Working with parents of teenagers

Working with parents of teenagers

This article was written for the Parenting UK Newsletter in 2013.

 

Introduction

Support for parents of teenagers can play a critical role in helping families cope with difficult situations, and ensuring that problems first identified in the adolescent years do not spiral out of control. Yet today funding for many programmes is being cut, and practitioners who have built up expertise and knowledge of the field over the last decade are having to find other work. In Britain we have seen the development of many exciting new initiatives, as well as the development of new materials. There has been much learning from research on the implementation of interventions, and this has enabled organisations to plan their work and to render it more effective. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that this learning is not lost in the coming years.

Since the late 1990s there has been a significant increase in the range of support available for parents of teenagers, and there is greater recognition today of the role that interventions can play. However there are many questions that are raised by these activities, including questions about different types of support, the appropriate settings for this to be delivered, the differences in need between parents of teenagers and parents of younger children, and issues to do with professional recognition and training.

How can we characterise the changes that have taken place over the last decade or so where support for parents of teenagers is concerned?  The first thing to note is that there is today a greater recognition that parents of teenagers matter. They matter just as much as parents of young children, only they matter in a different way. The engagement and involvement of parents during the teenage years has critical implications for outcomes in education, health, self-esteem and future employment. The acknowledgement of this fact is one important change that has underpinned the growth in programmes of support. A second change has been the increase in available programmes in the UK, and the growth in the numbers of practitioners with skills to deliver programmes. These increases have led to debates about which programmes are most effective, and to concerns over professional accreditation.

It has to be noted that much of the impetus for the introduction of programmes for parents of teenagers in the UK has come from the youth justice sector. A concern with anti-social behaviour on the part of the Blair Government from 1997 onwards led many youth offending teams to develop expertise in this field. The introduction of Parenting Orders and Parenting Contracts, and the need for statutory services to be able to provide programmes of support, has had a significant impact on the field, and has undoubtedly led to innovation and to the development of a skilled workforce. This has had both good and bad consequences, a topic to which we will return below.

Two other changes that have occurred over the last decade may be mentioned. In the first place new research evidence on adolescent development has become available, and this has provided important insights with relevance to parenting. This research evidence includes, for example, new knowledge about the adolescent brain, and important findings about monitoring and supervision. The second change that can be identified is the accumulation of evidence on what works where parenting interventions are concerned. Studies over the last ten years have identified issues to do with access, parental preferences, the involvement of young people themselves, and many other aspects of the delivery of support. The field has taken a considerable leap forward, and it is important to ensure that this learning is not lost for future generations of parents.

 

Advances in the understanding of the adolescent years

There have been some notable advances in the understanding of adolescent development in recent years. This has been partly to do with developments in neuroscience, but partly also to do with some outstanding research by social and developmental psychologists. These advances are of great importance for parents, and thus also for practitioners. Let us start with the brain. It used to be assumed that most of the major developments in the brain occurred in early childhood. However with the assistance of evidence from the use of scanning techniques, we now know that this is not the case, and it has become clear that the brain goes through a period of rapid change and development from puberty onwards. Many parts of the brain which have relevance for cognition and for emotional development alter significantly between the ages of 11 and 15, and this process of change has marked effects on behaviour. Much of the emotional immaturity seen in early adolescence can be more easily understood when we recognise what is happening in the brain at this time.

Another example of ground-breaking research is illustrated by studies of monitoring and supervision. In the early stages of programme development it was generally accepted that if parents could be encouraged to be better at monitoring and supervising their teenagers this could lead to a reduction in anti-social behaviour. However research in Sweden showed clearly that activities such as monitoring and supervision depend as much on the young person as they do on the parents. Thus it proved to be the case that the level of parental monitoring and supervision in adolescence was determined by how communicative the young person was, and how trust between parent and child had developed before the teenage years began. This led researchers to focus on the two-way relationship, and to underline the importance of understanding how both parent and teenager contribute to the ongoing nature of the interaction.

