Adolescence is a time when kids individuate from their parents in confusing, and often troubling, ways. For many parents the question becomes not just how to keep them out of trouble, but how to keep them engaged long enough to steer through challenging times with confidence. In his new book, Engaging Adolescents: Parenting Through Tough Issues With Teenagers, Micheal Hawton offers parents the skills to do what sometimes seems impossible—to reach their teenager.
Raising teenagers is about helping them reach emotional maturity, ensuring their wellbeing and teaching them the difference between what is appropriate and inappropriate in behavior. Emotional maturity, Hawton says, is about achieving a balance between an event and our reaction to the event.
“A big part of what we are trying to do as parents is to help teens get better at responding to things proportionally,” writes Hawton.
Much of the reason a teen may react in explosive and disproportionate ways is that their brain’s development is not yet complete. Yet finding a way to influence teens when they are acting in unsafe ways can be complex. While some parents want to project their own view onto their children, others would prefer to simply ignore the behavior and avoid conflict.
In our increasingly digitally-saturated world, knowing just how to decipher between inappropriate and appropriate behavior is becoming more and more difficult. Hawton suggests that parents establish “guardrails” with their teens.
“You need to work out the few things that are ‘non-negotiable’ – the things that really matter – and let the rest go. While you might be able to accommodate differences in some of your teenager’s behavior, there are some values and behaviors you are not willing to accept,” Hawton writes.
The way teenagers learn to develop the kind of self-control that ultimately leads to independent, autonomous lives is by first learning to pay attention to the emotions within themselves, tracking their feelings within themselves and managing their emotions by amplifying some and lessening others, all while choosing not to let emotions drive their behavior.
Learning self-control also depends on parents learning to tolerate their children’s discomfort. Hawton quotes, Dan Siegal, author of Parenting From The Inside Out, “If a parent cannot tolerate a child’s being upset, it is very difficult for the child to regulate her emotions.”
Tolerating distress is a huge component of self-control, and Hawton says that teenagers who don’t learn to deal with frustration and wrestle with competing urges don’t develop the part of their brains that restrains action. These teens are more likely to turn to the use of mind-altering substances to cope. And yet, again, many parents don’t take action for fear of creating conflict.
What parents can do, Hawton says, is ensure that their children get enough sleep, balance the use of technology in their lives and stay away from alcohol and drugs.
“What we are seeing in some children and teenagers who play video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto is an increase in visual skills and hand-eye coordination, but a decrease in an ability to hold back or appropriately inhibit some behavior, especially aggressive impulses,” writes Hawton.
Of fundamental importance for parents is to find ways to connect with the teenagers, and to outweigh negative experiences with positive ones. Hawton suggests parents look for the good teens do (as opposed to the not-so-good), acknowledge when they have put effort into something, encourage them to join in family activities, take an interest in their hobbies and friends and help them with practical skills such as writing a resume and cooking.
Sorting out behavior into categories such as what can be ignored, what is annoying but not serious, what behavior cannot be let go and what behavior needed to be prompted can also be a helpful strategy for parents.
“Sorting behavior has four main benefits: it stops us reacting by feel, it helps us avoid paying attention to the wrong behavior, it helps us be more consistent in how to deal with difficult behavior and it allows us to more flexible and less stressed,” he writes.
Hawton also suggests that parents use scripts when addressing difficult issues with their teens, because it is at these times when they will have to manage their own emotions as well as the flare-ups of their teen.
Using the acronym PASTA, Hawton offers parents a useful tip: Prepare what you are going to say; make an appointment to avoid feeling rushed; say something positive; say what the problem is and what you want to happen; tame the feelings of your son or daughter and agree on some things that will happen.
Beyond recognizing the difficult behavior, however, is preserving the relationship. Hawton suggests that parents guide conversations by reflecting and defusing strong emotions, be curious and dig deeper emotionally, ask for more responsibility from their teens and respond when their teens insults or attacks them.
While Hawton’s book is light on research and evidence-based practice, it does offer parents many practical skills to better communicate with their teens, balance their expectations, resolve conflict, and help teens navigate the challenges of adolescence.
Engaging Adolescents: Parenting Through Tough Issues With Teenagers
Exisle Publishing (2017)