As tempting as it must be sometimes to just turn and walk away and think this is just all too hard when this kind of thing happens, it is incredibly important that parents continue to try and work hard to maintain a dialogue with their son or daughter during the teen years. I've just pulled this quote out of one of many emails I've had over the years - I can't tell you how many times I've been told by mums and dads that their wonderful, communicative and co-operative teen went up to bed one night and was somehow replaced by aliens with a 'pod person' - an adolescent that they now simply don't recognize! If their child did actually decide to converse it was usually to argue with them about absolutely everything but it was more often the case that words were replaced with mono-syllabic grunts, particularly where young men are concerned, and any attempts to find out what was going on in their lives were often met with great resistance.
Without doubt the most important thing that parents need to do during the teen years (and particularly middle adolescence - around that 14-15 year-old period) is to try to keep 'connected' to them. This can be extremely difficult for many parents due to the changes that an adolescent is going through during this time in their lives. This is the time when young people are trying to find their place in the world - to develop their own identity and, in doing so, often pull away from their parents. When reviewing the available evidence, a recent study (Onrust et al, 2016) listed some of the changes often seen in middle adolescence as follows:
- start of separation and individuation from the family and striving for autonomy and independence
- relationships with parents change and increasing peer influence leads to rejection of parental values
- peers become most consistent source of reinforcement as well as source of information on values and beliefs
- capable of abstract thinking and organize complex thoughts about others – leads to greater understanding of other's feelings and perspectives
- changes in brain lead to rapid changes in emotional states and increasing sensitivity to rewarding outcomes
- presence of peers results in greater risk-taking as peer approval is a reward in itself
At all my parent sessions this year I have discussed the book Staying Connected To Your Teenager (subtitled How To Keep Them Talking To You and How To Hear What They're Really Saying) written by US parenting expert, Michael Riera . There are a whole pile of strategies that he suggests in this wonderful book, including some that I've been talking about for years (e.g., never underestimate the quality of conversation you can have in the car when you are driving them somewhere - they're sitting right next to you, they can't get away and they don't have to look at you!) but I want to highlight one idea that I speak about at every presentation that I have had some amazing feedback about ... I did discuss this in a blog entry last year but I think it's well worth repeating.
In the opening chapter of the book Riera talks about the different sleep rhythms that adolescents have and how parents can use these to enhance their relationship with their child. He talks about research that has shown that teens have a different circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) than adults. Where the fully developed brain releases sleep-inducing chemicals in the early evening (around 7.00pm) causing adults to start to get sleepy after dinner, teens don't experience the same effect until much later, with many of them not getting sleepy until around 11.00pm. Because they get sleepy earlier, adults are able to wake up in the morning feeling well-rested and able to function (I'm sure many people reading this are saying that isn't necessarily their reality but there it is!), while teens on the other hand find the mornings very difficult and trying to have a quality conversation with them over breakfast or anytime before lunch is likely to fail.
Adolescents are most likely to open up and talk late at night and Riera suggests using this unique wake-sleep cycle to connect with your teen. In addition to their brain chemistry, it is at this time that they've had time to reflect on the events of the day, their defences are down to some extent and there are far less distractions. The problem for parents is that this is their natural time to sleep and it actually takes a little bit of forward planning to get these late night conversations happening. Riera gives a couple of great examples of parents who have used this strategy successfully, including one mother who actually set her alarm to wake up at 1.00am and 'accidentally on purpose' bumped into her daughter and started a conversation by simply asking her 'How are things with you?'. In the words of this mum, "I've learned more about her life during these talks than I have in all the family dinners we've shared during the last three years."
He also talks about the importance of using the same 'late night' strategy when having phone conversations with your child if they are away from home - he uses the American examples of camp and college, but the same 'rule' applies if your teen has taken a 'gap year' and is travelling overseas or the like - you are much more likely to find out what is really happening if you speak to them later in their evening.
Of course, once you've got them talking you've got to know how to respond appropriately and there's always that risk that they're going to tell you something you really don't want to know (I can remember a conversation with my mother in my late 20s when I was telling her about something that was happening in my life at the time - possibly sharing a little too much - and she turned around and said "I think we've reached the point where I don't need to know anymore"!) and you need to be prepared for that and make sure that you don't react in a way that is going to shut down future conversations. It's important to remember that sometimes just listening is enough ...
I've been saying it all year but I'd strongly recommend that parents take a look at this book, whether you're struggling to keep connected with your teen or not. Here is a quote from the end of the chapter on the late night strategy that will give you some idea of the positive messages contained in the book - I think you'll agree, it's well worth a read.
"Remember, your teenager has a different rhythm to his day than you. Therefore, even though it isn't convenient, it is well worth the effort that it takes to adapt your rhythms to match his, if even only for an evening every now and again ... Those are ... the nights that will help you get through all the other nights when it's an hour past curfew and you haven't heard a peep from your wayward teenager. It's all about balance. Just never let yourself forget that it is your connection with your teenager that will always lead him back home."
Onrust, S. et al (2016). School-based programmes to reduce and prevent substance use in different age groups: What works for whom? Systematic review and meta-regression analysis, Clinical Psychology Review 44, 45-59.
Riera, M. (2003). Staying Connected To Your Teenager, Da Capo Press Lifelong Books.