Communication between parents and children can break down during adolescence, leaving both sides feeling misunderstood and unable to bridge the gap.
Psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley believes it’s important to recognise how hard it can be for teenagers to cope with becoming an adult, adding that understanding more about the adolescent brain can help parents and their kids through this tricky time.
Stella was speaking with Miriam O’Callaghan about her new book What Your Teen Is Trying to Tell You, and she offered some strategies for better understanding adolescents based on her experience in clinical practice.
Not every teenager has a tough time growing up. Drawing on the work of counselling psyschologist and parenting expert Dr. Carl Pickhardt, Stella says there are roughly three possible paths that adolescents can take:
"About a third of teenagers, they sail through, It’s alright. It’s pretty fine. Then about a third, they have a few stumbles, a few tricky moments, but ultimately… but then there are a third who have a really difficult time."
There’s no way to predict which teen will have a difficult time and which will muddle through, Stella insists. The good news is that trouble in the teenage years is not a guarantee of failure (or success) in later years.
It doesn’t predict anything one way or the other, Stella says:
"You can’t pick out the teenager and say who is going to be the successful adult. It’s kind of noticeable that sometimes you would never have seen it in their teenage years, what they are going to be like as adults."
One of the shocks of adolescence is the realisation that childhood certainties can't be relied upon, Stella explains. The blatant unfairness of human existence can be overwhelming for some children, as their birthdays hit double figures:
"Between 10 and 20 there’s this awful reckoning of learning that life is – it’s a bitter pill, in fairness, it’s a very bitter pill – of learning that life isn’t fair, that sometimes the bullies are incredibly popular and very good-looking, that sometimes awful things happen, and none of us have figured out why."
Added to this, the teenage brain is lagging behind the physical changes that are taking place. Stella says that full mental maturity is attained in our early 20s. Before that, there can be a painful disconnect between how a teenager appears and what is going on inside. She says it’s a bit like a cake that’s risen, but which isn't fully cooked on the inside:
"You look in the oven and it looks beautiful and then inside there’s a mush of ingredients that are completely uncooked. The teenager looks very well, speaks as well as an adult, but inside, they have an unformed brain. It’s half-formed, so by the time they are in their early 20s it’ll form."
For parents who feel shut out by their teenagers, Stella suggests that a gradual, incremental approach can sometimes work. She says a series of tiny acts of kindness and connection can work better than huge impassioned speeches.
Talking doesn’t solve everything, Stella says, and there are some young people who respond better to action than to words:
"We sometimes presume that talking is always the way forward, and some people are much more physical, where a hug, or their favourite dinner or a blanket and put on the fire or put on the film will go a lot further […] It’s not always talking that is cathartic. I think we have over-egged that a little bit."
When it comes to technology, Stella says that teenagers with the least amount of "real world" freedoms have been shown to seek out the more extreme online experiences. She favours giving teenagers enough responsibility to learn about risk, as keeping too tight a rein on them could be counter-productive:
"Studies have shown that the more constricted somebody is physically, the wilder they’ll be online in adolescence. And I can see why, adolescents need to push the boundaries – they need to take a few risks. If they’re taking no risks, never going to a disco, never meeting their friends, they are more likely to seek risks online. "
There is no avoiding the fact that adolescence is about pushing the boundaries and taking some risks, and keeping children safe has to be done with this in mind, Stella says. There is no way to control all eventualities, and conquering fears is part of growing up:
"We should be OK if we take measured risks. Yeah, OK, tragedies happen, and they will always happen and we have to be aware of that. But ultimately for our mental health, adolescents need to take some risks and that’s something that parents, annoyingly, we have to stomach."
Age is a huge factor in monitoring young people’s use of technology, the psychotherapist explains. By the time teenagers have reached 17 or 18, parental impact is reduced. The time to really know what they are consuming online is in the younger age cohort:
"For younger teens, I do think you have to be all over them, monitoring their content, on their passwords, like when they’re 13 and 14. That’s when the mad stuff happens, as opposed to when they are 15 and 16, they’ve often learned sense. It’s kind of the 12, 13 where really messes happen, and kind of gone really out of their depth, into kind of adult territory that they do not know what to do with and in fairness, I think adults should be all over that content."
There’s more in Miriam’s full chat with Stella O’Malley, which you can listen back to here.
Stella’s book What Your Teen Is Trying to Tell You is published by Gill Books.