to help your adolescent understand that heightened emotions – both positive and negative – are developmentally normal and can be soothed if they are distressing. It is also helpful to convey that most emotional states are normal and necessary and that any emotion will pass in time, so as not to become too distressed by negative feelings. Role modelling is important (see the question relating to stress management below) as is developing a range of strategies to manage difficult emotions, such as worry and sadness. Typically, an adolescent’s interests will be good therapy. That is, if they are interested in sport, they will find exercise therapeutic. Music, reading, writing, art, or exploring science may be other interests that can soothe or distract from negative feelings. Feelings of anger or rage are common during adolescence and may relate to underlying feelings of anxiety or sadness. Physical outlets are particularly helpful for managing anger, which is why sport is a useful adjunct to academic studies and can promote improved psychological functioning.

Q:How can we better communicate with teenage children?

The most helpful thing a parent can provide is listening, allowing your adolescent to speak freely without interruption or unsolicited advice. This will build trust in the relationship, which will make it more likely that the adolescent will confide in you, rather than being defensive when questioned. It may also be helpful to ask clarifying questions, to ensure you fully understand the content of what’s being said and to demonstrate your genuine interest. If they have a problem, see whether they have any ideas on how to solve it first and praise any solutions that seem viable. Always ask them if they want your advice or assistance, rather than just providing your opinions. Seek to understand their interests and peer group and what is most appealing about them. It might be most effective to try to communicate while you are doing something together, such as on the drive home from school or while helping with meal preparation. This will be less confronting than face-to-face communication.

Accept that at times your adolescent may not want to talk but send the message that you are happy to listen any time. For some adolescents, particularly males, talking can seem uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Girls tend to be socialised differently to boys with talking representing a means of bonding for females. Regardless of gender, connection is key, and this can be achieved without words. Boys may feel more comfortable sharing proximity via an activity, such as playing or watching sport or music, or by expressing themselves through writing.

With regards to disrespectful behaviour, be willing to set firm boundaries that uphold your family values. If the adolescent is being rude, you can express the impact on you – that you feel ‘hurt’ or ‘disrespected’ – and possibly impose a consequence. Expressing the impact a person’s behaviour has on you rather than describing their behaviour, reduces defensiveness and resolves conflicts more effectively, as it’s harder for the listener to dispute your feelings. It may also be helpful to appeal to an adolescent’s need for independence by highlighting the expectations of adults in society – to be respectful, ethical and moral.

Q: What is the right thing to do about teenage romance?

It is normal for adolescents to develop romantic feelings for others during this developmental stage and these feelings can be particularly intense. It is easy for parents to dismiss these feelings as being ‘puppy love’ but adolescents are biologically driven to bond with their peers, so the feelings are certainly strong and meaningful for the adolescent. Dismissing these feelings can be hurtful and confusing. While respect and acknowledgement are important, it is ultimately the job of the parent to decide what they feel is appropriate in terms of romantic relationships. It is also important that parents provide some information about safety and consent in addition to the school’s education about puberty.

Q: What is helpful stress management?

All of the human emotions are normal and necessary. For instance, a moderate amount of stress motivates our behaviour, helps us to perform and helps us to focus. Excessive stress, however, can have an unhelpful effect in that it can affect our ability to concentrate and perform and can lead to chronic feelings of fatigue and negative health outcomes. Parents should model helpful ways of managing stress, such as talking about their worries to another person, writing their worries down, and engaging in activities they enjoy, such as exercise. This teaches children that it is normal to experience stress but there are helpful and less helpful ways (such as drinking alcohol) to deal with it. By providing open listening to your adolescent and encouraging their interests and hobbies you are also helping them manage stress.

Finally, there is no such thing as perfect parenting.  Parenting is emotionally charged, parenting adolescents is particularly challenging, and there will be many occasions when parents wish they had handled the situation differently. Therefore, the advice I most often promote to parents is to acknowledge your imperfect moments and describe what you will aim to do next time. This teaches your child or adolescent that mistakes are inevitable and that the important thing is to take responsibility for them and use them to inform your future practice. Accepting imperfection without defensiveness is a valuable skill for both parents and adolescents which will promote connection in relationships and future success in various areas.