The teenage years are a whole new challenge when it comes to parenting. The emotional roller coaster can be challenging for everybody in the family, not just the teen. And guess what? Studies show these years matter most when it comes to the parent/child connection. No pressure! To help you through, we asked DR MÉLI NOËL at International Medical Clinic (Jelita) to provide some pointers that will help with teen angst especially.
What does “normal” teen behaviour look like?
If you’ve been looking at your previously sweet, lovable son and daughter and wondering “What is happening to my child? Who is this alien in my house? Is this normal?” you are not alone. Many parents can be baffled by the changes in behaviour that appear with adolescence.
The most important thing to understand is that the primary goal of adolescence is for the teenager to achieve independence from their parents and become an adult. To achieve this, they must start pulling away from their parents. It’s a period of physical, neurological, hormonal and emotional turmoil. During this period, it’s normal for your child to become more moody, to want to spend more time with friends than with family, to try to fit in with peers, to experiment and engage in light risk-taking behaviours, and to experience emotions more intensely than before.
To help guide you, here’s a list of what is considered “normal” teen behaviour:
- wanting to spend more time with friends and less with family;
- being late to bed and hard to move in the mornings;
- acting moody and irritable;
- rebelling against rules;
- being less communicative;
- being disrespectful; and
- fighting with siblings.
When should I be concerned as a parent? What are the warning signs?
While becoming more moody and experiencing intense emotions is a normal and expected fact of the teenage years, parents should be aware that adolescents can also be at risk of developing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders. Some red flags to watch for would be a teenager who doesn’t want to spend time with anyone (friends or family), who experiences sadness or anxiety that doesn’t disappear after a few days or weeks, who absolutely refuses to attend school, who engages in extremely risky behaviours, or who experiences sudden changes in eating habits (restricting calories, over-exercising and so on).
If I’m worried, how can I get help for my child?
The first step would be to have an honest conversation with them. Sit down during a part of the day when you can both take your time to discuss things, without having to rush off to school or activities. Tell them about being concerned about them, without being overly emotional or dramatic. Tell them you’re not sure how to help them on your own and that you think getting the help of a professional would be a good idea.
The next step is to make an appointment with the school counsellor or your family doctor. You’ll need to give your child some time and space to discuss matters with the health professional on their own, meaning you might have to accept not being aware of everything they are feeling or experiencing. If there are any safety issues, the health professional will be sure to keep you informed, but otherwise some things might have to stay private. This will give your teenager the sense of independence and privacy that they crave.
What are some ways I can keep the parent/child bond strong?
Most parents and teenagers will come out the other side of the teenage years and keep a close, loving relationship. To achieve this, you’ll need to understand that your teenager is no longer a child in a lot of ways. They still need your protection, guidance and boundaries, but they also need you to start trusting them to make decisions on their own and to give them increasing amounts of independence as the years go by.
At the same time, make appropriate rules and maintain adequate boundaries. Educate yourself. Read books about puberty and adolescence and talk to your child about what you find out. Better yet, read the same books and discuss them. Get interested in what they like. Support them in what they are passionate about. Talk to them often.
Take them out for dinner to talk about what they’re going through, and tell them how you got through adolescence yourself.
Do you have tips for dealing with teen drama?
First, we have to stop looking at it as “drama”. It may seem overly dramatic and emotional to a rational adult (like a toddler’s tantrum), but emotional turmoil and intense emotions are real to your child. Minimising the emotions will not be helpful.
Just like when a toddler is throwing a tantrum, the main thing is to try and stay calm (even when you’re boiling inside). Matching your teen’s level of emotion will just make things worse. Use reflective listening instead of trying to solve the problems yourself, saying something like, “So, what I hear you saying is that your friends don’t want to spend time with you anymore because they think you’re not cool enough?” Validate their feelings, while explaining to them that negative feelings don’t excuse bad behaviour. Encourage them to problem-solve on their own, while brainstorming ideas of solutions with them.
Trying some of those tips when your teenager is in the midst of intense emotions will usually de-escalate things while making your child feel heard and understood.
Tell us a bit about food disorders; how is anorexia different to orthorexia?
Eating disorders affect both genders and often start in the adolescent years. On the surface, each appears to be about food, but in truth, both disorders are about underlying psychological issues. Anorexia is a disorder about body image which, in turn, leads to restricting food which can lead to becoming severely underweight. Orthorexia, on the other hand, is a compulsive obsession with dietary purity. There may be preoccupation with the composition and origin of food. Priority may be given to biologically pure foods, which may contribute to significant diet limitations. Both illnesses can have severe repercussions. If you’re concerned about your child’s relation to food, contact IMC and make an appointment with Dr Jane Foley.
Need more answers?
IMC has many doctors who regularly see teen and adolescent patients; when you call, ask for advice on who may be the best fit for your child. Dr Méli Noël is based at IMC Jelita. 6465 4440
See more in our Teens section: