Understanding the teenage mind
How to support your child through adolescence
By Nicole Neault
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, August 31, 2018
Growing up can be a bit of a struggle, especially during the teenage years.
Kids between the ages of 13 and 19 must deal with all sorts of changes and transitions, both physical and societal. Their hormones are raging, their brains are evolving, and their bodies are changing. Add to that the complex social pressures they must navigate, including the peer pressure to use alcohol and drugs or have sex.
And don’t forget the increased expectations that are placed on youth as they enter high school. We ask teenagers to be more independent and resilient, yet there is much less focus on enhancing their social and emotional learning skills in the teen years.
Recognizing and managing emotions, establishing positive relationships, and resolving challenging situations constructively – all of these things are considered to be more of a personal responsibility than part of the wider community’s educational responsibility.
Needless to say, parents, caregivers, school personnel, coaches and other role models can find this stage of a teenager’s personal development to be quite confusing and challenging as well. Teenage temper tantrums, risky behavior, and irrational mood swings can create stress for everyone.
But if that all sounds a bit hopeless, fear not. There are plenty of ways to support and enhance the social and emotional learning of teens. As we embark next week on another school year, here are some tips for parents, caregivers and school personnel:
Be cool: It is important to remain calm and grounded when dealing with sensitive issues, such as dating, sex, and time spent on social media. During stressful moments, it might be helpful to remember that the decision-making part of a teenager’s brain (prefrontal cortex) can be overly influenced by the emotional part of the brain (limbic system). Just like when they were toddlers, teaching adolescents how to name and tame their emotions will be an important lesson in making healthy choices. Coach your teenager to recognize and release tension in their bodies, by learning relaxation strategies such as deep-breathing exercises or participating in activities, like biking, soccer or dancing.
Set reasonable limits. How late should your teenager stay out on the weekend? Should they be allowed to get a piercing or tattoo? Setting boundaries for teenagers can be a major challenge for many parents and caregivers. However, it is also a compassionate and caring response, necessary to build trust. Yes, adolescents need more autonomy and independence. However, their capacity to problem solve and set limits still requires some fine tuning, and they need support from the adults around them to help build their confidence. Pushing back is also a necessary part of this vulnerable development stage, so try not to take it personally. As adults, we need to continue to be firm, kind and fair in setting boundaries and limits. Including youth in decisions and rule-making, and looking for solutions that everyone can agree on can empower youth.
Help your teen build self-esteem: Believe in the teenager’s ability to make good choices most of the time. Foster their independence and self-esteem by supporting them to think through situations or decisions, acknowledging what they already know and assisting them by bringing in new information to consider. This is referred to as “scaffolding” and it facilitates learning and brain development. Allow teens to choose their own solutions, even if they are not your preference.
Connectedness at school: Despite our many differences as human beings, we all desire positive relationships with others and a sense of belonging. Although family life is considered the first “classroom,” schools and other settings are also important places to foster a sense of connectedness. Kindness and compassion from parents, caregivers, school faculty, and coaches are essential if we want to support our youth in their ability to develop positive relationships with themselves and others. They are influenced by the adults and community surrounding them. So, next time there is an error in judgment or a mistake made, listen with an open mind instead of criticizing, attempting to fix the problem, or offering a solution. Be patient, honour the emotional distress first and then ask questions that will assist the young person in problem solving or goal setting. Encourage them to reflect on what happened and why. Help them to find reasonable and appropriate solutions to the situation and how it might be prevented in the future.
Nicole Neault is a mental health promotion facilitator with the Winnipeg Health Region. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, August 31, 2018.