Building a better relationship with your teenager

"A lot of challenging behaviours come from youngsters who are discouraged," says Eileen Kelly, a psychologist and the co-ordinator of parenting programmes at the Galway Diocesan Pastoral Centre in Newtownsmith. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Slammed doors. Endless arguments. Cries of “You don’t understand me.” “I hate you.”

Does this behaviour remind you of anyone? Perhaps your teenage son or daughter or if you have a sharp enough memory maybe even yourself as an adolescent!

So what is the key to navigating the choppy waters of the teenage years if you are a parent? Eileen Kelly, a psychologist and co-ordinator of parenting programmes at the Galway Diocesan Pastoral Centre, believes there are three central elements to successful parenting - communication, discipline and encouragement. When practiced and used effectively these have the ability to transform a family, she says.

“The eminent psychologist and theorist, Albert Bandura, has written about the difference between just telling people what to do and showing them. And this holds true for both children and adults. When we, as parents, demonstrate patience, openness, and consistency we model these behaviours for our children. A behaviour demonstrated is eminently easier to learn than one just explained.”

Research indicates that homes where children and young people are given a fair hearing, (the core of effective communication ), are affirmed and encouraged to participate in the work and life of the family, (encouragement ); and where basic rules of right and wrong are fairly and consistently enforced produces adults who are confident, caring and well-adjusted, she outlines.

“In theoretical terms this is called parental demandingness and parental responsiveness…in other words children and teenagers need to have their basic needs met appropriately and at the same time they need to learn that life is a two-way process.”

Basic parenting skills

Parents can achieve this balance by learning some simple and basic parenting skills, she says. These include connecting with your teen, listening, encouraging, setting boundaries and managing conflict. These form the core of the parenting classes run at the centre in Newtownsmith (the next five week course begins on November 7 ). Research in the USA and Australia has shown that even a short course on parenting skills can transform the parent/child relationship, she adds.

“Taking time to reflect on how we communicate (listening as well as talking ), how we negotiate and set limits (fairness and consistency ), and how we encourage our young people (so that they will achieve their potential ) can make us more aware of the power of our input in the life of our family. As a result we are empowered to take some positive action.

“Over the course of the programme we take time to consider our communication skills and, if needed, learn how to get our message across better, all the while being open and respecting of the teenager. We learn to listen more effectively so that we hear the full message and not just the first line; we also learn ways of getting our own message across.”

This mutual respect and listening provides an atmosphere where boundaries can be agreed upon and upheld, explains the psychologist. Another aspect of communication is “connecting” or engaging with your teenage children about their interests and taking time to inform ourselves about what is important to them. This is a “wonderful window” into their lives, she says, and helps us stay in touch with them even during difficult times.

Eileen Kelly stresses that the power of encouragement cannot be overstated. “When we catch our teen doing something right it is important to notice and affirm them thus increasing the possibility or these actions occurring again. Unwittingly, too often we only draw attention to the undesirable behaviour thus increasing the potential for more of that.”

While misbehaviours cannot be ignored it is important to acknowledge and affirm the child before tackling the behaviour, in other words, separate the “deed from the doer”.

“Contrary to popular belief, a lot of challenging behaviours come from youngsters who are discouraged so the best starting point always is a word of encouragement. It is important also to ‘choose our battles carefully’ in other words when you do have to challenge them make sure the issue is serious enough to risk a row. Sometimes we do have to turn a blind eye! As the Americans say ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’”.

However, she points out that boundaries are vital but these need to be negotiated especially as children mature. It is important teenagers are part of the decision making process particularly in relation to issues that affect them.

“But it is also important to remember that as the parent in the relationship we have the ultimate say and responsibility in decisions. Finding that balance is a challenge. While the idea of discipline may sound harsh once we examine what is involved, which is what parenting classes do, we often discover a new understanding of how small changes can yield big results.”

The recent concerns about cyberbullying and how it affects teenagers and indeed younger children has brought into sharp focus the challenges that face today’s parents and what help is available, she says.

“Bullying and in particular cyberbullying has become a major concern of parents and anyone who cares for children and young adults. Bullying is defined as, ‘behaviour that is intentional, repeated, and involves an imbalance of power; it occurs without provocation and can be considered peer abuse. Bullying is about social power…bullies abuse normal social power”.

When children or teenagers are being bullied it is important that they tell someone who can take action. This is why being “connected” with your children is so important, she says, because then there is a greater chance of them confiding in you.

“Because victims frequently blame themselves, they are often reluctant to tell. Also, bullying can be a humiliating experience. Youngsters may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They may also fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak. When parents are ‘tuned in’ to their young people this makes it easier for the youngster to share a worry; indeed a ‘tuned in’ parent will often pick up on a change in mood and be on the alert that something might be wrong.”

If your child is being bullied be sure to take his/her story seriously and talk to someone who has responsibility for the social setting (eg, teacher, group leader, bus driver, etc, ).

“Reassure the person being bullied that they are not to blame and that you will be there to support them and follow up to make sure that action is being taken. In addition, for cyberbullying young people should not respond to or forward these messages. Keep evidence; record the dates, times, and descriptions of instances when it has occurred; save and print screenshots, emails, and text messages. Then, use this evidence to report incidents to web and mobile phone service providers and block the person who is doing it. There is evidence to suggest that children and teenagers who are bullied in person are more likely to be cyberbullied, too.”

Eileen believes it is important to have rules about internet access, such as, being aware of which sites children are accessing; agreeing a time limit on use and knowing their passwords but reassuring them that these will not be used except in an emergency. She also suggests “following” your children on social media sites or ask another trusted adult to do so.

“As parents we have a responsibility to know what our children are accessing and again only by having a rapport with them can we hope to be allowed in to their world.”

Parenting classes

A five week parenting course aimed at parents of teenagers will take place at the Diocesan Pastoral Centre, Aras de Brun, Newtownsmith on Thursday November 7 at 8pm.

The classes are given by a team of trained facilitators who are parents. The classes are not all about learning skills, explains Eileen Kelly.

“At the end of each session a short reflection is offered where participants can take time to reflect and appreciate the gift of their children and the spiritual dimension of our lives. The programmes are subsidised by the Galway diocese.”

As class sizes are limited booking is advisable. For further information or to book telephone Eileen Kelly or Eilish Glynn at (091 ) 565066 or email [email protected]


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