Research by The Coaching Academy’s Coaching within Education Programme Trainer, Pam Lidford has revealed the answer to the question that has puzzled teachers and parents for generations: what do teenagers really want? Be prepared for a surprise...
You might think today’s teenagers would produce long shopping lists for the latest designer goods when asked what they ‘really, really want’ but as my research has revealed, their true desires actually cost nothing.
In a recent survey of teenagers and parents, the young people reported not feeling heard or understood by their parents or older people. Although they feel they are grown-up, their parents often treat them as if they were much younger. Parents say they want to treat their teens as adults but how can they when they behave like kids! It seems to be a bit of a Catch-22 situation with a need for better communication between teens and their elders.
Young people complain that their parents are either too controlling or don’t appear to care enough. Ian Grant, who is an author on this subject and runs a parenting organisation says, ’You’ve got dysfunctional kids being brought up by dysfunctional parents who they themselves were brought up by dysfunctional parents and it just goes on and on.’ Teens say they are accused of not being respectful and that they want respect too. Interestingly, they say that adults aren’t respectful to them but expect them to be respectful to their elders just because they are older. It appears that ‘times’ have changed: young people don’t always agree they should be ‘respectful’ just because someone is their elder. They say that if the older generation were to be polite to them they’d reciprocate.
When asked what respect meant, they weren’t really sure but said it meant being nicer to each other, polite, being considerate of each other’s feelings, being listened to, their opinion counting – they just assumed everyone knew what it meant. When helping young people to develop better relationships with their parents (and teachers), it is vital to discover what is important to both parents and teens and explore the meaning of the values or words that count. In other words, parents/adults and teens need to get clear about what important words mean to both of them. What are the differences? What are the similarities? From this, an understanding can be created. This is the starting place for both parties to develop and grow.
Children start to move away from their parents around the age of 13 as they make the transition towards independence and adulthood. Parents may not like the fact that their kids are growing up and may continue doing what they have always done – telling kids what to do, thinking they know what is best for them, doing everything or too much for them, or giving them advice they don’t want. They try to prevent their kids getting hurt in any way. Parents do this because they love their children. Sometimes because of a lack of communication, teens see it completely differently.
Young people report they want parents to trust them more, allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from them, all the while knowing their parents love them and will be there to help them if they mess up, not threatening them with all sorts of punishments (most of which they don’t actually carry out anyway). Parents need to start letting go of their kids, bit by bit, around the first stages of them showing their independence which may be between 12 and 15 or even later for some and this takes some forethought and planning. Letting go may involve asking their teens if they want some support or advice rather than just giving it or telling them what to do all the time.
Young people reported that they wanted parents to be there for them but didn’t want them doing everything for them nor expecting them to do everything the way their parents thought they should do it. They wanted to try things out their way. They said they would love for their parents to trust them to do the right things. After all, they had been instructed for years on what was right and wrong and knew the difference; they didn’t need to be told the same things all the time. They said that perhaps if their parents would let them prove themselves or let them make mistakes without criticising them or ‘verbally beating up on them’ they would feel more adult and more likely to talk more to their parents.
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Teenagers may well decide to do things parents don’t approve of for a variety of reasons: to fit in, to stand out, to be popular, to kick back against society, or to show they are different to their parents or friends. Sometimes they go ‘off the rails’ and if they do, that is the time for unconditional love. You don’t need to approve of or agree with the actions, but teens need to know it’s okay to go home and that they will be supported and allowed to learn from their mistakes. They beat themselves up really well by themselves – they say that understanding, albeit disapproving parents, would be more likely to prevent them from doing wrong again rather than ranting, angry or uncaring parents. They say they need to be allowed to make choices and would love to be able to talk more to their parents but can’t because of the guilt or shame or verbal abuse they fear inducing.
Parents admit they may use guilt and shame in an attempt to either stop teens from doing wrong again or as a motivator, but the teens say that tactic doesn’t work. Yes, they feel bad for upsetting their parents. Yes, they feel guilty, but all that guilt does is make them hide what they do rather than stop doing the activity. They say it links bad feelings to the target or outcome, such as passing exams or losing weight, because when they think about the topic they associate bad things with it and as they want to feel good, they do something that is easier or makes them feel good. When they do attempt the goal or topic and don’t succeed, they feel like a failure and start to believe bad things about themselves. Teens may appear not to be listening to what parents say, but they are. And if they are constantly reminded of how ‘stupid’ they are, how ‘useless’ or ‘good for nothing’ or a ‘burden', they start to believe it.
This can have a big impact on their self-esteem and confidence both then and later in life. So, what can parents do? It's far better to address the undesirable behaviours involved and attempt to discuss the topic with their teens, rather than attack their identity by labelling them. Teens reported that parents often use generalisations such as ‘always' or ‘never' when angry with them. In fact, their parents seemed to be angry with them more than they weren't. Teens reported that disappointing their parents was a big deal for them. Ian Grant says that parents should use this knowledge carefully and respectfully, alongside consistency and persistence. He says that teens turn into pack animals who may run with their peers even though they may not want to, especially boys, so parents need to behave as ‘pack parents' and exchange numbers with other parents so when their teens say something like "everyone is going to or doing..." parents can challenge that or simply check it out with other parents! He says it may sound simple but from his experience, teens actually feel more secure knowing their boundaries which is really important for their well-being and mental security.
When I spoke to teenagers some agreed (reluctantly) that even though they would moan about their parents doing the above, if it was done as a part of a discussion or agreement where they felt listened to, they would actually ‘like it'.
Tip of the day:
Remember to tell them you love them - I know it sounds simple, but I work with so many adults as well as kids and teens who report they are unsure if they are loved. You and I know we love them, but they don't always know it. They can't mind-read, and if you think about it, if you find fault with them most of the time (which is what teens reported) then that could be construed as a strange type of love! Wouldn't you agree? If they will let you, give them loads of hugs or if they're going through a stage where they don't want them, remember to tell them you love them - even if they don't respond. And lastly, check out what love means to you and then practise it both to yourself and to them, at least three times a week, you'll probably find the way you have been ‘showing them you love them', doesn't match with your written description.
Enjoy your teens - they're our future!
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