The teenage years come with exploration, impulsivity, risk taking and dangers. They also come with friendship difficulties, romantic relationships, sexual feelings, breakups, exams, and study stress. How do we help our kids navigate these new experiences and difficulties?
At the end of adolescence, we want to have young adults who can cope with stress and emotions without feeling overwhelmed, we want our children to make good decisions, and relate to others well. This article is about how we can build resilience in our kids for the teenage years. You will learn one of the biggest mistakes parents make and the most common misunderstanding about the teenage years.
I am all about being practical and parenting in the real world. The context of parenting is different to how it has been in the past. Parents have more time pressures, and kids have more commitments. So, toward the end of this article there are two practical things you can do to build your child’s resilience that won’t put a massive strain on your time or expect too much of your child.
One of the biggest myths about the teenage years is that adolescence is about detaching and separating from parents. Many parents believe they shouldn’t expect their teenagers to talk to them and that they should let go of their young person and detach from them so their child can be independent in the world. There is an overwhelming amount of research that shows that this is not true.
When I conducted research on bullying with Australian teenagers, I was surprised to find that the number one person that teenagers wanted to talk to about their difficulties when things got serious was their parents. I assumed teenagers wanted to talk to their friends more than their parents. While it is true that teenagers are more likely to talk to their friends than their parents about minor problems, when things get tough, they seek out parent support over other adults or friends in their lives. Think about your own life. Most mothers I have ever met seek the support of their own mother when they are distressed even as adults. This is not a sign that we are not functioning adults. Our relationship with our parents changes as we get older, but healthy adolescent development does not involve the teenager detaching from their parents altogether.
In fact, there is a large amount of research showing that adolescents do better in their teenage years if they talk to their parents and their parents help soothe their distress. Teenagers who have a secure supportive relationship with their parents have fewer mental health problems. They have lower rates of depression, anxiety, and behaviour problems. Their attention and concentration are better as is their coping and social skills.
For females, having a good attached relationship with parents is also associated with fewer weight-related concerns and lesser likelihood of having an eating disorder. Young people, however, with detached relationships with their parents are at higher risk of suicide, drug use, aggression and delinquent behaviour.
It is not just mental health that benefits from having an attached relationship with parents during teenage years. Securely attached young people make the transition to high school better and have more positive and less conflictual relationships with their friends in high school. They are also less likely to engage in excessive drinking, drug use and risky sexual behaviour and they are less likely to get pregnant.
One of the keys to creating resilience in your child is your relationship with them.
Sounding pretty good hey? So how do we create this kind of relationship with a teenager? How do we work out how much freedom to give our teenagers whilst staying involved in their lives? How do we foster these good parent-child relationships during the teenage years?
I like to use the following metaphor of building a house to explain how parent involvement in adolescence changes but is still helpful. Let’s imagine that the job of your child is to build a house in their lifetime. Your job as a parent is to help them to build this house. When your child is young you need to show them directly how to place bricks and where to put them. When they are young you choose their friends and literally show them how to play well with other children and how to talk to other adults. As they get older, your child is able to start putting some of the “building bricks” in place themselves.
They start school and start to make friends on their own. They begin to play with other children and start to learn how to choose good friends and be a good friend to others. When your child is a teenager, most of the time, they do not need you to build their building for them. They can do it. They choose their friends, and they make their own decisions. Your job is no longer to build the house with them but to be the scaffold. You are the safety standing next to them to catch them if they fall and for them to hold onto in strong winds or storms. They rely on you when they need support and you hold a boundary for them that keeps them safe.
So how do we apply this practically? Firstly, don’t try to solve your child’s problems and don’t give too much advice. You are the scaffold not the site manager. Teenagers, like all human beings, hate it when they are not listened to. The number one reason why teenagers tell me they don’t want to talk to their parents is because their parents don’t listen and give them unhelpful advice.
When our teenagers come to us with a problem we need to listen and not solve their problems for them.
In the same way that we don’t do our children’s homework for them, don’t just give them your answers for their life problems. We need to support and listen to them and ask them questions that will help them to work out the answer themselves. Sometimes, our child may need us as adults to step in to keep them safe, but a lot of the time they won’t need us to solve their problem for them and we can support them in making their own decisions. It is our job as parents to help them work out their difficulties themselves, so that when they are adults, they have learned how to problem solve the challenges they face. Your teenager will talk to you more if you listen better and give advice less frequently and only give advice after you have all of the information.
It’s not a parent’s job to prevent their child from ever making mistakes or feeling pain but to use the painful situation and learn from it. If you help them to learn from their pain, they will be less afraid of pain as an adult and more able to manage their way through adult stress.
This all sounds fine in theory, but let’s be honest, we all want our kids to be happy and make the “right” decisions. Sitting with your child while they work it out and make mistakes along the way can be very anxiety provoking. This anxious response to our child’s difficulties may however prevent our child from talking to us. Young people in my consulting rooms often tell me that they don’t want to talk to their parents about their difficulties because they don’t want to upset them or worry them. This may appear very kind of the young person, but it is also self-serving. It feels distressing to a young person when their parent gets anxious or upset about a problem they have shared with them.
If we want our children to keep talking to us and sharing their struggles with us, we need to make sure we stay calm and ready to hear anything that they want to tell us without getting too anxious, worried or upset (at least not in front of them).
We foster healthy parent-child relationships and adolescent development by listening to our teenagers and supporting them to work out solutions to their problems themselves. By not getting anxious and upset about their feelings and listening to them and supporting them to work out their own problems you are building the resilience to cope with difficult feelings and experiences into them.
So I promised two things you can do to help your child be more resilient.
Don’t try to solve their problems for them, listen and provide emotional support.
Stay calm when your children talk to you
One of the keys to creating resilience in your child is your relationship with them. When our teenagers come to us with a problem we need to listen and not solve their problems for them. This way they learn how to cope and solve problems but do so with our support and guidance. If we want our children to keep talking to us and sharing their struggles with us, we need to make sure we stay calm and ready to hear anything that they want to tell us without getting too anxious, worried or upset (at least not in front of them).
Sometimes it is very difficult to manage to listen and not get upset when your teenager is having a big feeling moment. It is hard to sit with and support them when they are having a meltdown and being irrational in their thinking. It is these moments of teenage meltdown that pose one of the greatest threats to the parent-child relationship. To find out how to respond to the teenage meltdown go back to the Parent Thinking Space and take a look.
Dr Kirstin Barchia PhD, MClinPsych, BPsych(Hons).
For free access to one of Kirstin’s online workshops for parents about How to Build Calm and connection in a household with teenagers visit -