The big secret to making sense of your teens in an era of change

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Given that every adult is a former teen, you might think it would be a simple, matter for parents to understand and communicate with their adolescent offspring. But life is a little more complicated than that, as our BrightRock Iris session discovers. So what’s the big secret to making sense of your teenagers in an age of change?

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“Mom,” said Klara Göttert, a bright and lively 14-year-old with a penchant for parkour, the art of running, clambering, and jumping over urban obstacles, “when will I be old enough to have a boyfriend?”

Her mother, Liesl, raised her eyebrows in mock horror, and leaned across to tickle Klara on the couch.

“When you’re 35,” she said. And then, as Klara laughed, she raised the bar even higher: “No,” she said, “when you’re 40. Because you know you don’t have brains until you’re 40.”

It was an everyday conversation between a parent and her teen, light-hearted but woven with an undercurrent of the challenges of growing up.

Looking back, Liesl wonders why she didn’t pick up on the cue, the thread of something “big and complex” hidden in her daughter’s heart. She still doesn’t know why, just a week later, in August last year, Klara took her own life.

Was it because of unhappiness at home? Trouble at school? A fight with a friend? A crush on a boy?

“It hit me so hard,” says Liesl, a corporate communications strategist who has started a support and awareness foundation in her daughter’s name.

“We had been through teenage attitudes and fights, the normal ups and downs, like any family. I keep asking why, and where did I go wrong.”

The truth is, there is no easy way to understand what goes on in the mind of a teenager. This we know for sure, because we’ve all been teenagers.

But in a world where the familiar pressures of adolescence are only intensified by the dark side of the technological revolution – cyberbullying, social media shaming, Instagram and its ideals of perfect beauty – how can parents get to know their children better, and help them through these years of turbulent change?

This was the hot-button topic on the agenda for a recent BrightRock Iris Session, hosted by broadcaster David O’Sullivan, himself the father of two young boys.

Aside from Liesl, his guests for the session included educational psychologist Tshepiso Matentjie, and journalist and author Mandy Collins, who writes with wit, warmth, and insight about the joys and challenges of raising her two teenage daughters.

Mandy confesses that it’s impossible for a parent to say they know for sure where their children are and what they may be doing. But it is possible to lay down clear and consistent boundaries, and build a relationship based on trust and understanding.

For instance, on the boyfriend issue: yes, if you must, let your teenage daughter bring him home. “If I don’t allow it,” says Mandy, “she’s going to do it behind my back. I’d much rather have a gangly, revolting, acne-spotted teenager in my lounge, than wonder what she’s out doing with him. At least you can have a measure of control.”

At some point, you have to trust your own parenting, says Mandy, and hope that you’ve been enough of a model for your children.  “Because children learn far more from what you do, than from what you say.”

Tshepiso, who has served as resident psychologist on TV talk shows, and as consultant psychologist at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, says a mother is often the best judge of a looming emotional problem her child may quietly be confronting.

It’s not called gut-feel for nothing. “You carry this child in your belly for nine months for a reason,” she says. “Your body will tell you, your instincts will tell you.”

But it’s one thing to be able to act on your instincts; it’s another to be able to get through to a teenager. Any parent of a member of the species will know that there are two default teenage responses to a good parental talking-to.

The back-chat, followed by the door-slam, and the simmering sulk, followed by the door-slam.

“I would rather have a child who chats back,” says Tshepiso. “With the quiet ones, you might miss something. You need to look at changes in behaviour, loss of appetite, the signs of something going on. For a parent, it’s so hard to figure out the moment of crisis. Even adults struggle with the stress and pain.”

For Liesl, who hopes the Klara Göttert Foundation will play a role in bridging the communication gap, the signs were there, but they weren’t always easy to read. Klara would tell her mom how she wished she could run away from home, “but I used to tell my parents that too.”

“Parents drive their children nuts, children drive their parents nuts,” says Liesl. “You just don’t know what the breaking-point is. We sometimes underestimate the fact that young people’s emotional capacity only develops much later. Their emotions are on steroids. They get super-happy, and they get super-sad.”

One of the biggest mistakes parents make, believes Mandy, is that they keep their own emotions from their children.

“We all have days when we could quite cheerfully stab someone with a pen,” she says. “If we don’t let our children see that we have a range of emotions, then when they’re suddenly hit with those emotions, how do they know what to do with them?”

But there is a simple secret to parenting, and it lies at the heart of all communication. Learn to listen, says Mandy. “We often don’t listen well or deeply enough. Instead, we lecture. Listen to what they’re saying, not to what you think they’re saying.”

As Tshepiso adds, children can be excellent manipulators, and any conversation you have with them may need to be on their terms. For all the guidance and advice you give, you may get very little in return.

But learn to listen, and listen to learn, and with enough time and enough love, you may come close to cracking the code that has baffled parents for generations. What do teenagers really think?

  • For more advice and insight on parenting and teenagers, watch the full BrightRock iris Session below:
  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.
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