It will be apparent that findings like this have implications for the content of programmes for parents of teenagers. Programmes need to be emphasising the fact that communication goes both ways, and that the role of the young person is a key component in developing effective parenting. This research on monitoring and supervision has led on to other important insights, such as knowledge about how young people actively plan and manage the flow of information that gets to parents. These examples are only a small sample of the new knowledge that has become available from recent research. This knowledge can serve as a central resource for practitioners, and can help make parenting programmes interesting and relevant to all parents, no matter what the type of intervention.

 

New programmes, types of support and the evidence base

It is noteworthy that in Britain 15 years ago there were very few programmes available for practitioners wishing to work with parents of this age group. When it became apparent that there was a need to develop such programmes, central government, as well as local commissioners, turned to the United States and to Australia, where there were well-developed programmes with an evidence base. Thus Triple P from Australia, and Incredible Years and Strengthening Families Strengthening Communities (both from the USA), were identified as the “gold standard”, and funding was made available for training programmes which would build a workforce of practitioners capable of delivering these programmes.

However, as many commentators have noted, this approach has had its limitations. In the first place the evidence base had been developed in contexts far removed from the situation in the UK, and there were questions as to whether the material was appropriate and relevant to communities here. Secondly, in spite of the training programmes, not all practitioners liked the inflexibility required to maintain what was known as programme fidelity, and many in the field modified and altered the programmes to suit local need. Thirdly there were a number of practitioners here in the UK who were developing programmes and materials based on local knowledge and experience. Because there was not as yet an evidence base for these home-grown programmes they did not receive support from the National Academy of Parenting Practitioners established by central government. This led to resentment among practitioners who wanted to use their own programmes, or to use programmes developed by colleagues who were familiar with the needs of their clientele.

Another aspect of this situation is that support can be delivered in many different forms. Much of the discussion around parenting support assumes that this will be delivered in group-based programmes, usually packaged as a series of weekly sessions. However there are many disadvantages to this format, and research on parent attitudes indicates that not all parents want this type of support. Some are resistant to discussing their problems in a group setting, and would prefer either one-to-one sessions, or to have materials that they can take home and digest in private. Groups also have other limitations, especially if they run for six or eight weeks. Attendance can be patchy, leading to a different mix of people attending each session. One or two dominant individuals can influence the direction of the group, and inhibit others from participating. There may be concerns about gender, and questions about how to encourage fathers to attend whilst also managing conflict between partners. All these are practical problems which can be overcome, but in general there has been an over-emphasis on group-based support, and too little attention given to alternative forms of parenting support for this group of parents.

 

Key issues for practitioners

There has been a significant amount of learning in the past decade in relation to the delivery of programmes. Questions of access have come high on the list of topics for consideration. We now no longer think we can put up a flier in the local secondary school advertising workshops on parenting, and hope that mothers and fathers will turn up. It is recognised today that preliminary work with parents is essential so that they can understand the goals of any programme and make a genuine commitment to attendance. There is also a recognition that the more disadvantaged the group of parents, the more challenging it will be to ensure regular attendance. Thus questions of transport, child care for younger children, and the competing demands of part-time jobs are all possible reasons as to why parents, however needy, may not be able to attend regularly over a period of time.

A further question has to do with where to site the sessions. It has often been considered that schools are good places to hold parenting programmes. Yet there is a group of parents for whom experiences of school can be a serious obstacle. If they themselves were school drop outs, or if their school experience was a poor one, the last place they want to go back to is a classroom. They may have painful memories of teachers telling them they were no good, or of feeling like failures, and they carry these memories with them. Many parents have acknowledged that they would like to attend a parenting group, as long as it is not held in a school setting. Practitioners have become sensitive to these issues, and now look for alternative venues in which to hold their group sessions.

I mentioned earlier that much of the impetus for the development of group-based programmes has come about as a result of the youth justice legislation, and the availability of Parenting Orders and Parenting Contracts for parents whose teenagers have got into trouble or not been attending school. There has been an on-going debate about whether compulsory parenting programmes can have any benefit, and it has to be admitted that there remain many conflicting opinions on this issue. Some will offer examples of parents who were resistant at the beginning, but who, after two or three sessions, will say they wish they had had this opportunity at an earlier stage. Other practitioners argue that having a mix of compulsory and voluntary attendees is an effective way to work, as each group can learn from the other.

