A lot of teens and pre-teens are finding life a bit tough right now. They have the pressure of exams, the pressure of friendship groups, social media and – let’s face it – parents too telling them how to look and behave. School, friends and the exam system don’t always help alleviate stress either, often they unwittingly pile on the pressure. Life as a teen can be tough because of the external pressures. But there are also internal pressures: add into the mix hormonal fluxes, the internal voice of self-criticism, and a brain that is still developing. All this makes it one of the most challenging life stages anyone can face.
If you’re a parent reading this, here are five ideas that can help:
1) Know when to push and when to pause. Sometimes as a parent it can feel like all we do is provide the discipline: do your homework, tidy your room, get off the games console. Whatever your approach to this side of parenting, there is a point where you just won’t be heard. No doubt you’ve seen this, you’re speaking and there’s no one listening. One of the most remarkable findings from neuroscience is that in some circumstances people simply can’t hear. It’s been found that when people get stressed the brain closes some functions. Stress is associated with feelings of danger and stress can trigger the brain to go into fight, flight or freeze mode and when you think your life is in danger you just don’t need to hear. Be aware that sometimes stressed teens really might not be able to hear you and know when to pause.
2) Take the long view on life. From time to time we can all be over ambitious for our kids. It is easy for us to pile on the pressure too by over emphasising the importance of homework and exam success. Yes, it is important to do well at school, but mental health comes first. Again, science has shown us that patterns of anxiety that get established in puberty can set up a pattern for adult life too. As a parent think about how you communicate your anxiety to your teens. They know when you are anxious, and anxiety can be catching, just like a cold or flu. Make sure you’re not transmitting your worry about important school milestones. If you find yourself fretting over their revision or over their results, take the long view. Raising a happy young adult is important and happiness is a habit learnt young.
3) Social media a curse and a blessing. It is easy to blame social media for all the ills of society and particularly for the pressure that teens feel. Partially that is true. For example, too much screen time can be damaging to sleep patterns and sleep is fundamental for good mental health. On the other side, social media has been found to deeply connect people – you may not believe that having grown up in a different era, but for young people these days, that is their reality. Step into their world and their reality and understand how important this new media is for them. Batting it to one side as irrelevant or not important simply communicates to them that you “don’t understand”. Take note, to keep the lines of communication open with your teens, you do need to understand their world and their reality. It’s still important to put it in perspective and to talk through limitations and boundaries, but don’t be dismissive.
4) Use car journeys as a time to connect. Ever notice that you have a better conversation with your teens when you’re driving? Encourage this. Begin to set aside car journeys as chill out time or connection time. Be conscious about how you talk when you travel together. Ask gently some of the more sensitive questions you might have. Consider leaving extra time at the end of a journey so you can pull over and continue the conversation, linger longer, without rushing off to the next thing.
5) Learn to relax, teach them to relax. The brain can be taught to switch off and its important that there is switch-off-time so the levels of stress and anxiety can abate. If you don’t know how to switch off, then you can be sure your teens don’t. So set a good example and find a way that re-sets your wellbeing. Going for a walk is simple, cheap and achievable for us all. Especially going for a walk in a park where you can appreciate the natural world. Find a yoga class. Come to a mindfulness class. First demonstrate that you know how to physically and mentally switch off, and then invite your teens to join you.
Jenny Robinson, the author, is a mindfulness teacher at Hinton Barn Farm (https://hintonmindfulness.wordpress.com/) located just outside of Brackley