The teenage years

The teenage years can be upon parents suddenly and sometimes without warning. It can seem like overnight that the child who could be coaxed and guided is now asserting their independence and tossing out some of the rules you so easily imposed before. It can be a shock for parents to find their teenage children wanting to make their own choices about clothes and friends. It is, however, just the next step in growing up, with a new set of challenges.

Recognise firstly, that it can be a confusing time for teenagers. Change is happening rapidly – physically, sexually, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Don’t ignore those changes. The most important single thing you can do (and keep doing, no matter what), is to keep in contact with your teenager by making time to talk about issues that affect them.

You may often be busy or not want to interfere in your teenager’s life, but you cannot afford to give up your responsibility as a parent. Teenagers are no longer children, but they are not yet adults. Talking to them regularly, even if they do not appear to want to talk, will keep you in touch with their needs and keep the communication lines open for when they might really need you. Listen to your teenager if you want them to listen to you.

It’s natural for teenagers to push the limits, testing the boundaries of your patience and your values. Accept that this is part of growing up, and don’t take it personally. However, make sure your teenager realises you still have limits. Discuss them, why you feel the limits are important, and that they are there because you are concerned for your teenager’s well-being. Teenagers still need limits to feel safe. Be consistent with them. Despite what they might want, you still have a responsibility as a parent to care for your teenager. You might also be responsible for, and liable for, their actions. You can teach your teenager how to make responsible decisions by making responsible decisions yourself.

Don’t be afraid to say no. Some teenagers need you to say no – the teenager afraid of going to a party because of the likelihood of trouble can sometimes avoid losing face with peers if a parent rules it out. Image is important to a teenager. How they perceive their friends to see them can be a powerful influence. Recognise that the clothes they wear are simply reflecting their wish to be independent. Of course, you might not like the clothes, but is it really hurting anyone (except, perhaps, your own sense of good taste!). You will need to have an open mind as the parent of a teenager. You might do well to reflect on your own teenage years and what you did then.

Pick your fights. Don’t battle with your teenager over everything you do not like. Work out what is important, set the rules and stick with it. If you are constantly arguing, it’s more likely your teenager will turn to friends (who they think really understand) if they need help, when it should be you. Don’t be a prude. Sex education is discussed in explicit detail at school, so be prepared to tackle the issue in the same way at home.

Don’t leave sex education to the schools – your values and guidance are still the most important in your child’s life. Admit your mistakes and apologise if you want your teenager to do the same. Trust your teenager and they might surprise you. Always look for the best in them, even if it is not always obvious.

Alcohol and drugs

The reality of modern life is that teenagers are sooner or later confronted with alcohol and drugs. It is not only how your teenagers handle the issue, but also how you, as a parent, react that is important. Keeping the communication lines open is critical.

It’s not always easy and they might not want to listen, but if you talk openly and avoid criticism, you will earn their respect. Tell them that if they are not coping with something in their life, they can talk to you or someone they trust – alcohol or drugs will not provide the answer. Make sure you know where your teenager is at all times. If you don’t know where they are, you won’t know what they are doing. You need to know that they are safe.

Make sure your teenager knows your rules about alcohol and drugs. Take a reasonable stance. Banning any alcohol consumption might not work, but if you allow them to drink moderate amounts at home where you can supervise, they might be less likely to overindulge away from home. Explain the risks they take with their health, with the law and with you (the consequences if they break the rules).

Be consistent and if the rules are broken, show them that you mean what you say. And don’t be a hypocrite by drinking too much or taking illegal drugs yourself. Your teenager will be quick to point out that if it is good enough for you, it is good enough for them. The Alcohol Advisory Council, in a leaflet entitled Alcohol & Your Kids, says young people tend to drink more when their parents are not around.

However, you have a responsibility to protect them from harm, so you sometimes need to enlist the help of other adults to ensure teenagers are supervised at parties. The Council says there is no ‘right time’ to introduce young people to alcohol, though research indicates the later they are involved the better. Be guided by your own child’s interest in alcohol. Don’t push it. When they go to parties, discuss your concerns and agree to some conditions. Take account of their age and maturity.

