Teenagers (for adults)
Understanding Adults (for
of the same coin
educational psychologist working in secondary schools, I am often asked
by parents for "the right way" to handle their up and coming teenagers.
The parents then often seem disappointed when I cannot come up
with a wonder cure that transforms all teenagers into compliant mini
adults. What I then
try to do, is to define each participant's role: mine as the
psychologist/helper, and the clients' - both parent and
Simpson is now a senior educational
psychologist in East Lothian.
Confess that there is no single correct way, dip into an eclectic
rag-bag approach based on what has worked in the past.
Try to use a developmental psychological viewpoint on a situation.
Listen to both sides and look for connections between unique
Do not make moral or ethical judgements. (If that is what the
clients require, direct them to a priest.)
It's easy to see what’s required with a baby: they have to learn
mobility and language etc., but with adolescents?
They have to try out what they have learned (overt or hidden curriculum
- what the adults say or what they do?).
They have to prove that they’re no longer children, but there are now
few overt rites of passage, at a time of intense physical/psychological
Previously at 14+, they went out to work, changed from school to job,
or girl to woman (other societies have initiation into adulthood at
the onset of menstruation).
We adults now extend children's education to 16, 18 and 21+ and
often expect the child/parent (financial dependency) to be
Yet we ask them to make career orientated educational choices at 13+
If overt positive symbols of growing up are not provided such as key to
the door, internet access and our seeking their advice, then
negative signs of adult hood are often adopted - cigarettes, alcohol
They have to establish relationships outside the family - they invest a
high value in their choice of friend, they feel the need to be backed
up by the family, otherwise they may choose never to make close friends.
They have to cope with sexual maturation, hormonal changes, intense
The first task is to be parents not pals - stand firm on what you
believe. Adolescents benefit from firm standards/boundaries, even
though these are not always enforceable, they need stating. ( Or
will you say “I’d rather she smoked in front of my face than behind my
(But can you impose standards you don’t uphold yourself? e.g. drinking?)
Make a clear distinction between what is negotiable and what is
absolutely forbidden, keep “NO”s few and clear, not principles
but concrete examples.
Prioritise: distinguish between what is “irritating but liveable with”
and “never ever again”. This avoids unnecessary arguments, saves
your breath for more important issues, accentuates your negatives by
reducing them. Consult with your partner, come to consensus and
aim for consistency.
Recognise your young adult as a separate human being who may think,
feel, behave and vote differently from you.
The role of parenting changes. Be aware of which stage
INSTRUCTION we tell them
NEGOTIATION both parties discuss
CONSULTATION you are asked for advice (if you’re
BABY-SITTING you are asked
for a favour with the grandchildren
When (or better before) something goes wrong, negotiate what checks are
useful and what checks are counter productive. Ask whether
it’s worth continuing the homework checking sessions which have
only hot air and no measurable improvement. Perhaps it would be
more productive to advise and let the consequences occur.
Remind this individual who is demanding certain rights that parents
have rights and needs as well.
Adolescence is a time of practising dealing with emotions in the safe
environment of the home.
Some scenes may trigger your own unresolved feelings from your own
adolescence. Is it your child that provokes seemingly
unreasonable anger in you, or is it your earlier relationship between
you and your parents?
Your child is now out of infancy. For most of us it seems
to have flashed past.
Teenagers are about to develop into young adults.
Enjoy the positive aspects while you still can, put up with the
negative ones where acceptable and keep your total refusals to an
As teenagers, they are well past the half way mark of living with
you and they’ll soon be gone.
Have you ever consciously considered at the time of a parent-teenager
intense interaction, how will they remember the exchange in the
years to come? If you haven't, perhaps you should!
I imagine that we all have some fairly vivid memories of being
"misunderstood" by adults when we were young.
So how can we break this negative cycle?
We are the grown ups: we are "responsible".
Behaviour modification starts with good adult rôle models.
Demonstrate through your own adult behaviour, the traits you would like
to see develop in your children.
These are my personal opinions which
reflect my experience of 31 years in education
including the last 18 years of practising as an educational
However, they were originally influenced by a talk given by
Simpson Coupar when he worked in Greenwich UK, many years ago.
Chartered Educational Psychologist
Cert. Ed., BSc.(Hons), MSc.,
C. Psychol., AFBPsS.
British Psychological Society No: 34097
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