The teen years are fun, exciting, rewarding and, often, incredibly challenging for us as parents. As I enter into the teenage parenting years (for the second time) with my daughter, Lula, I am starting to see the familiar mood swings, pushing of boundaries, and resistance that all teens express in one way or another. When I was teaching, I experienced these challenging behaviours everyday with my tween and teen students. And yes, all of them did it! Even the best students.
Neuroscience gives us a window into the teenage brain
New research coming out from the field of neuroscience has been very helpful for understanding teen behaviour. It gives us parents a fascinating window into what is happening in our teenager’s brains and how that influences their actions, emotions and thoughts.
Teenage behaviour can be very confusing. One minute our wonderful kids are engaged, chatty and motivated, the next they are argumentative, shut-off and illogical.
In this rapid period of brain development our teenagers are developing their vocabulary, world view, interests, communication skills, and ability to see things from others’ perspectives. Debates and conversations with kids this age can be incredibly rewarding! Engage a teenager in a topic they are passionate about and you will probably learn a lot.
Conflict is a necessary part of parenting a teen
But teens are also great at digging their toes in about situations and small conflicts can escalate quickly into full blown battles or dramas. Different parts of their brains are developing at different rates–the emotional part develops before the area that controls a sense of proportion for example. This is why, for your teen, even small things can feel like a huge deal!
Most of us would prefer to keep the peace and avoid difficult behaviour altogether. The research says, I’m sorry to tell you, that if we are arguing with our teens regularly we are probably doing our job right as parents. Teenagers would love it if we gave them full control but they actually still need us to give them fair boundaries, limits, expectations and rules.
There are four areas however that parents can monitor which help prevent difficult behaviours and, at the same time, give your teen’s brain more support as they develop. (There are also ways to manage conflict better with teens, which we will discuss soon.)
Is your teen getting enough sleep?
- Check their sleep
Tired teens are less able to manage their emotions. The latest research, however, shows that most teens just don’t get enough sleep (they need 8 to 10 hours). This may be due to a couple of things: one of them is the change in circadian rhythm that teens experience.
Our circadian rhythm is our sleep/wake cycle. It works like an internal clock running all the time in the background of our brains and makes us feel sleepy or alert at regular intervals.
Our circadian rhythm is affected by lots of things: exercise, when and what we eat, how much light we are exposed to, whether we stayed up too late the night before, and our age.
During the teen years, circadian rhythms shift. This means that our children who were sleepy at 9pm when age 12 are suddenly, at age 14, wide awake until midnight. Some experts have suggested that schools shifting their start times (so teens could sleep in) would help. Others suggest turning off devices two hours before bed to reduce light exposure is the key. Too much light exposure stops your brain producing melatonin–the signal to your body that it’s time to feel sleepy.
According to research, a poor night’s sleep affects your ability to handle stress and means your brain is more likely to view stressful situations negatively. If they are tired, your teen is far more likely to overreact. I’m sure you’ve experienced times when that gentle request to tidy their room was met with a huge blow up!
Sleep also affects your teen’s growth, health and immune system. So, it’s not easy, but working on improving sleep habits is definitely important for your teen (and can help keep things calmer.)
Getting enough sleep
- Encourage everyone in the family to create a relaxing bedtime routine that starts an hour before bed. A regular routine tells our brain that it’s time for sleep and allows us time to wind down.
- Aim for a regular sleep and wake up time. This helps your circadian rhythm work best.
- Turn off screens two hours before bed or use a night-time mode.
- Try to make bedrooms as dark as possible.
- If they have trouble sleeping, encourage the idea of letting your body rest. Teach relaxation and breathing techniques if it helps or try a sleep app.
- Avoid snacks or big meals right before bed as it can prevent sleep and also cause waking during the night when blood sugar levels drops again. Aim for a high-protein snack a couple of hours before bed instead (or just a good early dinner).
Is your teen eating too much junk?
2. Check their eating habits
You are already aware, I’m sure, that behaviour is affected by food. As our children progress through the teen years we have less and less control over what they eat and when. We do, however, influence what is available in our cupboards, on our dinner tables and what information we offer them around eating habits. Whether they listen or eat what we offer is another thing! Hopefully, they have learnt a few things around healthy eating over their childhood. Still, it is common for teens to eat badly, not enough or too much during these years.
Teaching our teens facts about food, such as a high protein meal a couple of hours before can improve sleep, will help them make good choices. People can only make choices with the information they have available so the more you can offer them about healthy eating and the impact on their brains and behaviour the better.
