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Child psychology experts share their ultimate tips for parenting teens

As many parents know, being cooped up with teens in lockdown has made the tough job of parenting even tougher.

And with the summer vacation underway and many of the more traditional activities called off, the next few months may feel daunting for anyone trying to care for a teenager. 

Now, two parenting and child psychology experts – child-behavior guru Tanith Carey and psychologist Dr. Carl Pickhardt – are revealing exactly how to deal with some of the most common issues and scenarios that come up while parenting teenagers, from what to do when you find pornography on your child’s browser, to dealing with sullen and uncooperative kids. 

Together, Tanith and Dr. Pickhardt have penned a new book entitled What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology, which examines 100 different milestone moments that many parents face – including some that are all the more likely amid the COVID-19 crisis.    

Here, they explain six of the most common issues that parents of teenagers are going up against today, while revealing the best way to deal with them.   

Helping hand: Two child psychologists have revealed how parents of teens can deal with the most common issues that they will face – from underage drinking to online porn (stock image)

When you check your liquor cupboard, you notice the level on some of the bottles has gone down

You teen says: ‘I don’t know where the vodka’s gone!’

What your teen’s thinking: ‘I don’t like the taste of alcohol much. But I stole some anyway to impress my friends and because it makes me feel more confident around them. My parents drink so I really didn’t think they’d notice. But now they have, I’ll keep denying it so they won’t be sure whether to punish me or not.’

What you may be thinking: ‘How could my kid do something stupid and let me down like this? Are they out of control and I don’t even know it? But what do I say because I drank when I was their age and now drink regularly myself?’

While some teens are able to get fake IDs over the internet, at this age it’s much more common for teens to take it from home in the hope that adults don’t notice.

But it may not be the shock of finding out your teen is drinking alcohol that will bother you the most.

Instead you are likely to be more upset that your child has tried to deceive you.

To keep this situation in perspective – and respond calmly – remember that almost all adolescents tell lies, usually to stay under the radar of grown-ups, and to gain a sense of independence as they separate from you.

We also tend to believe our children are more truthful than they really are. Research shows that parents work out when they’re being lied to only half the time.

If you believe your teen has been siphoning off drink, choose a moment when you know you can address it calmly and ask them directly.

Preface it by saying you won’t punish your child for telling the truth and that teenage alcohol use is an important issue to talk about.

Guide: Child-behavior guru Tanith Carey and psychologist Dr. Carl Pickhardt have penned a new book entitled What's My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology, which examines 100 different milestone moments that many parents face

Guide: Child-behavior guru Tanith Carey and psychologist Dr. Carl Pickhardt have penned a new book entitled What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology, which examines 100 different milestone moments that many parents face

Rather than interrogate, try to connect. Harsh discipline is more likely to drive any drinking even more underground.

Even if they deny it, accept that you will probably never manage to stop your teen drinking entirely. So it’s even more important that you talk about it.

A range of studies have found that the effects of drinking on adolescents may be more wide-ranging than previously thought, with possible effects on a young person’s memory, concentration and learning ability.

So stress that while you understand the allure of alcohol for them, make it clear the longer they leave drinking alcohol – and the more sensible they are – the safer they will be.

They are likely to be skeptical. So suggest they check out the research for themselves.

Research has also found parents are less likely to spell out the dangers of alcohol over smoking and drugs, probably because they feel hypocritical because they drink themselves.

Explain that, while it can be fun to drink in moderation when you’re an adult, and when your body and brain is fully developed, there are still downsides like hangovers, sickness and silly behavior. Make it clear you drink sensibly because you are mindful of the long-term health risks on your body too.

Keep talking because research has found that meaningful conversations about booze can help young people develop a more sensible attitude in the long-term.

Now that your teen is spending more time on her phone, they are upset after clicking onto a link finding it showed violent pornography

Your teen says: ‘I saw this picture’

What your teen’s thinking: ‘I didn’t expect anything like this and now I can’t get it out of my head. I hope telling my parents will help it make sense to me.’

