Parenting the teenage brain: How to manage conflict

In part one we saw how changes in the teenage brain are directing young people through a period of separation and independence from their parents that can involve a lot of emotional turmoil. In part two we’ll look at some principles that can help parents to maintain their relationship with their developing child, manage conflict, stay involved and play an active part in supporting them through this challenging time.

There’s no magic wand, it can be hard work, and it’s very much trial and error, but these principles can help you to guide things in the right direction.

1) Relationship and connection are everything

Developing and maintaining a close connection with your teenager can be challenging when the messages generally seem to be, “go away and leave me alone” and “I’m off out with my friends”. However, what this really means is that the ground rules for your relationship are changing, because your teen is changing. Teenagers no longer want to do the same things or relate in the same ways as they did when they were younger. What complicates things just a bit is that, although their brain is wiring itself up to encourage them to relate differently and move away from home, this is a fragile and vulnerable time when they will need you more than ever. For parents, this can feel confusing and seem a bit like having to get to know their child again from scratch.

What this means in practice is that you may need to be more flexible, creative and opportunistic about building your connection. For example, following their lead and picking the right time – maybe meal times, chatting about a film you’ve just watched, or on one of those endless taxi runs. Perhaps having a shared project like cooking a meal. Don’t understand computer games/dubstep/football/the latest fashion? Forget your opinions, show an interest. Be curious about their world and what matters to them. Be prepared to stop what you’re doing and seize the moment – teenagers are constantly sending out little signals – often in a mixed code of mumbling and hanging around, but they’re there to be deciphered. Finally, oil the wheels of goodwill by dropping in little compliments for a job well done, or an effort well made, or just tell them that you love them.

You may get an odd look, but, believe me, they’ll appreciate it.

2) Teach them how to be calm by staying calm

Ever given someone a piece of your mind? Ever ended up wishing you hadn’t? Well, your capacity for holding your breath, gritting your teeth, counting to ten and even going off and having a chat with yourself to help you calm down will be a major asset. In teenagers, the areas of the brain that produce emotions have been up and running for years. However, the adolescent brain doesn’t yet know how to steer its owner through conflict and emotional turmoil, so teenagers need someone to be in charge of the emotional temperature and turn down the thermostat before things escalate out of control. By managing your emotions, you are helping your teenager learn how to manage theirs. For many parents this can be one of the most difficult principles to practice as things can often spiral very quickly. Learning to take a step back if you find yourself criticising or being angry with your teen is time well spent and will go a long way to helping you maintain your connection with them.

3) Think things through and always have a plan

Once you’ve calmed yourself down, you’re going to need to work out a plan for how to approach the situation, and this is where the adult brain can have the upper hand. In teenagers, the areas of the brain that govern empathising and looking at things from different perspectives, prioritising, working out plans of action and generally chewing things over with people are still a work in progress. So someone needs to be able to do all the thinking while your teen learns the ropes. And guess who’s going to be showing them these ropes? Trying to understand what’s going on for them and for you, thinking about what outcome you want and then working out a plan for talking things through with them will all create an environment for them to learn these complex skills for themselves.

4) Change ‘Rules’ into ‘Agreements’

Teenagers are internationally renowned for seeing a rule and challenging it with the dogged persistence of a seasoned lawyer. This is because their brains are pushing them to seek greater independence and they are needing to develop the thinking skills to be able to talk about and invest in the rules of life. Re-drawing the map from rules that are imposed by you, to agreements that are negotiated together give you the chance to find out what matters most to them and vice versa. And because you have been practicing Principle 1 developing your connection, and Principle 2 staying calm, it gives your teen the safe space that they need to practice getting their point across and also listening to yours. And once you have those agreements, stick to them!

5) Look after yourself, give your brain time to re-charge

Being a parent can be rewarding, inspiring and fun. It can also be tiring, frustrating and demoralising. Sometimes all in the space of an hour. This takes a lot of energy, and your brain is doing a lot of the donkey work. It will be compensating for the areas of growth and development that your teenager’s brain is going through as you support and encourage them. This can sometimes stretch you to your limits. It’s very important that you have time to re-charge, friends that you can talk to, and activities that you enjoy to help you to provide the support that your teenager needs. And remember that you don’t have to do this on your own. There are many useful Parenting Courses such as Parents Plus Adolescents where you can meet other parents, share the load and get some ideas. Finally, here’s a question to get you thinking. In 30 years’ time or so, when your teenager has children of their own and you’re both looking back, what do you want to remember about these teenage years, and what can you do now to help this to happen? Happy parenting.

– Fred Ehresmann is senior UK trainer for Parents Plus Charity and senior lecturer in mental health at the University of the West of England. For more information see barefootparent.com

Parenting the teenage brain
Part 1: A user’s guide

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