Obesity rates are a concern and we do need to model and encourage a healthy lifestyle for our children, but it’s best to avoid focusing on weight too much as that in itself can cause issues with food. Food choices affect more than just weight. The correct food increases your teen’s ability to concentrate and keeps their mood stable.
If your teenager gets a part-time job and has money of their own, you may find they start to eat a lot more junk food. This is a pretty normal reaction. They suddenly have complete freedom to choose what they buy and eat!
However, teenagers can easily get addicted to energy drinks, highly processed food and sugar. If they eat this way too often their energy levels are going to drop and their behaviour deteriorate.
As parents the only thing we can really do here is encourage limits, provide healthy food at home, and offer good information. There was one interesting study that improved teens healthy eating choices by appealing to their desire to fight against authority. Read about it here in Scientific America: A Suprising New Way to Encourage Healthy Eating.
To encourage good eating habits, try the following:
- Have plenty of easy healthy snacks available. Teens will usually go for the option with the least effort. Try nuts, fruit, cut up carrots, healthy dips, cheese and crackers, small easy to heat meals, soup.
- Limit the sugary drinks and treats in your pantry.
- If your teen is especially moody, check how long it’s been since they ate and how much water they have had that day. Both hunger and dehydration affect mood and energy levels. There is evidence that suggests dehydration can cause behaviour problems and lack of concentration.
Is my teen having too much screen-time?
3. Check their screen time
Everyone benefits from screen-free time. When we get off our devices we move more, get outside more, socialise with real people and use our brains in different ways.
When we are constantly entertained we are missing out on using our brains to their full potential. Many of us consume huge amounts of information everyday but never do anything with it. We need time to be bored. We need time to make connections between all the new information and put it into action. We need time to be creative. Adopting a family motto of “create before you consume” can come in handy here.
Also, when we engage in slower activities (most online activities are fast paced) our attention spans are lengthened which is essential for our teens as they enter more advanced levels of education.
Some research suggests that too much screen time disrupts sleep, overstimulates the brain and induces stress reactions. Teenagers are very sensitive to this. Excessive device use has been linked in some research to increased depression, anxiety and aggression.
There still needs to be a lot more research into this area. It’s an incredibly controversial topic and we are only just starting to understand exactly how screen-time affects us.
Your family will have it’s own values around screen time and device use. I would encourage you to just observe your teen and notice if it affects their mood and behaviour. If you see an increase in moodiness, aggression or difficult behaviour after screen time, try a device-detox and see if it makes a difference.
Is your teen needing more attention?
4. Check how much focused attention they are getting
Your teen might be saying they want you to go away and leave them alone, but they still really need your attention. Often teens just don’t know how to ask for it.
They need attention in the form of physical contact: hugs, affection, a reassuring hand on the shoulder.
They need to feel heard. They need your focused attention when they talk about their interests and preferences and they need to know these are okay with you.
Teens are very sensitive to how others view them. Are they acceptable? Are they important? When you spend focused time with your teen you show them they are a valued part of the family who has a say.
It’s so important for this age group to have a sense of acceptance and importance. If they feel this from you at home, you will see far less challenging behaviours.
One way to allow them some choice and help them feel accepted is by giving them ten minutes of time every day. Join your teen in their world for a bit. Play that computer game, ask about their new favourite app, or watch youtube with them. Set aside regular special one-on-one time. Take them to their favourite cafe, go for a walk, or ask them what they’d like to do with you.
- Let them lead.
- Show interest (even if they want you to watch a weird youtube gamer that you don’t understand).
- Give positive feedback. Say things like “That’s a great game” or “I can see why you find that funny!”
- Even getting aloneside your teen for a short time everyday will make a big difference in how they feel, behave and your relationship with them.
Good behaviour starts with strong relationships
During the teen years, it is helpful to focus less on negative behaviours and more on maintaining a solid relationship with your teen. This doesn’t mean being their friend all the time (they really need a parent at this time). It does mean, however, keeping the big picture in mind.
The big picture: Raising kids to become fantastic, independent adults who contribute positively to the world.
Parenting a teen is challenging and exhausting, but it can also be incredibly rewarding and fun. Focus on your teen’s strengths. Let them know what you like and appreciate about them as often as you can. Tell them what they do well. Be their coach.
When conflict does come (because it will!) there are definitely ways we can learn to manage it better. A huge amount of research around relationships and conflict has been done. There are proven ways to do conflict well, and there are styles of conflict that damage relationships even more.
Grab a copy of my Managing Conflict with Teens resource and read up on five areas that will help you deal with this aspect of parenting better. (Because I know conflict is one of the hardest bits of parenting and we don’t have to do it on our own!)
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Until next time,