TAMING your tiger teenagers
Parents need to communicate about sensitive issues and not avoid the hot topics, writes Mercedes Maguire
W hen it comes to having some of the most important conversations of their lives, many teenagers can only manage a grunt. So what’s a frustrated parent to do? Experts claim you need to be friendly but firm to get the attention of your teen, particularly if you have a big issue to deal with. Whether you need to broach the awkward subjects of sex or periods with your adolescent, or you want to talk about positive body image or choosing the right friends, having an open and trusting relationship is an important foundation.
It may seem easier said than done, but Australian parenting author and former Family Court counsellor Michael Hawton, says getting the balance right will pay off. Research shows kids have better social outcomes when they have parents who can have fun with them but also know when they need to be firm.
“The two biggest issues parents have when communicating and relating to teenagers is deciding when they need to be firm and then deciding what to do about it,” says the author of Engaging Adolescents: Parenting Tough Issues With Teenagers.
“It’s a simple case of choose your battles. You don’t want to be going head to head over every small issue like the state of their bedroom or style of clothing. But being firm over issues where they are being badly behaved or aggressive is important.”
Hawton outlines a simple approach on how to have a difficult or awkward conversation with your teenager, using the anagram PASTA.
P: prepare — know what you want to discuss beforehand.
A: appointment — set aside some time to have the talk. S: say — use supportive language. T: tame the tiger — manage their emotions before they get out of control.
A: agreement — try to reach some kind of resolution.
Michelle Mitchell, who started Youth Excel to help kids make positive life choices during difficult times, says parents need to decide whether they want to educate or discipline before going into a difficult conversation.
“There’s no easy way for a parent to have an awkward conversation with their teen,” says Mitchell, the author of the soon-to-bereleased Parenting Teens In The Age Of A New Normal. “If your aim is to educate them about choosing the right friends or sex or their periods or drugs, for example,e, then don’t mix in discipline — you can’t doo both at the same time. And parents need to remember it’s really OK for them to have ave an opinion. This is especially true when hen you are talking to teens about the sensitive nsitive subject of their friends.
“Teenage friends are a big challenge ge to your authority as parents,” she says. “All of a sudden your child is looking to their ir friends for the approval they used to seek from you.
“You may want to say something like ‘I’m not keen on this person because of this, I know you won’t share this opinion,nion, but it’s what I see.’ Be friendly in yourr approach but unapologetic, that way even if they disagree, they can clearly see your point.”
While the friends conversation could get heated, there are some that may have you squirming. Talking about sex and menstruation have to rate up there with the most awkward parent-child conversations. But health nurse and sex educator Vanessa Hamilton says that’s no reason to avoid the conversation. “Pornography is currently the main sex educator for kids,” says Hamilton of talkingthetalksexed.com.au. “As a parent, you want to be the first person who explains sex to your child and it needs to be presented in an accurate and positive light, as a wonderful thing that adults share.
“When you talk to your child about sex, get rid of the sex word for starters and instead talk to them about intimacy and relationships. The majority of what is thought of as sex, is actually outercourse, not intercourse; things like cuddling, holding hands, relating to each other.” H amilton says kids who get accurate and adequate sex education early on are less likely to experience teen pregnancy, get sexually transmitted diseases and will be older when they have sex for the first time compared to those who don’t get the right education. In Sweden, where sex education has been compulsory in schools since 1956, they have an eight in 1000 rate of teenage pregnancy. In Australia 16 in 1000 teenage girls will fall pregnant and in the USA, 31 in 1000. Hamilton says parents need to be positive when they talk to daughters about menstruation to dispel the myth it’s a dirty, disgusting act that should be kept hidden. “You want a young girl to understand her body, why they get periods and how to manage it,” Hamilton says. “And most importantly, you need to tell her she has someone to come and talk to about it.” With one in three marriages ending in divorce in Australia, the need to talk to your teenager about the family splitting is unfortunately common. But Hawton, who worked as a Family Court counsellor for almost a decade, says not all parents manage this chat in the best way.
You need to tell them they can talk
Children can pick up messages from a very young age
“There is no good way to handle telling your child about a divorce. The best you can do is shield them from information they don’t need to know,” he says.
“The outcome you should aim for is to reassure them that you are still their parent and you will both continue to be in their life and offer them security.
“What you don’t want to do is give them the details of what led to the divorce, they don’t need to know it and they don’t want to know it. And don’t put them in a position where they have to choose one parent over the other. Kids have a right to love both their parents.”
There are few topics that frighten the parents of a teenager as much as drugs, which the Australian Drug Foundation refers to as “the other talk.”
Foundation chief executive John Rogerson says the fact drugs are still a taboo topic in many homes hampers open conversations.
In their campaign The Other Talk: Lets Talk About Alcohol and Drugs, the ADF suggest using things like the television or radio to open and guide your conversation. A positive conversation would be one where you first ask your child what their views are around drugs and alcohol. Then you explain your views, your family values and your expectations.
If drugs and alcohol are top of a parent’s mind, research shows body image is near the top of your child’s. It was identified as one of the top three areas of concern for young people in 2016, according to a Mission Australia National Youth Survey.
CEO of the Butterfly Foundation for eating disorders Christine Morgan (pictured left) says positive talk surrounding body image should start long before any formal conversation takes place.
“Children are extremely observant and pick up on messages from a very young age, and often internalise these,” Morgan says.
“This makes conversations and language within the home very important. Rather than focusing on appearance, parents should try acknowledging their sons and daughters for their actions or behaviours.”
Morgan suggests parents ask their teen to write a letter to someone they admire about the things they like most about them, but it must not include anything about the way they look.
Reading the letter together can form the basis of a casual conversation and help to highlight that someone’s worth is not measured by their appearance.