How to help your kid navigate the tricky teenage years

single mom affectionately hugging teenage daughter
How to raise a teen, according to a parenting proTom Werner - Getty Images

When Sarah Ockwell-Smith was a teenager, she was nicknamed 'Stroppy Sarah'. In your own adolescence you may have been bequeathed a similarly mocking term of affection, perhaps being teased for your moodiness, messiness, lack of concentration or distaste for the rules: all the stereotypes of teenage-hood that make the age bracket the butt of generational jokes.

Now a psychologist and the author of 15 books on parenting, Ockwell-Smith has a new lens on that 'stroppy' label. 'I was misunderstood and struggling with my identity,' she says.

It's insights like these which Ockwell-Smith lays out in How To Raise A Teen, her forthcoming book dedicated to navigating parenting your child through those notoriously tricky years.

There are plenty of reasons that she, having previously specialised in books on children, wanted to turn her hand to the conversation around young adults (Ockwell-Smith prefers this term, and uses it to encompass those aged 13-21). 'Firstly, because I only believe in writing what you've experienced, and my own children are now leaving or have just left that stage of life,' she says.

'There is also such a lack of resources to help parents of teenagers. Before you have a baby, you go to antenatal classes. Then you have baby groups and there's loads of information around raising toddlers. But that all stops when your children go to school. As the teen years come in, people assume you know what you're doing.'

Weave in, she says, the reality that teenagers are often taller than us and look and sound like adults, meaning we can expect them to behave like us. 'We don't really understand that their brains actually make them more similar to toddlers than adults, so we treat them really, really harshly.'

That being a teenager today is almost unrecognisable from generations prior also means there's a need for a re-education around raising them, she says. 'So much has changed now compared to even 10 years ago, when we didn't have to worry about social media too much and hadn't even heard of vaping. Although we've been teenagers, we've never had to deal with what they have to deal with today,' she says.

If you feel lost navigating this path, then know that you're far from alone. Below, Ockwell-Smith offers up her key advice on traversing this often rocky terrain with compassion, skill and care.

Should teenagers be smartphone-free?

The idea that teens should be banned from phones has gone from idealistic parenting advice to potential government policy, with the government calling for a ban on phones in schools.

'The reality of digital devices is far more nuanced than blanket bans,' says Ockwell-Smith, who argues that the movement is a plaster-on-a-broken-leg type suggestion.

teenage girl with brown hair using smart phone sitting by female friend at desk in classroom
Maskot - Getty Images

'It blames smartphones for everything and ignores the fact that we've got the highest levels of poverty that we've seen for most certainly my lifetime. That young people have gone through COVID and missed the most crucial periods of their life: their exams, driving lessons, proms, 16th and 18th birthdays, first kisses – all of it,' she says.

'Then there's the chaos of mental health services being so overrun to the point that they can only help those who are actively suicidal.' For her: 'It is naive and narrow minded to say that screens are the issue. Plus, screens can have a good side. For some teenagers, especially those who are neurodivergent, are LGBTQ+ and looking for community or just struggle to make friends, they are a lifeline.'

For her, twinning safety and being realistic are key. 'As parents, we also need to explain how to safely use the internet, but we also need to be realistic.

'It's unlikely a teenager will come off their device two hours before bed to help their sleep, especially if they don't get home until four o'clock, do their homework or have dinner and don't start scrolling until 8pm.'

'I compromised and bought mine blue light glasses and we spoke about why it was important for them to not mess up their sleep with screen time.'

How much emphasis should we put on hormones?

This might surprise you: Ockwell-Smith says we should consider hormones in almost no instances. 'Despite what you'll read on a parenting discussion online, oestrogen doesn't make girls mopey. Testosterone doesn't make young boys bullish and argumentative – the only impact it has is an increases risk taking behaviour, which develops anyway at that age,' she says.

Again, her issue is that hyper-fixating on hormonal changes ignores the real problems. 'We really do our kids a disservice by thinking they're stroppy and quiet because of their hormones, when actually they're going through friendship issues or problems at school.'

'We miss that there's always an underlying reason for difficult behaviour. One of the hardest things about being a parent of a teenager is having to become that investigator.'