On the other hand there are many practitioners who dislike the idea of working with those who have been forced to attend by the courts. They believe that being “punished” for the behaviour of your teenager is not a good model upon which to base learning about parenting skills. One commentator talked of the “spoiled identities” of parents who had been given orders by the courts. This writer pointed out that to give an adult a Parenting Order simply makes them feel worse about themselves, adding to their low self-esteem and poor sense of self-efficacy. There is no easy answer to this conundrum. Compulsory orders and contracts remain one feature of the disposals available to the courts, and practitioners will almost certainly have to continue working in this environment.

 

Conclusion

The provision of support for parents of teenagers should be an essential part of any parenting strategy. Whilst there will always be a focus on parenting in the early years, it is critical that support for parents of older children and teenagers is not forgotten. Research shows clearly that interventions at this stage can make a major difference to the way families respond to troubled and troubling behaviour on the part of teenagers. Future problems can be averted if parents receive support during a critical phase of the young person’s development. It is also the case that parenting styles and parental attitudes are a key factor in determining outcomes for adolescents. Spheres as widely diverse as educational achievement, health risk behaviour, self-concept and self-esteem, and peer group relationships are all affected by parenting. The more engaged and involved parents are with their teenagers, and the more interest and support they can offer, the better the outcomes. The provision of support for parents of teenagers is a rewarding and valuable field of work. There is much still to be learnt, but we have come a long way in the past 15 years. Let us not lose the initiative in this important area of parenting support.

 

 

Resources

Coleman, J (2011)   The nature of adolescence:  4th Edition. Routledge.

Hines, G and Baverstock, A (2005)   Whatever!:  a down-to-earth guide to parenting teenagers. Piatkus.

Holt, A (2010)   Managing spoiled identities: parents’ experiences of compulsory parenting support programmes. Children and Society. 24. 413-423.

Kerr,M, Stattin, H and Engels, R (2008)   What can parents do?  New insights into the role of parents in adolescent problem behaviour. John Wiley.

Lewis, J (2011)  Parenting programmes in England: policy development and implementation issues. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law. 33. 107-121.

Roker, D and Coleman, J (2007)  Working with parents of young people:  research, policy and practice. Jessica KInsgley.

 

Quotes for possible use

“It seems to me that people make a whole host of assumptions about teenagers. When I tell people I have teenage children they assume I must have problems”.

 

“I do need to talk about my teenage daughter, but I find it quite hard. It’s something I’ve heard people call “the no talk rule”. Something about keeping things in the family”.

 

“There’s this 24 hour dread that there’s going to be a knock on the door with a policeman saying: “Come and identify her”. It’s no joke. It’s a real possibility because if a teenager has actually got in that deep then they don’t know how to get out. At the moment she’s in deeper than she can manage, and the only thing we can do is to try and help her out”.

 

“It’s very, very difficult waking up in the morning and wondering whether he’s going to get up. If he gets up, is he going to go to school?   If he goes to school is he going to register and then bunk off?   Are they going to ring up from school and say he’s not there, or what he’s done. The inevitable social worker knocks on your door, and you can’t answer the questions that they want. You just don’t know where they are. It’s hard when they’ve gone out and you hope they’re in school. The weather’s turning, and you know they’re walking around in a little jacket and standing in the park all day long doing nothing. That’s very tough. ”

 

“I’m dealing with the situation differently now, after the course. It was so helpful. Because my son, he could really wind me up, we had terrible arguments, and we would go on and on. It was frightening. And then I would think of something else to accuse him of, and then he would come back, and we would just be insulting each other. That’s the hard bit, I find, to just walk away and calm down. That’s what I learnt from the course, to manage my feelings and walk away”.

