I think teenagers are brilliant and I have never bought into the idea that once your child hits 13 years of age you are in for a really awful time for a few years. It’s just not a necessary thing to go through, although it helps to know some stuff about what’s happening to them so you have some understanding and don’t get too scared. Because the last thing teenagers need is over-anxious parents.
The brilliant thing about teens is that they begin to train us, they will let us know if we are being too protective. They will give us a running commentary on how we are doing, probably to the same extent that we did that to them as they were growing up. They will say things like ‘Get off my back’ and ‘It’s my life’ – things in fact that I’m sure 5-year-olds would have said if they’d had the language when we were interfering (or ‘trying to help’) in their business when they were that age.
If a five -year-old starts to need us to let them go and allow them to work out their own stuff as much as possible, for teenagers it’s even more crucial, and the difference is that they know it.
From about the age of 14 a whole new area of brain develops and new connections are made, and this area doesn’t complete its business until around age 25. Teenagers are driven to take risks and establish themselves in their peer group, and that’s all good. If they were not driven to this behaviour, they would never separate from us, and that’s their job at this age. It is a huge, important and exhausting job which takes up most of their waking consciousness, but luckily school provides them with rest periods called ‘lessons’ so they can take a break sometimes.
The other thing the teenage brain is doing is building the ability to reason, make judgements and decisions, reflect and become fully aware. We learn these things through experience, not through being lectured, judged or critisised, and – unfortunately for parents – the most profound learning comes from getting things wrong.
If we want the thoughtful responsible bit of their new brains to develop along with the risk-taking bit, we need to trust them and as much as possible be a witness rather than a judge. We need to back off a bit, allow them to make their mistakes and give them space to reach their own conclusions. Otherwise that bit of the brain never gets any practice, while the risk-taking bit gets lots.
The last of my batch of teenagers, my daughter, turned 14 this week and I find myself looking at her head as if there will be sudden visible changes to announce this magical development. I have to report that so far she looks exactly the same as she did when she was thirteen.