“They **** you up, your mum and dad. They don’t mean to but they do” – Philip Larkin, This Be the Verse
I have two teenage daughters aged 13 and 16; when I tell people this, I am often met with a sharp intake of breath – oooo, teenagers, that’s a difficult age! Potentially it could be and I make no claim to have all the answers or be able to guarantee navigation through the teenage years but they can also be loads of fun. There are certainly some skills from the work of positive psychologists that can be learned that can give you a reasonable chance of a happy and successful relationship.
Empathy and understanding of teenage development
Firstly, it can be helpful to understand some of the differences between teenagers and adults. For example, research has shown that teenagers need more sleep (but at different times) from adults, they have a greater urge to take risks, a far more acute sense of embarrassment, a stronger reliance on their peers and friendship group and a great deal of pressure and stress from different sources to those that adults would consider stressful. These differences, it seems, often relate to the development of the brain and have only come to light since the ability to look into the working human brain using MRI technology has developed. (Morgan, 2013) (Blakemore, 2012) This understanding may not only help your sense of empathy but perhaps enhance your curiosity to listen mindfully and communicate compassionately.
In the best-selling book ‘How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will talk’ (Faber & E., 1999), the importance of listening to teenagers was emphasised. This reflected a new movement in the late 1990s towards positive parenting which moved away from the old authoritarian approach ‘how to control your kids’ or ‘how to MAKE them behave’ and towards a more loving, compassionate unconditional parenting. (Kohn, 2005) This notion of finding what a child can do and how they can be nurtured to do well rather than ‘what is the child doing wrong’ sits very happily with the ethos of positive psychology as advocated by Martin Seligman at that time.
The ‘How to Talk…’ approach advocated listening patiently and carefully to what your child or teenager said before jumping in with a response and sometimes giving very little response at all. The important issue was to listen and give your full attention. This technique could now be described as ‘mindful listening’ (Williams & Penman, 2011). Too often, they argued, the legitimate concerns of children were dismissed with language such as ‘that’s silly’ or ‘trivial’ or ‘it will blow over’ or even more aggressive ‘how many times have I told you’ or ‘stop being stupid’. What children needed, they suggested, was to be heard. It does not need to be for very long and it does not need to result in dispensing great wisdom, very often, once heard they may well find their own solution.
Positive psychology has subsequently backed up this approach with the importance of helping children recognise the emotions that they are feeling when they talk. (David, 2016) This helps children to understand and make sense of how they are feeling, allowing them to develop the emotional agility needed to cope with life with all its joys and challenges. Instead of feeling that negative feelings or uncomfortable feelings are wrong or to be dismissed, they can be recognised as part of life.
Parents often shout at children and do not listen because that is how they were treated during their formative years and it becomes their ‘default’. This has been described as ‘emotional neglect’ as it does not provide a developing person with the understanding that they need of their own emotional range or how to cope with it. These skills, it is claimed, can be learned. (Webb, 2013)
The Mindfulness and Emotional Agility Combo
Mindfulness and emotional agility can help you cope with the pressures of being a parent and can help your children to thrive too. A child’s brain, as it develops, is laying down thousands of connections as they grow and parenting can influence this. (Cozolino, 2007) Parenting is not an easy task at all and every parent can be forgiven for having a meltdown in those exhausted moments and ‘letting off steam’ by shouting; they might feel at times it is their only option. However, the more rarely such moments occur the better as research suggests that shouting is damaging to child development, it can ‘rewire’ the brain and can have negative health impacts – both physical and psychological – into adulthood.
Through the practice of mindful compassion, a parent can both learn to deal with their own emotions more effectively and then, in turn, help their children to manage theirs. Providing the vocabulary for children to recognised and express their emotions is one part of the practice – another is modelling it – practising it yourself and being able to explain to children how you are feeling ‘I feel frustrated when I call you three times for dinner and you don’t respond’ rather than ‘You NEVER do as you’re told, you’re a total pain’.
Mindful meditation allows you to stay alert to the sensations as they come and go within you. If you show compassion towards yourself and accept these sensations or emotions, you can observe them without judgement. If you can do this yourself, you can model it to your teenager and they can begin to master their own emotional regulation.
It goes without saying, do take the chance to laugh together whenever you can.
A word of warning with regard to the above, go too Zen-like with your teenager in front of their friends and you can still fully expect to be told how acutely embarrassing you are. Good luck!
Blakemore, S. (2012, June). The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_jayne_blakemore_the_mysterious_workings_of_the_adolescent_brain?language=en
Cozolino, L. (2007). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. New York: Norton.
David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility. London: Penguin Random House.
Faber, A., & E., M. (1999). How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk. London: Picadilly Press Ltd.
Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional Parenting. New York: Atria Books.
Morgan, N. (2013). Blame My Brain – the Amazing Teenage Brain. London: Walker Books.
Webb, J. (2013). Running on Empty. New York: The Entrepreneurial Publisher.
Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Piatkus.
About the author: Nicola is a parent of teenagers, teacher, tutor and positive psychology coach. She is also a MAPP student at Bucks New University learntothrive.co.uk