My Teen Brain – 10 Things you need to know

My Teen Brain – 10 Things you need to know

The brain undergoes major change during the teenage years

Until recently it was assumed that there was little further development in the brain after the end of childhood. However we now know that the brain continues to change and develop all through adolescence. In fact, there is more change in the brain during adolescence than at any other time in human development apart from the first three years of life.

This means that the teenage years are a critical period. What happens during this period has major implications for later development. Of course the brain does not develop in isolation. The brain and the environment interact, each influencing the other.

In this document I describe the changes that occur in the teenage brain. I show how these changes affect behaviour. Finally I outline how adults can use this Downoknowledge to encourage healthy brain development. The more adults understand what happens to the brain at this time, the more we can help teenagers manage this period of transition.

The STAGE framework: a new approach for parents of teenagers

The STAGE framework: a new approach for parents of teenagers

Yes, I get quite moody, quite a lot of the time. Like with parents and stuff, they say just do something, and I’d take it a bit too far, and like just storm out of the room, slamming doors.”
15 year-old girl.

 

Parents of teenagers need good quality information about young people and their development.

So what are the principles of effective parenting during the teenage years? In my view parents of teenagers need a simple framework which will help them understand the key principles of parenting during these years.

To help with this, I have proposed a framework which I have called the STAGE framework. This is described in my book “Why won’t my teenager talk to me?” (Routledge, 2018). I believe that the framework addresses the key questions for parents. The framework is grounded in current research, it reflects the concerns of parents today, it has the idea of a stage of development at its core, and it is easy to grasp.

I have called this framework STAGE for two reasons. Firstly I want to emphasise the point that the teenage years are a process, a time of change and development. Things will alter gradually over time, even though for parents this may seem at times an unlikely possibility. We do know, however, that the difficult stage, if it is difficult, will not last forever. The moody, uncommunicative 14 year-old will in time become a more mature and responsible young adult.

The second reason for calling the framework STAGE is that each letter stands for a key principle, and a different aspect of parenting. In addition, of course, it makes the ideas behind the framework easy to remember. The five elements represented by the five letters are not the only elements of parenting, but they are five elements which are at the core of relationships between parent and teenager.

Here are the five elements of STAGE:


S
stands for the significance of parents

Parents of teenagers are the most significant people in the life of the young person. Parents may think they are not important any more, but their role is absolutely crucial. Parents of teenagers matter just as much as parents of younger children, they just matter in a different way. If there is one message above all that we want parents to take away from any programme or information sharing, it is that they do have a role. Parents of teenagers matter!

T stands for two-way communication

Communication between parent and teenager should be a two-way process, with talking and listening going hand-in-hand. Parents may think they are the ones who need to do the talking, but listening is just as important. Teenagers have as much influence as adults on how communication works. Parents will find that a teenager is more prepared to listen to them if they can show they are willing to hear the young person’s point of view.

A stands for authority

One of the most difficult aspects of parenting is to know how to exercise parental authority. What boundaries and structures are needed for teenagers? Should punishments be used, and if so, what punishments make sense for teenagers? How is it possible to retain parental authority, whilst letting go at the same time? It is here that a full consideration of authoritative parenting is essential.

G stands for generation gap

I include this concept because each generation of teenagers has a different set of challenges and pressures to deal with. It is easy for parents to assume that what was right for them will also be right for their children. However, things are very different today compared to thirty or forty years ago. As a result young people today have to make different choices from those made by their parent. Furthermore to highlight the generation gap also makes it possible to explore the idea that it is not just that things today are different for teenagers, they are different too for parents themselves.

E stands for emotion

Emotion plays a very important part in affecting relationships between parents and teenagers. Whether it is anxiety, anger, sadness, regret, envy or guilt, all these feelings influence how parents manage day-to-day life with their son or daughter. If parents can be aware of their feelings, and find ways of learning to deal with their emotions, this will help enormously in family relationships. Of course it is not just the parents’ emotions which make a difference. Teenagers too will be struggling with new and confusing feelings. If parents can gain some understanding of this aspect of development, recognising how their feelings interact with those of their teenager, this will be a big step forward.

