September 15, 2021
By Dr Kathy Weston
So last week, my teeny weeny, baby boy turned 15, sending deep shockwaves through my maternal self. People warn you that children grow up quickly, but they really, really do. I suddenly panicked, thinking that he might only be living with me for a few more years and then doubly panicked, wondering if we would actually be “leaving home ready” in that time frame.
Every time our children step up in age, we need to evolve in tandem. They may become more argumentative around the table, demand a bit more freedom or insist on a review of bedtimes, but we have to learn to take all of these developmentally normal pushbacks in our stride and even welcome them. It isn’t uncommon, in early teen years, for parents to worry that their child hasn’t been adventurous enough; had their first kiss or had any experience with alcohol.
My observation on the latter point is reflected in data from the Alcohol Education Trust, which highlights the fact that it is parents rather than peers who direct children to their first drink, under the illusion that safe facilitation will buffer later excessive consumption. It doesn’t work like that, I am afraid. Research shows that if teens drink regularly before the age of 15, they are 7 times more likely to be involved in a car crash because of drinking, 11 times more likely to suffer unintentional injuries after drinking and their GCSE predictions fall by an average of 20 points (that’s the difference between a 9 and a 5).
Rather than stick that beer or a vape in their hand at 14 or 15, we should put our energies into helping them to navigate choices in the face of peer pressure, showing them how to be a great ‘upstander’, rather than bystander, when a friend is pressurised and considering how they might use their capital for the greater good.
Parenting a teen isn’t just about dreading the worst or nudging them towards stuff we think they are going to do regardless. It is arguably the most exciting and creative time of their lives, when their brains are open to possibility, change, influence and agency. When parenting younger children, we made great efforts to get them to listen and do as they were told, praising them when they did. During the teen years, we should be on a mission to empower them to make good choices and have confidence in their own ability to do so. We want them to leave our homes having a reasonable amount of confidence in their own abilities to make a pretty good decision and knowing that we trust their judgment.
There is no doubt about it. The pressures on young people to look good, behave well, do well, have loads of mates, earn their own money and be digitally savvy are great! However, we can do our part by helping them feel loved for who they are, rooted in a strong sense of family identity and teach them to be critical consumers of all they see, read and hear.
When you read something shocking or interesting in the news whilst sitting in the hairdressers, or on the train, bring it home and share it with your teens. Do they have anything to say about the topic? Can they provide evidence for any argument that they put forward? Reveal your thinking about different issues; describe your rationale and reasons for the perspectives that you hold. Sometimes, exhibit a valuable dose of humility by modelling how it’s possible (sometimes desirable) to shift position midway through as we become more informed.
Here is an article to kickstart a meaty family chat. On first reading, I felt enraged and wondered why a law banning teens from using Botox hadn’t been passed years ago! Then, I started to feel angered about the toxic cult of perfectionism, which drives mere children to want to alter their physical appearance with aesthetic procedures, and at those social media influencers who make it all seem so simple. After a while, I calmed down, looked in the mirror and felt slightly more empathetically about why anyone would want to inject their face with a filler.
Cue the chat with the kids around the dinner table. What is Botox mummy? Ugh, I hate needles! Why would you want to change your appearance? What if your friends think you are ugly though? A lively chat ensued about the fact that you can (apparently) buy implants that give you a sought-after six pack, and how terribly exciting that is. As you can tell, navigating these discussions is messy, and it should be. Our particular chat concluded with me gently reminding my newly-turned twelve year old why he doesn’t yet have access to social media. I told him that sometimes what we look at online can make us feel worse about our own bodies and our own lives, and that is precisely why the suggested minimum age is 13. I was overjoyed to hear this interview on Radio 4 this morning. Not only did Professor Haidt agree with me, he suggested 16 was the ‘about right’ for kids to be on social media. My youngest was most impressed with how reasonable I was in comparison!
Great family discussions generate confusion, expose hypocrisy and bring uncertainty, but hopefully also provoke reflection, flexibility and empathy. I tried to inject this particular chat with some female perspectives. I can’t say how successful my interjections were about the particular pressure that the fashion and beauty industries place on girls and women… but maybe, just maybe, some intellectual seeds were planted and critical thinking ignited.
I am a big fan of setting goals at the start of the academic year. One of my parenting goals is to try hard to fill any deficit that lockdown may have meant we incurred as a family. Socialising went largely out the window for the guts of a year and it’s with some nervous anticipation that we return, in part, to it.
In 2021, social conversations all seem to start with an update on one’s vaccination status. So let’s try to do a little bit more of what we love and enjoy from now on. I am on a mission to gently infuse family life with a little bit more fun, a little bit more regularly for the rest of the year.
Normally, a barbeque in September (just as we all return to work) would be unthinkable. This weekend, I have the food on order, a bubble machine bought, a playlist at the ready and plenty of giant marshmallows ready for roasting. I have invited people whose company I truly enjoy and their kids, and look forward to being able to sit back, relax and watch my children laugh, play and interact with others.
Doing more of what we enjoy is a true act of self-care and an investment in our children’s mental health and happiness. In fact, doing what we love is so important that it is a key component in ‘brief behaviour activation therapy’, a new treatment for depression in young people, which we learned about from February’s Researcher of the Month, Simon Brett. Helping children to identify their values and engage with the things that they enjoy can help to foster a sense of achievement, agency, confidence and motivation, which can help to reduce depressive symptoms. Modelling joy and encouraging our children to think about who or what makes them happy, matters. In a complex world, a focus on simple fun might just be what we all need.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
We are thrilled to announce Tooled Up’s first ever Mental Health Education Week.
Starting on 15th November, we will be hosting a full week of evening, online talks with leading experts on all aspects of mental health and wellbeing, exclusively for our Tooled Up schools. I’ll be talking about anger management strategies with Dr Anna Colton, OCD and anxiety with psychiatrist, Dr Anna Conway Morris and self-harm with national expert, Professor Ellen Townsend. We’ll also be holding a sleep clinic with Joanna Kippax of Wye Sleep and chatting to the clinical psychologist, Dr Tamsyn Noble about why and how parents should seek clinical support for their child.
These talks are only open to registered parents in subscriber schools. Keep your eyes peeled on school newsletters for further information.