What you might be thinking: ‘I am so glad they’ve told me but now they have seen it, it can’t be unseen. How can I explain this to her?’

Teens are spending more time on their phones in lockdown than ever. When it comes to young people being exposed to inappropriate material online, it’s a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.

They may also come across disturbing images of violence against animals.

Firstly, thank them for telling you, because this has enabled you to be there to help try and make sense of it.

While you might worry that talking about what your teen has seen will keep the image alive in their minds, it’s far better for them process what they saw with the benefit of your adult perspective than try and deal with it alone

Next put it in perspective.

If they’ve seen porn bear in mind that, according to research, 53 per cent of boys and 39 per cent of girls think porn portrays sex realistically.

So make it clear that, just as action movies aren’t about real life, porn isn’t about real relationships and portrays lots of acts that aren’t common.

If your teen says the images keep popping back into their head, help her replace them with more positive ones that inspire emotions that are just as powerful, like pictures of cute animals or family memories.

If they have seen something violent your teen will often feel powerless and unable to help.

Help them feel back in control.

If it’s animal abuse, help them collect as many details as they can about the account, so they report it to animal welfare organizations or local law enforcement agencies.

If it’s gore or extreme pornography, find the contact address for the Web site, and identify the Web site’s Internet Service Provider to send the message that they do not have to accept cruelty or violence as a fact of life.

When you ask your adolescent to stop playing a video game for dinner, they don’t come to the table

Your teen says: ‘One more game’

What your teen’s thinking: ‘I can’t see my friends as much but I can stay connected with them by playing video games with them online. Plus I can feel in control in this virtual world in a way I don’t in the real one. Plus there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.’

What you may be thinking: ‘My teen’s turning into zombies! Can’t he do something more constructive with his time?’

While gaming looks anti-social to you, your teen believes it’s a proper hobby he can play with to keep up with his buddies.

Video games also give teens a sense of belonging and win them social status when they do well.

In this moment, he feels he can’t quit because he’d probably be letting his team-mates down. So instead of yelling, in the moment, agree that your teen can finish at the end of the game. Give him a 15 minute warning next time.

Recognize too that it’s hard for anyone to move on instantly after being so absorbed and adolescents may need a few minutes to transition from the online back to the real world.

To wean teens off everyday overuse, communication is the key. At a time you are not rowing about it, ask to chat to your teen.

Adolescents are naturally centered, so it may not have occurred to hin what effect his gaming is having on the rest of the family or how you may be feeling rejected by it.

Spell out to your child you miss him. Ask too how gaming makes him feel physically. Does he ever get aches and pains, secretly regret missing out on other activities or recognize he’s putting off important tasks, like showering, to stay glued to his consoles?

While you teen may reply no at first, the idea is to get your child thinking so he develops the internal motivation to agree to some limits, like no video games until schoolwork is done, in the afternoon – and never after dinner.

Rather than just being against video games, suggest other activities you can do together so your teen remembers how it can be enjoyable to spend family time with you, rather than just on his console.

After an argument you follow your teen in their room, but they yell at you to go away

Your teen says: ‘Get out of my room!’

What your teen’s thinking: ‘Ultimately I know my parents have power over me while I live in their home but my room is my space. I am not going to win this argument, so kicking them out of here, feels like the best way to end it and save face.’

What you may be thinking: ‘Hey, this is MY home and I am in charge here. How dare my child speak to me like that?’

During lock-down, your teen will feel increasingly frustrated that adults have control over their lives

In their minds, their room is a private space where he can take time out.

If you’ve had an argument, your teen’s brain will be a state of fight-or-flight.

Although you may feel disrespected, for now, let them cool down and do as they ask without shouting back.

Resist the temptation to call your teen ‘difficult’ or leave your teen to their own devices.

