There’s a bit in Zoe Heller’s shortlisted Booker Prize novel Notes on a Scandal when the protagonist Sheba says, “It’s probably a good thing that your kids turn into difficult adolescents. The feelings you have for them as infants are much too intense, too enervating, to sustain.”
She is referring to her 17-year-old daughter Polly who refuses to direct a civil word to her.
The difficult thing about adolescence is that no matter how much we, as parents, are warned about its challenges, we wrestle with it as though it has taken us by surprise.
How could that sweet boy who made us laugh with his clownish antics have turned into a sneering ghost in his own home who, when he materialises, offers a monosyllabic response that closely resembles a grunt?
And what about that dancing and singing live wire who now spends all her free time whispering to her friends on her phone about matters that are nobody’s business but her own?
Can we still get through to them?
Navigating this unchartered territory will be one of the biggest challenges of our lives as parents. And as each child is different, it can feel as though the rules on how to keep the relationship from going down the plughole don’t always apply.
To complicate matters further, adults have their own needs and problems to deal with and, at the end of a long day, a perceived lack of cooperation or a dismissive reaction to a polite question about their day can prove the straw that breaks the camel’s back, leading to explosive and unconstructive exchanges.
The best way to approach these years is to come prepared, bracing ourselves for leaps of faith that may or may not pay off immediately, but will do in the long run, like a long-term investment
According to King’s College Madrid’s resident psychologist, Maria del Carmen Requena Marin, “When students reach Year 10 and 11, it is crucial to try to treat them as equals, giving them responsibilities – desisting from helping them organise their homework or exam preparation – and trying to negotiate with them on how they want to approach what they have to get through.”
Maria del Carmen Requena Marin also emphasises the importance of showing an interest in their interests.
This may sound simple but when our children are listening to rap music with dubious lyrics or pursuing politics that clash with our own, keeping positive can be easier said than done.
In these circumstances, the best way to keep the channels of communication open is to withhold judgement unless the adolescent is at genuine risk. “At this age, they feel mature and powerful and they usually listen to the opinions of their peers and idols,” says Maria del Carmen Requena Marin. “You should never dismiss these figures or undermine the importance they have for the adolescent at this time.”
Underlying the challenges of adolescence is, of course, the fact that hormones rage during period and different parts of the brain develop at varying speeds. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.”
The result is a tendency towards acting on impulse and misreading or misinterpreting social cues. Adolescents are also less likely to pause to consider the consequences of their actions.
Educationalist Iván Rotella believes that this is where we have a role to play, talking to our adolescent children on important issues such as gender respect and substance abuse.
Ignore the fidgeting or the pleas to be quiet; plough on, regardless, perhaps taking a cue from a program watched together on TV or an incident in the news, he says.
“Even if it feels like a monologue, it’s important to have that conversation. You might think they’re not listening but they will be hearing what you say and they will process it in time,” he says.
While the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry emphasises that the development of an adolescent’s brain does not let them off the hook where responsibility is concerned, it does help us understand why they do what they do.
Trusting someone who is in the throes of such fundamental physiological changes can be challenging, but it is, Maria del Carmen Requena Marin points out, crucial to maintaining good workable relationship. If you let them know you think they are capable, they will rise to the occasion. And if they fail to rise to the occasion, they will learn from their mistakes and are likely to do so at some point in the future.
Respecting the adolescent’s otherness is also essential to keeping the conversation going. Their priorities may not coincide with ours and we may feel hurt as their friends replace us. But, as Maria del Carmen Requena Marin says, “Even if we are unable to grasp how their friends and idols could play a more important role in the adolescent’s life than their parents or family in general, that is how it is and we have to take a step back.”
That, of course, does not mean that family meals and plans are not important. It simply means that we have to approach them in a slightly different way if we want them to have positive repercussions. “Allow them to suggest what plans they want to do as a family and let them take the initiative in family activities,” says Maria del Carmen Requena Marin.
It can be hard to relinquish this control. In other areas, too, we are used to imposing our own dreams and strategies for achieving them onto our offspring. Understandably, we want our children to be successful, both socially and professionally. In short, to be a credit to us.
But the adolescent is trying desperately to carve their own niche and establish their independence. Parental pressure will often backfire. Whether it is a simple question about how their day went or a more complex inquiry into what they think they’re doing with their lives, the less parents impose their own wishes onto their adolescent children, the less likely, it seems, the adolescent will be to rebel against them and the more likely they will be to keep the conversation going.