Getting inside your teen's head

Teenage boys have been getting some bad press lately, and rightly so – some of their attitudes towards girls are disturbing. No doubt many parents of teens are horribly shocked by what their kids are saying online – both the parents of the boys involved and the parents of girls who are their targets. It’s not pretty. No one wants to be the parents of “those boys”.

Thankfully, many schools are taking a proactive approach to confronting issues around respect, consent, and “rape culture” via their sexuality education curriculums. All power to them.

The big question now is what can we, as parents, do? What role do we have in shaping, reinforcing, and challenging our teens around their thinking on sexuality, pornography, morality, and human rights? A lot, we think.

We figure our greatest tool as parents is communication. We need to get inside our teens’ heads – in whatever way we can – to find out roughly what is going on in their inner lives: What are they watching online? What music are they listening to? Who are their friends? What drugs (including alcohol) are they experimenting with? Where are they at sexually? What pornography are they watching? How do they feel about their bodies?

We can’t shy away from these hard discussions, because teens are riding the most turbulent wave of their lives, and the decisions they make are not rational – their brains won’t fully develop until their mid-20s (later for boys, at around age 28), and hormones will see them say stuff and make decisions that beggar belief. They need our rational brains alongside them now more than at any other time in their lives.

Because teens are not adults with fewer miles on them. “They are only about 80% of the way there, and cause-and-effect are simply not hard-wired yet,” says American neurologist and neuroscientist Dr Frances Jensen. (Weirdly, teens can describe risks as well as adults can, but they are much more likely to take them!)

The upside of these years is that teens are ultra-fast learning machines who love info and data, and they are equally receptive to good and bad stimuli. Use that to your advantage, parents!

Some suggestions for staying connected with your teens:

  • Have technology-free family meals at home or wherever your teen loves to eat. Keep talking even if they only manage a grunt in reply.
  • Get to know your teen’s friends. They will be by far their biggest influence right now.
  • Get involved in whatever your teen is interested in – without controlling or taking over.
  • Talk to your teens about the hormone changes they are going through – give them the facts.
  • Monitor their online access – particularly around pornography. Check out Vodafone’s Digi-Parenting and NetSafe for ways to keep your teen safe.
  • Try to be alongside your teen, rather than blocking from the front or pushing from behind.
  • Put good young adult fiction books under their noses.

Don’t shame them – particularly boys. They’ll just go underground with whatever activity they are involved in. Keep bringing it into the light and talk, talk, talk.

By Ruth Kerr and Richard Aston,  parents to four adult children in a blended family. Ruth and Richard co-authored Our Boys – Raising strong, happy sons from boyhood to manhood based on their 15 years’ experience working at Big Buddy – a social agency that matches well-screened male mentors with fatherless boys.

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