Why won't my teenager talk to me?

This is the question which John Coleman OBE, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford asks in his new book.  But first, by way of introduction, he described the work of John McAteer, research fellow with the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy on the Adolescent and Young Adult Working Group.

Interventions involving parents to influence adult health, a review of reviews (McAteer et al 2013) attempted to identify some of the characteristics of effective interventions (or otherwise) with parents.  The characteristics of an effective intervention are:

  • The practitioner has been trained
  • It lasts for a month or longer
  • It has a theoretical basis

Interventions located in schools are less effective than those located in the community or in the home.

This last raises a dilemma: if practitioners want to reach parents, then schools are a good way to do this.  But young people in secondary school do not necessarily want parents coming to the school, and there is ambivalence about school responsibilities.  So, while schools have an important role to play, there is a question about how to engage schools in providing support for parents.

In describing his own work, and his new book, based on his experience of running workshops for parents of teenagers and what is now known about the physiological development of the brain in the teenage years, John focused on the importance of 'talking' or 'communication' at the heart of teenager/parent relationships. While teenagers do want to talk to their parents and carers, he said that parents are often trying to 'achieve an outcome'. This does not work because they tend to talk to teenagers as they would to young children and try to tell them what to do.

In response to parents asking how they could be a good parent of their teenager, and on the basis of the evidence, he developed a framework (STAGE).  This framework aims to help parents understand that the teenage years are a 'stage' which ends; that the difficulties are not 'personal'; and that the following five elements are vital to good communication and satisfying relationships between parents and teenagers:

  • Significance: parents matter to teenagers
  • Two-way communication involves listening to young people and hearing what they say
  • Authority: is fundamental but parents have to learn to share power with their children
  • Generation gap: parents make judgements based on their own experiences but they have to understand what life is like for their teenager now
  • Emotion: the teenage brain is developing but parents often feel frustrated, angry sad, guilt, loss and envy

Some important issues relevant to parenting teenagers are:

  • The teenage brain develops more rapidly in the teenage years than at any other time
  • This development affects teenage behaviour
  • Their sleep patterns are affected by melanin levels which rise more slowly than those of younger children and adults. This is why they are not tired until later at night, and why they do not want to get up in the morning
  • New technology is having a powerful impact on teenagers and information for parents is only a very small part of what parents need
  • Cuts in mental health services for young people are a huge concern

John concluded by saying that it is important to get this information to parents through public information, schools and the media because parents need support - parents of teenagers matter.

Download John Coleman's presentation here

Coleman, John 2014. Why won't my teenager talk to me? Routledge

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