Talk to the host’s parents to see how the party will be supervised, what alcohol will be available and how people will get home. Tell them that if things get out of control, you can always pick them up. Talk about the possibility of the person driving them home being drunk, violence or drugs at the party, or of your teenager feeling threatened or frightened. Discuss a plan for them to leave if they need to without losing face. The Alcohol & Your Kids leaflet suggests:

  • Tell them they can phone you at any time and you will pick them up.
  • Make sure their cellphone is charged and has enough money on it to call or text you if they need to.
  • Give them some emergency money so they can get a taxi or uber home.
  • Organise a carpool with the parents of your teenager’s friends.
  • Discuss in advance what should happen when they get home. For example, many parents want to know that their teenager is safely home before going off to sleep. You might arrange for them to let you know that they are home.

If you are hosting a party, work out:

  • Who is coming, including how many.
  • How they will be invited.
  • Will alcohol be provided? If so, how much and what kind?
  • What other drinks/food will be available?
  • How will you deal with alcohol brought by guests?
  • Who will serve the drinks?
  • What time will the party finish?
  • How will guests get home?
  • Will some guests stay over?
  • Adult supervision – how will this be done and by whom?
  • How will gatecrashers be handled?

If you have concerns about your teenager’s drinking habits, ring the Alcohol Advisory Council and ask for the leaflet Alcohol & Your Kids or phone the Alcohol Helpline on 0800 787 797.

Peer pressure in the teenage years

All teenagers need friends. Peers are an important part of teenagers’ lives. They can shape attitudes and behaviour, can get teenagers into (and out of) trouble. Parents need to see that peer pressure is not necessarily a negative influence. Parents who are involved in their teenagers’ activities have a greater chance of seeing the influence of peers being positive.

It doesn’t mean you have to go with them everywhere they go or choose their friends, but if you take time to show an interest in what your teenager is doing, where they are doing it and with whom, you stand a better chance of curbing any activities that can get them in trouble. If your teenager is getting into trouble and you think they’re in with ‘the wrong crowd’, consider involving the teenager in activities or with other teenagers that can have a positive influence.

Find out about local sports and leisure activities, cultural groups and youth clubs, where their contribution will be valued. Look for your teenager’s strengths – sport, art, music etc – and encourage them into activities and with people that will boost their self-esteem. Recognise also that negative peer pressure might just as likely be negative situation pressure.

Your teenager and friends might well act very differently at the beach with a car full of alcohol than they would at home. Consider changing the situation. Rather than trying to stop such activity outright, it might be better to have your teenager having a drink at home with friends where it can be controlled and supervised (see the previous section on alcohol). Listen to other adults who are involved in your teenager’s activities.

Don’t ignore teachers, sports administrators, youth workers etc who talk to you about your teenager. Take seriously any discussions about bullying, drug-taking or other negative activity by your teenager – and talk about ways of doing something about it.

Youth suicide

Most teenagers lead happy – if sometimes complicated – lives and go on to make further valuable contributions to their family, community and society.

However, in a country that takes pride in the achievements of its teenage people, the saddest statistic must be the number of youth suicides. More than 150 young New Zealanders take their lives each year, one of the highest rates among Western countries. Why these people commit suicide is open to wide debate.

Is it the result of economic reform or simply bad parenting? Even the parents of young suicide victims are often at a loss to understand. Many victims appear to be leading normal, healthy lives – typical teenagers. Then suddenly, they are tragically gone.

The Ministry of Education and the National Health Committee suggest in Young People at Risk of Suicide: A Guide for Schools, that about 90 percent of young people dying by suicide or making suicide attempts will have had a mental health disorder at the time. The booklet says the three mental health disorders most commonly associated with suicidal behaviours are:

  • Depressive disorders – present in almost three-quarters of those making suicide attempts.
  • Alcohol, cannabis and other drug abuse – present in more than a third of those making suicide attempts.
  • Significant behavioural problems (such as conduct disorders and antisocial behaviours) – present in a third of young people making suicide attempts.