At times like this, it’s essential they are not spending hours alone on their phones as they need adults to help them process unsettling news events and fear around coronavirus

Once you’re both calm, let them know you are ready to repair the rift by sending a conciliatory text, inviting them to do something together, like taking a walk.

Research shows parents and teens who try to work out their differences, even if they clash a lot, have stronger long-term relationships.

Communication: Tanith and Dr. Pickhardt help parents to understand what their child might be thinking, and explain the best ways to speak to them

Communication: Tanith and Dr. Pickhardt help parents to understand what their child might be thinking, and explain the best ways to speak to them 

Even though the country is in lockdown your teen says they are going out to meet up with a group of friends

Your teen says: ‘I’m going anyway.’

What your teen may be thinking: ‘I don’t know anyone who’s got COVID-19 and I’m tired of these rules. Plus I don’t want to miss out.’

What you may be thinking: ‘I can’t believe my teen is not willing to listen to either me or the government and would risk their own safety and ours. How have I raised such a selfish kid?’

In the past, it’s likely your teen has done a lot of things they shouldn’t have, but hasn’t told you because it’s easier to lie.

However, now that so many of us are supposed to be at home, it’s easier for you to spot your child breaking rules, so your child is having to defy you more.

While deep down your teen doesn’t want to disobey the rules, the pull of meeting their buddies, the fear of missing out and the normal process of teens wanting to separate from their parents, means they will try and use bravado to pretend they don’t care what you think.

Your teen may also seem not to care about the lock-down. This is because all adolescents create ‘a personal fable’ which tells them they are special and aren’t at risk from threats which are a danger to others.

Rather than call them selfish, which makes your teen feel permanently branded and more likely to live up to that label, ask your teen to talk about how they made their choice. Tell them you understand their need to see friends so they feel heard.

Ask why they think self-isolation is so important and look at the science together.

When they realize it’s also to protect people they love, they are more likely to make responsible decisions.

Try enlisting some help too. Studies show that teens are more likely to take advice on risky behavior from someone closer to their age, such as an older sibling or cousin.

Help them deal with FOMO and peer pressure by giving him a simple script with what to say to buddies about how they can’t come because they don’t want to endanger other family members. Deep-down, their other friends will understand because they don’t want to do that either.

In a row over helping out with the chores, the rest of the evening, you teen screams they can’t bear to be around you anymore.

Your teen says: ‘I can’t bear to spend another minute with you’

What your teen’s thinking: ‘I’m trapped here. How long is this going to go on for?’

What you may be thinking: ‘I’m doing all I can to keep my child fed and safe in a difficult situation. Instead of seeing how hard this is, why is my teen still being rude and ungrateful?’

When you’re trying your best to keep you teen safe and well, this can be a hurtful thing to hear.

But see their comments in perspective by remembering that teens feel more emotional extremes because they are still building connections to areas of the brain which govern emotional regulation.

They are trying to show you they are at the extreme end of their annoyance – and want to find somewhere to off load it.

Your teen also knows that if they said something this mean to one of their friends, they wouldn’t have many pals.

But your child feels secure expressing their anger with you because they know you’ll always be there for them.

To give your adolescent a chance to revert to using their logical, higher brain, stay calm, using strategies like counting down from 20 or taking deep slow breaths.

Remind yourself that your teen is reacting against the boundaries around them, not you. Tell your child; ‘I can see you’re frustrated, and that’s understandable, but this feels like an attack on me, so let’s talk later.’

Often teens need a change of scenery, even if it’s just a different activity in a different part of the house.

Follow up later when things have calmed and invite your teen to do something that you haven’t done for a while so you can tap back into the good times you’ve had together, whether it’s shooting hoops or doing some baking – and repair your relationship.

At a neutral time, when you both have some perspective, talk about how it felt to hear them say this and that while you understand they were angry, throwing insults never helps communication. Remember to give praise the next time they deal with their strong feelings in a more measured way.

What’s My Teenager Thinking: Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents ($16.99) by Tanith Carey and Dr Carl Pickhardt is out now

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