Preparing Parents for Teenagers

by Stephanie Schwarz
Registered Psychologist
Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre

A lot of my thinking about teenagers has been about how to prepare young children for the big issues that they are likely to face in their teenage years. We can help our children to navigate and be role models in the midst of concerning trends in our culture.

I am not advocating to have the sex talk at the age of 2, but rather that parents set the tone of a relaxed approach to key life issues, so that these conversations continue to be approachable as they grow.

Also we can help kids to think more critically early on to help them for when they encounter the challenges ahead of them. We don’t have to find the solutions for them, rather we can equip them to find good solutions.

Imagine that in the middle of the playground, your 3 year old pipes up with “Daddy, where do babies come from?” If you’re clear in your own thinking about what you want for your little one to know about their body, with ideas about how you’re going to talk about it, you’re more likely to take the opportunity to talk openly and show them this is a safe topic. If you don’t have a clear idea, you’re likely to get flustered and have a conversation that is a bit fluffy. And they’ll probably not to raise the question again too soon.

At a recent conference several concerns were raised by professionals who are concerned about the challenges currently facing our adolescents. Here are some points from three topics:

a. Sexploitation:  Our media contains increasingly sexualised content. Ads are appealing to our most base levels of arousal –  physical attraction and insecurity about our appearances. Millions of dollars are made every year on pornography and children are being drawn into it, viewing it and appearing in it. Children are learning more about sex from pornography than anywhere else. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 11 years old. We need to be parents who are ready to talk openly with our children about their sexuality.

b. Alcohol Use:  Alcohol is a money spinner for government, so it is a hard battle to restrict advertising in sports, merchandising it in alco-pops and reducing pub opening hours. The alcohol industry uses many ploys to get young people on board with the idea that drinking alcohol is how to have a good time. Do we talk with our youngsters about how alcohol is used in by our community? How do they observe us use alcohol? Do they have skills to make friends and fun within their community?

c. Merchandise:  The lie merchandising tells us is that life is all about how we look and what we buy. Advertisers appeal to the need be part of the tribe to keep us buying. Can we recognise that our own deep human longings for love, acceptance and belonging are being appealed to as we shop?

Merchandising uses every sense it can for a quick sell. Internet games are designed in order to embed advertisements. Vanilla smells are impregnated into toys because it reminds children of their mother’s milk. Distinctive sounds are used, via packaging or a jingle. Toys associated with food increases the sale of the food. In a media saturated society, what conversations do we have with our children to help them to see these ploys?

Qualities of parent child relationships

I left the conference pondering thinking of ways that parents can prepare our families for adolescence.

Parenting young children is very different to parenting teenagers – in the infant and primary years parents are focused on providing safety, security, learning experiences and are the gatekeepers to what the child can access.

Parenting tween and teens gradually provides room for their key developmental tasks (independence, identity, and peer relationships). Parents are still very important to their well being, but the role that is needed changes remarkably. Parents gradually take on the new role of consultants. Parents do well to invest early on in creating relationships that help to keep them available as consultants for their teens to turn to when facing awkward, embarrassing and crucial challenges.

An example of preparing for teenage years while our kids are still young:  I have explained to my children that teenagers can be interested in taking drugs and what some of the dangers are. When we heard about the schoolies reveller who fell off a high balcony, my 9 year old heard the report. Instead of dismissing this scary fact from our conversation, I talked with her about how young people think that when their responsibilities are over they think they can act irresponsibly and sometimes at the cost of their safety. (I didn’t tell her about the pictures that some young men take of their drunk-passed out girlfriends and post them on Facebook.) I simply let some information be available to her – enough so she can make her own mind up. Since she was still interested in the conversation, her thinking was stretched further by my asking, “What do you think would be a good way to rest after big exams so that you were having fun and staying safe at the same time?”

It can be helpful to consider, “What values do I want to teach as I parent?” and “Does how I respond reinforce or undermine this value?”

Here are some to consider:

Values (deliberate and inadvertent)
• Kindness
• Self-control
• Purposeful
• Confidence
• Persistence
• Resilience
• Generosity
• Patience
• Humility

I bet that you’re already doing some things in your family to grow your little ones into mature people who can make healthy, informed and thoughtful choices. What have you done recently?