How to Deal with Your Teenager

Do teenagers really need more sleep? Are they naturally moody? What are facts, what are myths and what is simply a good excuse? 
By Melody Tan

What should parents expect as normal teenage behaviour? I speak to some experts about four typical teenage problems and find out their strategies to combat them.

Teen problem #1: Sleep

Research by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the USA, vindicated sleepy teenagers around the world when they discovered teens actually need sleep far more than adults do—at least nine hours every night, in fact. What is even more interesting, however, is not just how much sleep teens need, but when they need it, that is compounding the teenage sleep problem.

“One change in the body during puberty is closely related to how you sleep,” according to the UCLA study. “There is a shift in the timing of your circadian rhythms. Before puberty, your body makes you sleepy around 8.00 or 9.00 pm. When puberty begins, this rhythm shifts a couple of hours later. Now, your body tells you to go to sleep around 10.00 or 11.00 pm.

“The natural shift in a teen's circadian rhythms is called ‘sleep phase delay’. The need to sleep is delayed for about two hours. At first, teens may appear to be suffering from insomnia. They will have a hard time falling asleep at the usual time. While they begin going to sleep later, they still need an average of nine hours of sleep at night. Because most teens have to wake up early for school, it is important for them to go to bed on time. If they go to bed late, they will be unable to get the sleep that they need.”

However, for most teens, going to bed late appears to be a mandatory requisite for their age, easily aided by the myriad of first world distractions. Dr Arne Rubinstein, in his book The Making of Men, observes that 14-year-olds are averaging closer to 6.5 hours of sleep nightly “due to staying up late social networking, playing games or texting. . . . Chronic tiredness is a serious side-effect of device overuse. . . . Tiredness can also cause irritability, lack of motivation and in some cases contribute to depression.”

Solution

Dr Arne suggests insisting that all phones and other devices are removed from the bedroom and stored elsewhere overnight. “Even better, talk to [them] about it and make an agreement as to how much sleep [they need] and what [they will do] in order to get it,” he says.

Teen problem #2: Mood swings

The simple reason for all their Hulk rage and end-of-the-world pathos is that a teen brain hasn’t fully developed. 

“MRI research has shown that higher-order brain centres, such as the pre-frontal cortex, don’t fully develop until young adulthood,” writes Dr Arne in The Making of Men. With the pre-frontal cortex being responsible for reasoning, problem solving, outbursts of anger and extreme emotions, “this explains why teenagers so easily lose their tempers”.

Dr Karen Phillip, a Sydney-based counselling psychotherapist, and parenting and relationship expert, explains this undeveloped brain, together with teenage hormones, is the reason why everything seems exacerbated when it comes to teen emotions. “Being a bit angry may become extremely over-the-top angry, being frustrated or sad could become deeply depressed, and teenagers would be absolutely devastated from a heartbreak, thinking their lives will never be the same again,” she says.

At the same time, Dr Karen also believes teenagers can get more animated with their mood swings because they are seeking their parents’ attentions. “Many hope if their parents notice, they will then give in to their demands to make them happier or better. So they’re handing over their behaviour to someone else to make them feel better,” she says.

Solution:

“Acknowledge their feelings. Ask them questions. Don’t give them advice, tell them they’re wrong, that things will be OK or they’ll get over it,” says Dr Karen. “Parents are to check in, acknowledge, check in again and provide any support the teen wants, even asking if there’s anything you as a parent can do to help.” Dr Karen does warn, however, some may ask to be left alone. Regardless of the request, parents need to respect that, while continuing to play an active role in assisting their children to come to terms with the emotions they are experiencing.

Teen problem #3: Communicate in grunts

Dr Karen believes the silent treatment teens give their parents stems from the fear of disappointing their parents. “For instance, if parents have high expectations on them being successful, but they are struggling with something at school, are not so popular or are dumped by the love of their life, they don’t want to disappoint the parents to think that they’re normal or average,” she says.

There is also the fear of being judged by the parents and told they are silly, especially if it’s something the teen regularly struggles with.

Solution:

There is a fine balance between asking too much and not asking enough. Dr Karen suggests the next time parents notice some emotional upheaval in their teen’s life, to simply comment, “I noticed that this is happening to you” or “You seem to be feeling this” and follow it up with “Is there anything I can help you with?”

. . . the definition of a teenager is “lazy bag of bones”.

“When parents ask, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or ‘What’s going on?’, teens feel under the spotlight, and may not be ready to answer or even know why they feel the way they do, and so they just shut down and grunt,” says Dr Karen.

The relationship from mother-and-boy to mother-and-young-man is an extremely important one to transition into to prevent them from shutting down. Do it wrong, and Dr Arne warns, “They will stop talking, stop sharing and stop being affectionate.” The best way to encourage healthy, open communication is to allow them to choose what they want to talk about and be there to listen, support and even open up about your own life stories, but never judge or tell them how to live.

Teen problem #4: Lazy

“Why won’t you clean your room?” is probably the battle cry of virtually every parent of teens. Their reluctance to help out with household chores coupled with the perception they sleep all day (and if you missed Teen problem #1, it turns out they actually do need that sleep), can convince most to believe the definition of a teenager is “lazy bag of bones”.

However, the problem, Dr Karen argues, isn’t that teenagers are lazy, it’s simply because up until they are 14, “not only haven’t they been asked but they haven’t been shown how to do” household chores.

Solution

The trick here, according to Dr Arne, is to ensure children understand privileges are connected to responsibility. In his book, he suggests linking pocket money with work around the house, which isn’t too different from real life since “society doesn’t pay those who don’t work”.

At the same time, Dr Arne says it is important “parents decide what is fair and reasonable for a young boy but young men must be involved in the decision-making process. When done properly this empowers them because they are not being controlled, they are being given choices and they are free to make their own decisions within a framework they have helped to build.”

Dr Karen also suggests linking privileges such as the use of their smart devices or attending or participating in extracurricular activities, with them learning life skills such as doing the laundry or vacuuming the floor. “We are not giving them jobs, we are giving them a learning skill in order for them to be ready to step out as an independent adult.”

Starting early

When it comes to raising teens, the take-home message from both experts is to start early. As Dr Arne points out, “You can’t start raising a teenager once he actually becomes a teenager.” Children, Dr Arne says, are always watching us and “will copy what we do now and later in life. How we parent them at a younger age will make a huge difference in our ability to stay connected to them once they become teenagers.”

For all the bad press teenagers constantly receive, it is important to remember they are the world’s future leaders, inventors and researchers. “Everything about them is wonderful,” Dr Karen says. “They are developing right in their teenage years to become independent future leaders and parents of our country and that is something we need to embrace about our kids.”

For parents of any-aged children, the best they can do now—and always—is to be loving and supportive, give them your time and keep the line of communication open.          


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