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Friday, November 05, 2021

Understanding your teenager


Guest post by Geoff Taylor, the Head of Young Learners at the British Council in Malaysia

We all know that teenagers are going through a vast array of changes, and we all know that sometimes they can be difficult. What we may not realise is how little choice teenagers sometimes have in the way they behave. A lot of typical teenage behaviour stems from physical changes in the brain and elsewhere that teens have no control over.

Different parts of the teenage brain develop at different speeds. Unfortunately for us, they seem to  develop in exactly the wrong order. For example, first we see massive changes and development in the areas of the brain that control risk taking, impulsiveness and being influenced by peers. Only later do we see development in self-control, rationality, and self-restraint.

Providing appropriate parenting to a teen can be a tricky balancing act. Teenagers are starting to assert their independence and it is difficult sometimes for parents to recognise that children are more independent than they were a few years ago. It does not help that teens often don’t have the knowledge or experience (or even the brain development) to make effective decisions, or that it is wired into the teenage brain to care more about the opinions of their friends than their parents. However, it is important for us to recognise the changes that are taking place in our teenagers, and, where possible, take a few steps to maintain a healthy parent-child relationship.

Understanding teenage motivations

Parents often say that teenagers seem to live in a totally different reality. The truth is, they do. For example, due to the unequal pace of brain development, peer relationships and the desire to ‘fit in’ are disproportionately important at this age. This means that when the priority is to revise for the big exam, the teenage brain will insist the priority is to chat online. The trick here is to try and understand how things look from their perspective. Resist demanding to know why they are not revising and, instead, ask “Why are you chatting online?” Then actually listen to their answer. The idea is to avoid making your child feel like they need to defend themselves as this leads to conflict. Only once you understand their perspective can you move onto something like: “I understand that it is very important to catch up with your friends and that it is necessary for you to do so. I also understand that this exam is very important for you, and you have a responsibility to do your best. Can we work together on a schedule to get the revision done?” If we don’t take the first step, of understanding their point of view, then the second step of resolving the problem becomes more challenging.

Remembering that we are the adults

Due to the uneven pace of physical and mental development, it is harder for teens to control their 
emotions than adults. If a teen is shouting or sulking or ignoring us, the temptation can be to respond in kind. This doesn’t help. We are supposed to be the adult, so the onus is on us to show maturity. If our role as parents is to teach a child how to be a good adult, then the best way to do this is to demonstrate what being a good adult looks like. While it may be difficult, responding to them in a calm and reasonable way is the best way to teach our children to be calm and reasonable. Your child already knows how to resolve problems in a teenage way; they need us to show them how an adult does it.

Dealing with serious misbehaviour

On occasion if our child really does cross the line, it may be necessary to use some form of sanction or punishment. However, we should be very careful here. For example, if we hit our kids, then what we are teaching them is that hitting people is a good way to resolve problems. I don’t think this is the case. Taking a tablet away for an evening or not letting them go out with their friends may be a more effective way of making a point, however turning the idea of punishment on its head has been proven to be the most effective way of influencing long term behaviour. Instead of only responding when our teenagers do something wrong, why not try to respond when they do something right? If  they talk to you in a reasonable and respectful way, then tell them that you enjoyed the talk. If they eat together with the family and don’t immediately rush off to their room with an iPad, thank them for their time and tell them you enjoyed their company. Sometimes a little thumbs up to recognise the effort made is all that is needed. This technique of recognising positive behaviour has been proven to be more effective and beneficial in the long run than punishing negative behaviour. There is also the downside to punishing bad behaviour that it tends to drive teens away and make them more secretive. This is not the result we want.

There is not doubt that it can be a challenge to both be a teenager and raise a teenager. This is due to the vast mental and physical changes that teens are undergoing, and, the uneven pace of these changes. Remembering that sometimes your teenager has no more control over their actions and feelings than you do, and that your role is to show them how to behave like a good adult, can be an effective way to guide them through this stage in life.

About the British Council in Malaysia

Our teaching centres in Kuala Lumpur, Damansara and Penang offer English courses for kids and teens. Your children will learn more than just language, they will develop skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, making connections and leadership. Our January intake is now open for registration with early bird discount until 30 November. If you’re interested to know more, please speak with one of our friendly consultants by booking a free consultation here

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