HomeLifestyleDating & Relationships

How to have a brilliant teenager

How to have a brilliant teenager

We uncover the latest research and expert advice that make life easier for teens—and their parents.

The teenage years are said to be some of the most challenging for parents, let alone the adolescents in question. With hormones raging while the desires for independence and belonging conspire to create havoc, it can be difficult to know what will benefit or hinder your relationship. The following tips can help smooth the course through these years of change.


Spend time together

This is paramount. Research shows that young people who regularly sit around a table with their parents are more resilient and have better social skills. This is because they learn how to talk about controversial subjects without getting angry.   

Education and parenting consultant Gill Hines says that—as well as regular meals—it’s wise to mark special occasions to keep your child feeling part of the family. She says, “As teenagers get older, they might want to spend New Year’s Eve or Christmas Eve with their friends. Be clear about which events this is OK for, as you don’t want them to lose touch with the good things that come with being part of a family.”

It’s interesting to note that when people—adults and teens—are asked to list the top ten moments when they were happiest, reveals happiness expert Andy Cope, they mention shared experiences with loved ones, not products. Cope says, “Ultimately, the biggest tip for parents and their children to be happy together is to have shared experiences. Do things together.

“We don’t hug enough in this country either,” he adds. “For a hug to really count, it has to last seven seconds for the emotional contagion to work. When your teenager comes home from school, don’t just grab them for a quick hug; grab them for seven seconds and squeeze! They might moan to start with, but not after seven seconds, because they’ll have melted.”


Keep talking

Communication forges bonds. Gill recommends talking in the car because you can do it without eye contact, which boys prefer. Girls are more partial to chatting in cafes.

Talk about all kinds of things—not just school and behaviour. Ask their advice occasionally. This shows them they can solve problems, which creates neural pathways in the brain. Gill stresses, however, that you must stay a parent. “Don’t try to be a friend. Your job is to maintain boundaries, guide and provide unconditional love. Friendship comes later when they
are an adult.”

But what can you do if your teenager prefers sulking to speaking? Consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron warns that it’s vital not to dismiss negativity as hormonal.
“If they are moany or sulky, then there’ll be a reason for it,” she says. “Even if that reason might not seem important to the parent, it is to the teenager. So listen to them, talk to them about it, support them.”

Another tip is to offer sympathy without advice. Gill explains, “If they come home from school and say, ‘Ooh, she said this. And he did that,’ the best thing to do is not offer advice but just say, ‘Oh, poor you, that sounds absolutely awful.’ Sometimes they just want your sympathy. If you keep trying to fix things, they’ll stop telling you stuff.”


Nip bad behaviour in the bud

Habits started during the teenage years can become lifelong problems. So what can you do if your teenager’s behaviour is challenging? 

Gill advocates allowing “a certain amount of attitude” because young people have trouble reading emotion. But abusive language is unacceptable. “If they’re being rude or hurtful, first of all you stop them. Then, in a calm voice, you let them know how that made you feel and why. There’s no point in criticising something that’s already been done. So advise for the future. Say, ‘I really don’t like what you just said. It hurt my feelings. I know you’re having a hard time right now [so show some empathy and kindness], but next time I talk to you when you’re reading a book, perhaps you could talk to me in a more polite way, so we both feel good at the end of it.’ ”

Janey Downshire, director of Teens Translated, believes that underlying emotional need drives behaviour.

The parent’s response will escalate or deflate the situation. “Don’t ignore the child or pander to the behaviour, but be counterintuitive,” she says. “If they’re angry, be calm. If they’re frightened, be anchored, like a rock. Their regulation dial will regulate down to the adult they’re engaging with.”

Chartered clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew recommends reframing what you see as “bad”. 

“For example, being stubborn is also being determined,” she says. “Can any of your teenager’s habits be seen in a different light? For behaviours that you find totally unacceptable, be firm and consistent with them when explaining why.”


Support learning

Andy Cope says it’s important for teenagers to go to school with their brain alert, which means sleeping well and having a purpose. “When you’re happy, your brain switches on. It’s more creative, it can see solutions. I’ve taught in British, Indian and African schools, and British children have this cultural thing where they don’t tend to see the purpose of school. 

“So we do this exercise in schools where teenagers have to write down in one sentence what they want the outcome of their life to be. We ask them to write it on A4 piece of paper and stick it on their bedroom wall, so it then becomes their purpose for going to school.”

Andy recalls meeting a year-10 pupil in Leicester, who was biding time until working for his dad as a lorry driver. “But we came along with this exercise and it completely switched him on. He’s now at Bristol University studying medicine. He’d never, ever considered that before.”

Gill Hines warns against nagging about homework, though. “It’s a killer. You have to get them to want to learn. You do that by encouraging their aspirational thinking.” 

One of Gill’s clients has a 14-year-old son who was doing badly at school. “One of the things we talked about was where he saw himself in ten years, and then again in 20 years. He didn’t have a clear career path, which is quite right and proper for a 14-year-old. But what he wanted from his life was to be doing something where people could see him. So we then chose several celebrities that he really liked and we looked at their life histories. And what we saw was that these people had worked hard to get where they were. He’s since knuckled down.”


Encourage hobbies and exercise

Exercise has myriad benefits for teenagers. Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College and author of Beyond Happiness, believes that most teenagers don’t get enough exercise or sleep.

“They need to be having three periods of exercise every week for their brains and bodies to work properly,” he says. “The body needs to move. Look at how a dog is when
it comes back from a walk. Our bodies are the same as theirs—we need to rest, exercise, water and stretch to get the best out of them. The interconnectedness between the body and the mind is profound.”

Janey Downshire explains that any hobby that has a physical aspect to it is good, because it gets dopamine flowing, which the body needs for rebuilding. “[A hobby is] about teaching the brain to focus on a task and get lost in that task,” she says. “If the brain was a muscle, it’s exercising the ability to focus and get absorbed in something.”

And don’t forget to do your bit. “You should be praising your child for effort, rather than talent,” says Andy Cope. “If you’re watching your son play football and he puts the ball in the back of the net from 30 yards, you shouldn’t tell him, ‘Oh, you’re the next Wayne Rooney. You’re a genius’. You should say, ‘You put that in from 30 yards. Well done. That’s because of all the hard work and practice you put in.’ That develops a growth mindset, where the child associates success with hard work and effort. Growth-mindset children tend to stick at problems longer and are more resilient.”


Lead by example

Your influence is powerful, yet as Dr Anthony Seldon says, “You have to be a nudger, not a megaphone. Megaphoning causes angry reactions and damages relationships, because the child doesn’t feel respected.” 

Finally, clinical child psychologist Carol Burniston reassures, “If you were friends when they were little, you will be again. Accept you’ll never be ‘cool’. Above all, make fun of yourself— it costs nothing and often breaks the tension.”