Why do teenagers push their parents away?

Teens starting to reject you isn't a sign of failure, says Ockwell-Smith. 'Babies attach to you instantly – they'll scream as though you've abandoned them forever when you walk away for a moment. As they get older, they start to move away from the secure base and into the world. Then, when things are a bit scary, they come back to you for a secure attachment.'

'The goal of a parent is to be attached in the early years and to let them fly as they get older. It's a sign of a job really well done when a teenager is happy without you, which is really hard. As a parent, you spend 15 years dealing with an intense need for attachment: you're the carer, the nurse, the centre of their world.

'It's easy to take it personally when they shove your hand away or don't want to come on holiday with you or go out for the day with you. But what they're saying is, "You've done such a great job I feel safe without you. And you've made me ready to want to go and explore the world alone."

'The only best thing you can do is to encourage it, as much as your heart is aching. The more we agree and respect them, the more they will come back to you.'

How to deal with rude and aggressive teens

Often, the detachment from their parents comes with rudeness or sourness. Dealing with that means dealing with your own feelings, not theirs, says Ockwell-Smith. 'You have to learn to not take things personally,' she says.

That's not because your teens should be able to do whatever they want, but because their brains aren't yet developed enough to control their emotions. 'The part of their brain that doesn't develop until the late 20s is the part that is responsible for keeping a lid on emotions and for thinking before you speak.

'Teenagers are a bit like a saucepan. The water is bubbling, there's no lid and no ability to turn the gas down, meaning they'll often say or do hurtful things.' Those outburts, though, are not about you.

When they scream and say you're the worst, what they mean is, 'I'm having a tough day, I had an argument with a friend and you've asked me to tidy my room and it's just one thing too much.'

In a weird way, it's a compliment. 'Teenagers are normally the most hurtful to their parents because that's who they feel safe with. Often you'll go to a school parents evening and the teacher will say they are so polite and you'll wonder if they have the right child. But that means that your child is on their best behaviour at school and they feel safe to be authentic with you.'

How to punish teenagers

So your teen has done something bad. Like, legitimately bad, and not something you feel you can simply accept as them expressing themselves or experimenting. What do you do?

'What do you want the outcome of your reaction to be? Most likely, you want them to make the wrong right and to not do it again. So you can either shout at them, take away their phone and ban them from going out. Or you can do is you can have a conversation about what happened. How were they feeling? Why did they do it? Only of these gets to the root of the matter and teaches the teenager what to do – or not do – next time.'

girl friends hanging out together
Nick David - Getty Images

Ockwell-Smith actually doesn't believe in punishment at all. 'The most common thing that happens when you punish a teenager is they become good at lying. Imagine you find a vape in their bag and punish them for it. They likely won't never do it again. Instead, they just won't let you catch them. If you want to teach your teen to be better, you have to be there to help them get out of the mess. It doesn't mean they get away with everything. There are still boundaries. But it's about teaching, rather than disciplining.'

How honest should you be with teenagers?

'Being a teenager comes at a time when parents are going through tough times,' reminds Ockwell-Smith.

'Women are likely peri-menopausal and menopausal, which can be a real minefield. They're also known as the "sandwich generation" because as well as caring for their children they're likely caring for elderly relatives. And while I hate the term midlife crisis, there's very much a point in midlife that you start to reassess your life.'

The default setting for most parents is to keep those struggle to yourself to avoid worrying your children. But teenagers are great vibe checkers, says Ockwell-Smith. 'They overhear conversations, they read letters and they can sense when things are up. If you don't tell them what it is, they'll create a scenario in their head that's worse than what's really happening.'

'Alternatively, your teen will assume your mood is because of them and not because of what else is happening in your life. That's particularly true for teenage girls who often deal with "good girl syndrome". This is where they learn that being "good" makes parents happy, though the truth tends to be that the parents are so overwhelmed that the teens compliance makes life easier. As the girls get older, that cycle can repeat in their friendships, work life and relationships.

'I always advocate being 100% honest. That doesn't mean using your teen as a therapist, but just letting them into your world.'

How to Raise a Teen is published by Little Brown on 4 July

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