Hope and Possibility! Giving young people a voice. The key to their successful futures.
Updated: Jan 24, 2020
The teenage brain: understanding and supporting your teenager
It’s tough being a teenager. I vividly remember being on an emotional rollercoaster at 14 years of age. I often felt alone with my turbulent emotions, despite having all my friends and family around me.
We now know, thanks to research conducted by the US National Institute of Health, that the human brain is not fully formed at the end of childhood. It undergoes a huge restructuring during the 12th to 15th years, when the frontal cortex thickens, just before puberty, before shrinking back to its normal size.
These critical physical changes that take place between childhood and adulthood may go some way to explaining why teenagers can be moody, tired and difficult to communicate with.
So how do we embark on positive communication with our own young people? How do we encourage them and strengthen them during this challenging period in their lives?
Before we look at how to approach communicating with your teenager, it’s important to remember that each young person is unique and their experience of adolescence is unique to them. When talking to a teenager, we cannot compare our own experiences with theirs.
For those teenagers that experience adolescence more turbulently, we must not let those experiences define who they will be as adults. And while it can sometimes be difficult, remember that the child that they once were, they still are! That child is not gone and this stage will not last forever. Remember that change is happening all of the time!
The solution-focused approach
In my first blog post in this series, I shared a little of the theory behind solution focused therapy in relation to parenting and the positive impact it can have on family life. I first discovered the solution focused approach while training to be a social worker in 2001 and it is an invaluable technique when working with children and young people and their families.
Solution focused therapy is all about focusing on a preferred future, what works well already and the language that we use to communicate with each other. It is a respectful, versatile approach which empowers people because it’s about asking them what they want and listening with a constructive ear.
Working with teenagers: My experience
As a solution-focused practitioner, I often work with young people, using these talking tools to invite them to see themselves as experts of themselves, to notice what they do well already and to belief that small change can lead them to their preferred futures.
Some people are surprised by how much I genuinely enjoy working with teenagers! It is a complete privilege to support a young person to notice their own strengths and to understand themselves better.
I sometimes share information about the teenage brain with the young person that I am working with, and they are often very interested to hear about it! It lets them know that what’s happening to them is happening to all teenagers, and that they are not alone.
However, I never trivialise the adolescent experience. In fact, my intentions couldn’t be further from that: we must remember that every young person’s experience is unique to them. This is why the solution focused approach is so suited to working with young people; it does not make assumptions, we simply ask young people what they want.
What young people tell me is that the questions that I ask make them feel heard and in control, valued and understood. This is because the solution focused approach invites them to share what works in their life already and how they can amplify that. It’s all about focusing on the possibility.
By giving them the opportunity to notice their own strengths, they feel less like they’re a ‘problem’. This, in turn, enables them to view things with hope and positivity and see possibilities where they couldn’t before.
Talking to your teenager the solution focused way
Here are some possibilities for starting a useful, solution focused conversation with your teenager.
If you’re holding this conversation because of a particular problem or issue, firstly ask your child what they would like to be different and ask for details. What would be happening instead? Then ask them to think of a time when the problem wasn’t happening and things were better.
Let’s use an example. Your child is experiencing conflict with a teacher in class. You might ask, when were things better in class with the teacher? Encourage them to remember that time. At that time, what was different? What had they done to make the situation different?
They might say, I was feeling more determined that day, or, I’d said hello to the teacher when I came into the class. You have begun a positive conversation with your teenager, encouraging them to focus on a strength they had used to improve things. Remember to keep focusing on the presence of what is wanted, however small the details might be.
If you’re simply trying to improve communications with your teenager so that you can be more involved in their lives, start by asking small questions that help you both find out what it is that they want.
Start by asking them what they would like to be different. Ask them to consider, if that thing is different, what will be happening instead? What will people notice about them because that has changed?
These are all questions that encourage your child to notice small but useful actions they have taken, actions they can recall and use again. You will start to help your child notice the positive things they can do to effect change in their own lives.
An exercise to try at home
Imagine a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 representing communication with your child at its very best and 0 being the poorest level of communication. What number are you on the scale at the moment?
Consider the reasons that have made you select that number and ask yourself why you have not selected a lower number on the scale. List ten reasons why you are that number and not a lower number. This activity enables us to look positively at the communication we already have between each other, whilst noticing where we might improve.
Next, consider what small signs would tell you the communication between you is moving up the scale? Some examples of signs might be:
Your child shared something with you that they normally wouldn’t - their feelings, or some news
Your child asked you for some support with something
Your child did something different at home - helped out, tried a different activity, joined a conversation
What difference will that small change make to your communication with your children? Will it improve it significantly, and if so, why?
Young people thrive on the opportunity to talk about what they want! It gives them that sense of control and independence that they are so hungry for and it makes their minds a less scary place. There is so much to be gained from a positive conversation with your teenager.
If you have read this post to the end, I hope you have been encouraged by the solution focused approach and will be willing to try it at home with your teenager. Give it a go, and see if your child is encouraged to notice their own strengths and resources. Perhaps a couple of these positive conversations with your teenager will allow them to talk more freely and be more able to effect positive change in their lives.
If you have questions about the technique discussed here today, or would like further advice on how to help your teenager, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Look out for my other blog posts in this series for families on:
How to take a more positive approach to parenting
Helping your child develop a positive body image
How to turn negativity on its head: a positive relationship with your partner