Withdrawn Teenagers and Preoccupied Parents

I had a session with a sixteen year old boy today. He was a pretty typical teenager. He was slumped in the chair and yawning on a Monday morning. He’d had little sleep on Saturday due to a party and sleep over at a mate’s place and copious time spent online taking up most of Sunday afternoon and evening.

 His main focus during the beginning of the session was his need for more freedom and his mother’s need for knowing where he is and what he is doing all the times. He said about his Mum, “sorry, but she’s a control freak and she doesn’t trust me”. This was in contrast to the referral I had received via a worry filled email from his mother listing her concerns about her son, whom she described as cranky, withdrawn, disinterested and underachieving.

These to me are signs of a classic mother/son struggle, which tends to evolve during the mid-teen years. Rightly so, parents want their sons and daughters to achieve to their full potential at school so they have a rewarding future ahead of them. To this end a caring parent can become preoccupied with keeping their son/daughter on the straight and narrow. They can be preoccupied with assignment deadlines, test revision, subject grades and teachers’ comments. Added to this, Mums and Dads can feel the need to monitor their teenager’s friends who may be bad influences, parties that may be unsupervised and exposure to online games and social media. All this is to be admired. Wanting to know about these things and wanting to support your child to make good decisions concerning their school and social life is to be commended. But it is so important to do these things by subtle and shrewd means rather than in overt and potentially embarrassing ways. If too obvious, parents can become “control freaks” or “annoying nags” that young people all too often withdraw from and react in opposition to.

Teenagers are finding their feet as independent people. They are trying to discover who am I in my own skin? What am I to others? How can I be me and still honour my parents as well as my close friends? This is a very difficult juggling act. Added to these identity forming issues, some young people are facing the facts about life after school. They are suddenly grasping the reality of the need to work hard to get what they want. They no longer can leave things to the last minute and get good grades. It becomes all too obvious that, to do their personal best, they will have to put in the hard yards. For some this is such a stress inducing prospect they simply give up before they even begin to ‘pull their socks up’. Indeed, the young man I counselled this morning said to me, “I’m too young to be worried about the future. I just do what I need to do when a test is on tomorrow or when an assignment is due in two days.” Even whilst saying this I could see the doubt in his eyes. He was trying to convince himself that it was okay to live from day to day and not set achievement goals for himself or use a study time table … I think the best way to get young people into an academically motivated frame of mind is to help them explore possible career avenues. Once they get an idea of what type of work they desire, what level of achievement is required to get where they want to go, and what personal attributes employers are looking for, they do seem to take up a more determined and self-directed approach. 

© Dr Lee-Ann Prideaux 2013

Tips for Senior High School Parents

The final years of school for young people are obviously very important. These are the years that will put the icing on their education and bring an end to their formative years. This is the pointy end of their long journey through primary and high school. It is a time when, more than ever before, their academic learning and personal development will have direct career relevance. The reality is that the more effort they put in to these years, the more variety of post-secondary options will be open to them and consequently, a greater array of satisfying careers will ultimately be available to them.

Unfortunately, these senior years also coincide with the complex and confounding realities of probably the most difficult developmental stage of any human being … adolescence. For most young people this means the central focus of their world is peers, parties and pleasure. Lessons, learning and long term planning tend to be placed far down their list of priorities at this time. Parents, this is normal although regrettable given the importance of these school years and the timing of your son’s or daughter’s burgeoning (and developmentally appropriate) need for fun and freedom.

Fortunately, there are many subtle ways in which parents can bring some balance to this situation. I emphasize ‘subtle’ though because adolescents are innately opposed to parents using rigid authoritarian methods of behaviour management. They are no longer a child and they are very much aware of this fact, both physically, emotionally and intellectually. They are engaged in a gradual process of self-discovery. Parents become real human beings that they take a long hard look at. You are not the unquestioned big person in their world any more. Adolescents naturally sway toward the opinions of others and experiment with the world outside the confines of family during these years. Again, this is normal if a little disturbing to parents who say, what happened to my little girl/boy? Even though it seems your child has changed almost overnight, it is important that you respond to these changes with understanding and patience. You will need to really hold onto your temper at times and not allow your anxiousness to overflow at others. During these years you will need your best adult self to cope with the various predicaments your adolescent will generate for you. You will require great tact, forbearance and sensitivity.

So what can you do in order to close the gap between your desire for a diligent, hard-working senior student and your child’s desire to avoid any activity they deem boring or of little immediate relevance? I believe the answer is in career education. There is a very strong link between academic development and career development. The more you can gently coax an interest in exploring possible future careers and the various pathways to these careers, the more willing the young person is likely to put in the effort they need to get there. I list below a few suggestions for you to try in measured ways when you notice little windows of opportunity with your teenager.

1)     Stop asking about homework or assignment work or study – I put this first because it’s probably the hardest thing for you to do but it has the potential to reap the most benefits. The top advantage being that if you stop being the driving force behind whether school work is done or not your child will ultimately be forced to take responsibility for that themselves! Another big advantage is that you won’t be so stressed and your relationship with your child will improve. (I have suggested this as an experiment for many parents to try in the past. They were directed to talk with their adolescent about food, hobbies, the weather, favourite music, current affairs … anything at all other than anything to do with school work for a whole month. In every case the parent has returned saying, firstly, “That was so hard!” And secondly, “I didn’t realize how much of my conversation with my son/daughter was taken up by my nagging about their school work!” And thirdly, “It worked! I can’t believe it! They are really pulling up their grades and keeping up with everything now without me getting stressed and constantly nagging and checking!”)

2)    Weave into conversations with your adolescent anecdotes about employability skills. For instance, poor service at a retail outlet due to a worker’s lack of good communication skills is a good opportunity to point out the great ‘people skills’ that you see in your teenager.

3)    Draw parallels between the talents/abilities that your son/daughter displays and various careers that this talent or aptitude would be well suited to. For example, if they are the person to whom friends turn to when they need to talk to someone, let your teenager know that this could be an indicator for their suitability for various careers in the helping professions.

4)    Foster an enjoyment in learning by showing how much you enjoy learning yourself. For instance, take a TAFE course in photography and show how this learning has improved your skills and enhanced your enthusiasm for that hobby.

5)    Conversely, if you don’t enjoy the latest course your boss has deemed necessary for you to engage in, point out the advantages of doing it despite your lack of passion for it. For example, it may have led to a pay rise or the satisfying completion of professional development points.

6)    Model careful decision-making processes. When you need to buy an expensive household item, for example a new washing machine, be explicit about your steps leading up to the purchase so your teenager learns how to make informed and well thought out decisions.

7)    Familiarize yourself with the best online career information sites and do some research on them pertaining to your own career interests (e.g., www.jobguide.deewr.gov.au or www.myfuture.edu.au). Once your child sees you exploring the world of work they will be more likely to take an interest in doing career interest quizzes and the like too. For a comprehensive list of useful career information sites, go to our ‘Useful Links‘ page.

8)    Encourage accurate information gathering about a variety of careers. For example, if your child is considering a few occupations, help them to find specific information about each to make accurate comparisons with regard to wages, conditions, required qualifications and so forth.

9)    Be open about your wages and how they are spent. Point out the wages offered to workers in a variety of jobs and compare the qualifications of different wage earners.

10) Attend career expos or university open days or go along to information sessions provided by private training organisations.

11)  Encourage family and friends to talk about their careers. This will expose your child to realistic discussions concerning the advantages and disadvantages of various types of work and will give them real world examples of how careers change and develop over the course of people’s lives.

© Lee-Ann Prideaux PhD