How to raise happy teens

Parenting a teen doesn’t have to be a battle, writes counselors Janey Downshire and Naella Grew

In today’s complicated world teenagers face more stresses than we could ever have imagined at their age, and it is easy for us as parents to feel deskilled, bewildered and uncertain about what to do. More likely than not our blueprint for how to parent will have come from our own experience of childhood and few of us will either want to reject this wholesale or copy its every detail.

In many respects, parents and their children are pioneers moving into previously unexplored territory, unable to decipher the path ahead.

This is where an awareness of what makes us and our children tick is key in building our confidence and helping us accurately assess what is going on, and making effective choices in how to respond.

Coping strategies

The journey through adolescence is rarely plain sailing and teenagers need to develop healthy ways of coping with difficult periods. By now you may not be surprised to realise that the most prevalent underlying emotional state that teenagers report is fear and anxiety about life and their future.

They may appear to be fine, but this often masks varying levels of frantic paddling under the surface. It is vital that, alongside this pandemonium, they also get the opportunity to develop a set of healthy coping strategies, which can in time become the habits of choice to be called upon when the going gets really tough.

There are lots of activities that help introduce and balance biochemicals in the system by reducing stress levels, positively boosting feelings, restoring calm when life feels uncertain and ensuring future well-being. Any healthy activity that makes you feel better able to cope with life works because it:

  • Raises feelings of optimism and suppresses stress, thereby realigning emotional equilibrium.
  • Programmes itself into the reward ‘I’ll have more of that’ system, making it a spontaneous habit.
  • Reinforces that positive activity as the habit of choice for the future.

Help your child to become aware of healthy ways to alleviate their stress and cope with pressure and its emotional effects. Knowing what works for them and when to reach for a strategy will help them produce the feel-good chemicals they need to keep their mental and emotional state balanced.

This will boost energy and motivation and keep your teenager in their settled behaviour system where they will be calmer, less anxious, frightened or angry and more resilient in tolerating life’s ups and downs. You can help to pave the way by discussing the healthy ways in which you cope with your own stress and making sure you are ‘walking the talk’ by using some of these strategies yourself.

Balanced discussions

Make sure that discussions are as balanced as possible. This will involve asking questions, allowing reflection and listening to their plans while offering gentle guidance.

Try to adopt a more Adult-to-Adult approach in how you talk. Be interested rather than inquisitive, chatty rather than lecturing and offer a range of suggestions rather than one directive. This will help them get into the habit of thinking through pros and cons in a supported atmosphere with you. Teenagers are notorious at making hasty and ill-considered decisions, so encourage them to reflect on things rather than adopt the shotgun approach.

Try to anticipate thorny issues by having an open, non-judgemental discussion about other people’s misdemeanours. So much learning can be done by having a philosophical discussion about teenage issues.

Done this way you may be able to remain more anchored, objective, empathetic and calm, thereby providing an atmosphere for your child to understand where you stand (on issues like teenage drinking, for example). Judgement risks turning the discussion into a ‘You never liked him/her anyway’ event. Resist those terribly tempting phrases like ‘I warned you about him/her’.

Encourage talking

Talking is the key to change because laying out your stall can help you to see things more clearly and change the meaning that you attach to turbulent feelings.

Although it isn’t easy to encourage, especially in teenage boys, it is worth doing because translating an inner emotional experience into words is what allows us to move from seeing it subjectively to being able to get some clarity on it. This can often result in a change of feeling and attitude towards that issue and this is in part why counselling works.

Being able to reflect and think about past experiences and current dilemmas, and to discuss the potential consequences of decisions not only helps to inform the present, but it is also banked for future problem-solving situations. If you can help your teenager by creating this sort of environment their young brain is being assisted to learn how to control its impulsive knee-jerk reactions as well. If you have a thorny issue you wish to raise, start by talking about other things and not necessarily the issue. Alternatively, if you have a child who does not find talking easy, get the wheels of discussion oiled by getting them to talk about anything they feel strongly about. This gets them used to their own voice and used to being heard.

Routines and rituals

Mealtimes are a golden opportunity for relaxing and being together as well as providing consistent routines. Apart from it teaching your children basic social skills, such as talking, listening and showing genuine interest in what other people have to say, it is also a way to open up general discussions and for you to check out views, opinions and current attitudes.

You will have a chance to put in your penny’s worth on where you stand, without it seeming like a lecture. Imposing a no-mobile zone really helps to prevent constant interruptions and distractions.

Traditions make family life feel even safer so where a child can rely on the predictable and consistent – ‘We always have Sunday lunch’ – it gives them a sense of a secure anchor.

Birthdays and celebrations provide another opportunity for predictability and something to look forward to. Perhaps you always go out for birthdays, open Christmas presents by the tree or have a favourite meal on the last night of a holiday. Despite the increasing need for parents to provide activities, outings and entertainment for the family, sometimes the simple things – all having candlelit supper together – can feel just as rewarding.

Janey Downshire and Naella Grew are both qualified counsellors who specialise in teenage development and emotional literacy. Together they run Teenagers Translated, a business focused on aiding and guiding both parents and adolescents through the teenage years. This is an edited extract from their book Teenagers Translated: How to Raise Happy Teens, which is published by Vermillion.

Key Tips for the Teenage Years

  • Impose boundaries and limits in order to develop your child's resilience.
  • Articulate and uphold your values so your child knows and understands them.
  • Don't be afraid to apologise when necessary.
  • Communicate in a clear and straightforward way by saying what you mean.
  • Avoid overemphasis on punishments. Be firm and fair and offer warnings first.
  • Small changes in how you handle things can have a big impact on negative behaviour cycles in your family. 
  • Discuss rather than lecture to encourage independent thinking and reflection.
  • Mistakes are an opportunity to change. Use constructive feedback to enable learning.