 

This is a very brief introduction to the ideas behind the framework. STAGE matters because it does link core themes with new knowledge about adolescent development. In addition it underlines the fundamental principle that adolescence is a process of change and development. This offers parents a sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel, whilst emphasising their key role in assisting the young person adjust to the changes that are taking place.

I will say a brief word about the title of my book. Why did I call the book: “Why won’t my teenager talk to me?” Although the principles of STAGE are all equally important, being able to talk does hold the key. In all my experience of running workshops for parents of teenagers, the topic of greatest concern has to do with a failure of communication. The change between the chatty 10 year-old and the grunting 13 or 14 year-old is something that parents find very hard to understand.

The central point is that teenagers do want to talk to their parents, but they want to talk in a way that feels safe to them. That means:

  • talking at a time that is right for them,
  • not having a sense that they are being interrogated,
  • being allowed some space to hold on to things that are felt to be private,
  • and most importantly, having their voices heard and their views listened to.

Of course lying behind problems of communication are many different issues. These include issues of power and control, the growing independence of the young person, and the interference to good communication that is caused by the difficult emotions that were mentioned earlier.

Nonetheless if only we can help parents understand some of the principles behind good communication we will do a lot to improve relationships between the generations. In addition of course, there remains the central objective: to assist parents to understand more about teenage development. STAGE should help with this. It offers a framework that parents can understand, as well as a set of principles based on highly respected research evidence.

Conversation, not confrontation: how can parents and teenagers learn to talk to each other?

Conversation, not confrontation: how can parents and teenagers learn to talk to each other?

Parents and teenagers need to be able to talk together.  Yet in so many families this turns out to be a major problem.    Parents feel the teenager won’t listen, and teenagers feel exactly the same: that their parents aren’t listening. One 14 year-old girl put it like this: “My parents expect me to tell them everything, but how can I when all they do is nag?  Why haven’t you done this? Why haven’t you done that?  That’s all they say.” Why does this breakdown in communication occur? Parents have the sense that the young person really prefers to talk to their friends.  They feel that they, the parents, do not matter anymore.  They feel rejected and pushed aside.  They feel that the young person no longer has any respect for their opinions, and this is hard to take. On the other hand the teenager feels that he or she is still being treated as a child.  The parent does not want a conversation, but only wants to dig for information or tell the young person what to do. It is not surprising that these misunderstandings lead to a situation where both sides feel irritated and frustrated with each other. What can we do about this? I have recently written a book entitled: “Why won’t my teenager talk to me?”   When I mentioned the title to a group of parents, one of them asked:  “Well, what’s the answer then?” Of course there are many different answers, but here are some thoughts.
  • Timing is critical. Your teenager won’t always talk at the time that is best for you;
  • Your teenager won’t talk about the things he or she considers to be private;
  • Interrogation doesn’t work. Your teenager won’t talk if he or she thinks conversation is going to turn into interrogation;
  • Your teenager won’t talk if he or she feels you are busy, distracted or likely to be interrupted.
All these are reasons why a young person might not talk, yet teenagers do want to talk to their parents.   How can parents and teenagers learn to talk to each other?   Here are some top tips for parents. First, parents of teenagers do matter.  You matter hugely, it is just that you have a different role from the one you had during the early years.  Parents matter because they provide the endorsement, the love and the structure that makes a young person feel safe and secure.   Without this the teenager will be lost. Secondly, teenagers do want to talk to their parents.   They want to talk, and they will talk, but in a way that feels safe to them.  This means the adult talking in a manner that makes the young person feel their views are respected.   Good communication has to be a two-way street.  Talking and listening go hand in hand. Thirdly teenagers do need some privacy.   They need space and time to sort things out in their own minds.  This means they will talk to their parents, but not necessarily at the precise time that suits the adult. In conclusion if you, as a parent, can step back and think about the needs of the teenager, communication will improve.  You have a key role to play.  If you can listen, your teenager will talk.