Depression is a common illness that affects the whole person physically, mentally and emotionally. Everyone has changes in mood and gets down sometimes. But when the feeling of gloom persists, life might seem hopeless. There is no one single cause of depression. A variety of factors contribute to it.

Depression is more likely to occur where there is a family history of depression or other psychiatric disorders; with chemical imbalances in the brain which can upset behaviour, feelings and thoughts; with negative patterns of thinking and distortions; with alcohol and substance abuse; and with environmental factors such as loss, stress, adverse life events and chronic illness.

Depression can be treated by counselling that focuses on changing negative thought patterns, reviewing and understanding problems, improving self-esteem, learning stress management skills, strengthening communication within the family, improving social skills, or monitoring and decreasing the effects of unpleasant events.

Different kinds of medication can also be used to help treat depression. Medications may improve a depressed person’s mood and can effectively treat sleep and appetite problems. A combination of counselling and medication is often helpful. Lifestyle changes can also lead to a general improvement in health and wellbeing. A balanced diet, daily exercise, plenty of water, regular sleep and reduced alcohol and drug intake are all helpful.

Teenage people need your love and attention and their own space. Spend some time with them at least once a week. This could be watching a video or TV programme, going shopping, joining in sports activities, talking about school and studies or sharing a meal with just the two of you. The causes, according to a study of suicide, the Canterbury Suicide Project, can be many. The main ones are:

  • Childhood difficulties, such as family conflict or sexual abuse.
  • Drug use disorders.
  • Anti-social behaviour.
  • The triggering of the suicide attempt by some life crisis such as the breakup of a relationship or trouble with the law.
  • Psychiatric problems, such as depression.
  • Parental problems.

Any one, or several of these, can bring about a suicide attempt. As parents, we have the challenge of making sure it doesn’t happen to our children. Probably the best thing we can do is do our best – right from the start. Following some of the advice in this and other parenting booklets, learning about parenting and children, listening and talking to our children, and valuing their contribution to our families, are all going to help.

Teenagers especially are finding their way in the world; trying to work out how they fit in. It’s important to keep lines of communication open, to support and encourage teenage people and learn to recognise when they need help. Most young people who die because of suicide may have been depressed, but this does not mean that most people who are depressed will attempt suicide.

A small number of those who attempt suicide may show inappropriate anger or violence, or show no signs at all. If you are worried that your child is suicidal, look out for the following signs and if some of these signs persist, depression may be the cause:

  • Sad, anxious or bored mood
  • Changes in sleep pattern, such as insomnia or oversleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability, tearfulness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Poor concentration
  • Decreased energy, feeling tired
  • Obsessive behaviour, for example preoccupation with music, stories and games that have a death theme; withdrawal from social contact and activities
  • Saying life’s not worth living or indicating thoughts of suicide
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs and substance abuse
  • Threats of suicide
  • Previous attempts at suicide
  • Talking about death and wanting to die
  • Making final arrangements – giving away treasured possessions
  • Changes in mood, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, not caring about appearance
  • Withdrawal from relationships and activities; isolation from others
  • Statements of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
  • Reduction in academic or work performance
  • High-risk behaviour (drug taking, dangerous driving)
  • Urgency of action and the speeding up of activities
  • Sudden lift of spirits after a period of depression

If a young person you care about shows any of these signs of depression, there are many ways you can help. Some ways to start a conversation with a young person showing signs of depression are:

  • I’d like you to tell me what you are afraid of.
  • Please tell me what is worrying you and I will listen to what you say.
  • I know I sometimes get angry, but it’s because I care.
  • I will stay here with you and we will work it out.
  • It is obvious things are not OK at the moment, but they could get better.
  • It is important to have faith in yourself and with support, this will help you work through the good as well as the bad times.
  • Would it help if I came with you to see the doctor?
  • I can find someone for you to talk with, and I’ll make an appointment for you.

