Every stage of parenting has its own unique set of challenges. But surely the teenage years are the hardest – aren’t they?

Brisbane-based Child and Family Practitioner Afra Durance, who spends her days helping parents navigate the ups and downs of the teenage years through a free government-funded online and phone service in Australia called Reach Out Parents One-on-One Support, has a refreshingly different perspective on that age-old cliché.

Teenagers, she says, are simply in a period of developmentally normal, major change and there are some key things parents can do, to both relate to them better and support their development.

Better yet – if we get some of those fundamentals right, Afra believes it can potentially make the teenage years more harmonious and enjoyable for everyone, which helps support teens’ wellbeing.

“The sense of control parents previously had when their children were young – that changes in adolescence,’’ Afra, a nurse and child and family practitioner with 15 years’ experience in youth mental health, explains.

“And while that can be challenging it is important to recognise there is an element of normalcy to that change.”

Developmental changes

Adolescence, she says, is about preparing teens for adulthood and part of that is seeking greater independence – and looking outward – from family.

“Teenagers start to look to others for information and to form their views and perspective and while all of that is important – because we don’t want our children to be dependent on us – that developmental change can result in increasing conflict between teenagers and their parents.’’

Afra says in her experience, it is helpful for parents to help their teen developmentally by trying their best to think about, and interact with their teen, from a place of understanding, connection and communication.

Afra’s seven easy-to-follow pointers

Here’s her suggestions, based on research on teens’ wellbeing:

  1. Connect at every opportunity.

The basics of parenting is to ensure our children are healthy and safe and to support and guide them. The best way to achieve that with teenagers is to ensure your relationship with them is a good one so they’ll come to you for direction.

“Teenagers increasingly look to their peers for advice, but you want to ensure your voice is still one of the voices in the mix and having a good relationship and connection with your teen is an important element of that,’’ she says.

“You can connect with your teen by doing simple things together – I’m talking about a minute here and a minute there.

“Try to connect without an agenda: check in with them and see what they are up to, offer them a cup of tea, invite them to watch a show with you or ask to join them in what they are already watching. Consider what it is your teen would enjoy.”

It’s also important to acknowledge them when you see something good they have done around the house. “Put your hand on their shoulder in the kitchen, smile when you see them. Try to notice positive things they do at home, see when they do the things you ask of them. Small moments of connection are like money in the piggy bank – it all adds up.”

  1. Listen more, talk less

To feel understood is really important to teenagers,’’ Afra says.

“Young people just want to be listened to, so when talking to your teen it helps to be curious and non-judgemental,’’ she advises. “Ask open, curious questions. Even if you might feel alarmed by what they are telling you, ask them questions like ‘so how do you feel about that?, or ‘what did you do when that happened?’. Listen more, with the intent to understand, and talk less. This helps them learn communication skills. If you are simply listening for your turn to speak, they’ll be on to you in a flash and will shut down the communication.’’

Importantly don’t try to fix things for them. If you want to offer your opinion Afra suggests problem solving together or asking first, for example: ‘I’m wondering if it would be okay if I told you what I thought…’

Subtle changes in your approach, she advises, can make a conversation more productive and respectful.

  1. Explain and problem solve together

Problem solving is an important skill for teens to learn, so try working through problems together. “Teens also respond better if we explain why,’’ Afra says.

“We know what we want/don’t want and why, but often we haven’t explained that to our teen. It is helpful to clarify this to teens and help them work out what they can do instead. For example, if you are giving them a time you would like them to come home, explain why you have set that time.’’

Afra also stresses that rules and boundaries are very important – they make teenagers feel safe, but need to be balanced with teens’ developmental need for independence, with boundaries needing to shift as teens mature.

Boundaries are different for every family, but young people want their opinion heard and a say in the outcomes. “They are more likely to respect those boundaries when they do,’’ Afra says.

She also likes to remind parents that teens and parents tend to run on different timelines: teens tend to live in the present as a result of their brain development, where as parents are future-focused. Remembering that key difference can help us see things from their perspective.

  1. Keep calm

“When everyone is angry, we don’t have our best conversations,’’ Afra advises.

“That requires a concentrated effort to check in on how we as parents are feeling before a conversation. If we are angry, the likelihood is that will come through in our conversation. When a young person is feeling threatened and feels the need to defend themselves, we have lost the ability to have productive problem-solving conversations.’’

Afra gives the example of a teenager coming home after an agreed curfew time

“The immediate reaction is to get cross,” Afra says. “Instead it is more helpful to say ‘I’m glad your home safely’ and follow up with them the next day when you are calm and have thought about your goal for the conversation. The young person knows they’re late and they are waiting for the conversation – by postponing the conversation you are not ‘letting them off the hook’, but you are ensuring the conversation will be calmer and more productive. Not reacting in the moment is about encouraging the behaviour we want, which in this case is for them to come home, so we want them to feel good about coming home. It also gives parents time to prepare their approach to the conversation. The next day say something like ‘we need to talk about last night’ and discuss the boundaries in a calm way. It is helpful role modelling to express how we feel in a calm way and can help us teach problem solving and negotiating skills.’’

  1. It’s okay to delay a parenting decision rather than be put on the spot

When it comes to requests from our teens, we don’t need to give an answer immediately, Afra cautions. In the case of the above curfew conversation, Afra says your teen may suggest a later curfew as a solution. If you’re not comfortable with the suggested time or you want to think on it some more, delaying the decision or saying you’ll think about it and get back to them, can be helpful.

“You don’t have to answer on the spot, you can say ‘that’s a valid thing to raise, let me have a think and we can talk about it again soon, which gives you time to reflect and models good decision making skills.’’

  1. Ask for help if you need it

There’s no manual for parenting and there’s no one-size-fits all approach for teenagers, however all teens go through adolescent development. “For many people the only experience of parenting they have is being on the receiving end of parenting,’’ Afra says.

“If you feel you don’t have the tools you need to support you and your teens wellbeing or feel parenting in a different way would help you both, ask for help. Services like our ReachOut Parents One-on-one Support can help.” Life with teenagers can sometimes be hard work,’’ Afra adds.

”[It can be a challenge] trying to fit in your teen’s needs, work and other commitments as well as the emotional and social changes and challenges adolescence brings, so it is important to take care of yourself, so you are in the best position to support your teen. I can assure you, you aren’t alone and reaching out can really help and lead to better outcomes for the young person. It may simply be a matter of us helping you tweak what you are doing.’’

  1. Look for the joy

Positive relationships with our teens are important for their wellbeing and development. “Keep an eye out for the positives, the things that are going well for our teens,’’ she says. Noticing our teens strengths and successes boosts their confidence and self-esteem and strengthens our relationship with them. “When things get tricky on the parenting journey, “keep one finger on the joy.

“Parenting can be tricky but it can also be joyful and that joy can sometimes feel obscured by everything else.”

Want to know more?

If you need some support, Afra and her colleagues at ReachOut Parents One-on-One Support offer tailored advice to parents and carers of teenagers. All support is free and confidential. A Child and Family Practitioner will assist you to create an action plan that works for you and your teenager and will then support you through that plan with up to four one-on-one sessions, delivered via phone and online.

The Benevolent Society provide Child and Family Practitioners for this program as they are experts in family and parenting support.

To find out more or register to speak to one of the ReachOut team members visit https://parents.au.reachout.com/one-on-one-support