If you think your teenage child is showing these signs, you can do several things to check if your gut feeling is right. Check out your view of the young person with others if you’re feeling uncertain, for example, friends of the young person, teachers and relatives. Talk to your teenager and LISTEN calmly.

Ask directly if they have considered harming themselves and do not be shocked by their response. Encourage them to think of choices open to them.

Do not offer simple advice. A person who is thinking about suicide is often overwhelmed by their problems and will not necessarily believe they can be solved. Show you are ready to support them and help them get the support they need. Avoid telling them what to do, lecturing them on the rights and wrongs of self-destruction, saying that suicide is the easy way out or telling them they are seeking attention.

Don’t try to deal with this on your own. Seek advice from a health professional. If possible, help the teenager to see a doctor or counsellor. If a young person exhibits the following – they should not be left alone:

  • Saying they or you would be better off if they were dead
  • Has just made an attempt at suicide.
  • Has decided on a method they can carry out and has set a time.
  • Has left a final written note.

If this is the case you need to:

  • Make sure someone stays with them.
  • Take precautions by locking away all drugs, guns, alcohol, car keys and any other dangerous objects.
  • Involve others and try not to handle it alone.
  • Contact a doctor, your local hospital or an emergency service (ambulance, police, fire). Let them know the situation is urgent.
  • Insist on getting assistance – don’t promise to keep it secret or confidential.

If we do our best to let them know they are valued, there may be less likelihood of them undervaluing themselves. We cannot live our lives as parents constantly worrying about whether our children will commit suicide. The statistics are grim, but the reality is that youth suicide is still rare. However, we must always be alert to the danger signs. They might be verbal, behavioural or situational.

Danger signs – verbal

It has been suggested that up to 90 percent of people who consider suicide tell someone about it. That means we have advance warning – and we can do something about it, as long as we are listening. Whether you are a parent, friend, teacher or neighbour, if someone discusses the issue of taking their own life, even if they appear to joke about it, take it seriously.

If you think they might be considering suicide, ask. A direct question is likely to get a direct answer. If they say ‘no’, but you still suspect something is amiss, seek clues by asking if there has been a recent significant event that might have depressed them. If they do admit to thinking about suicide, ask when.

If they have a specific time in mind, you will know how quickly you need to act. Ask how they intend to take their life, and whether they have the means of doing it (ie a gun). Do they have a plan? The more organised the person is, the more likely they are to be serious.

Danger signs – behavioural

A young person considering suicide might take an unusual interest in ‘dark’ themes – drawing pictures involving death, listening to music with death themes or taking an interest in people who have taken their own life. They might suddenly begin to put their affairs in order by giving away treasured possessions, showing sudden improvement from a bout of depression, or apologising for things they have done to people. They might begin to mutilate themselves in a minor way.

Danger signs – situational

A range of specific events and experiences may contribute to a teenage person feeling depressed. These could include:

  • Abuse: physical, emotional, sexual.
  • Loss: of a loved one, a close friend or pet, through a relationship breakup, through unresolved grief from a death, by moving to a new city or country.
  • Relationships: difficulty making friends, pressure from friends to behave in a certain way, tension in family relationships.
  • Sexual development: confused sexual feelings, possible attraction to same-sex, coping with being LGBT and the responses of others or body image.
  • General: academic pressures, fear of failure, employment concerns, chronic physical illness, conflict between cultural misunderstandings, sense of identity and place in the world, bullying, constant put-downs and criticism, dependence on alcohol, substance abuse.

These can sometimes heighten suicidal thoughts and actions. If the previously mentioned signals are also evident or have been in the past, be particularly alert at this time. If you see the signs, talk to the person. Let them unload their problems by talking to you about them.

About 80 percent of suicides are prevented by non-professionals – ordinary people. If they have immediate plans to commit suicide, ring the Police. Otherwise, organise for them to talk to someone who is qualified to help – try Youthline, Samaritans or one of the other agencies.