Teenagers Take Risks

One of the recurring nightmares for parents of teenagers is that their teenager will participate in a genuinely risky activity, will take one risk too many, and that things will go wrong. With activities such as binge drinking, drug experimentation, dangerous driving, illegal activities, risky sexual practices, and unrestricted online encounters all on the list of possible areas for risk-taking, the seriousness of the consequences for some teenagers can easily be imagined.

Compared to those in both younger and older age-groups, adolescents and young adults take more risks. A variety of explanations has been suggested as to why this might be, including teenage hormone levels, the stage of their brain development, the need to explore for personality development, an attempt to break away from parental control, and that it reflects a common response to peer pressure and the desire to be included. None of these have received acceptance as a universal explanation for teenage risk-taking, but they have all received recognition as partial explanations for this widely observed phenomenon. This suggests the reasons for teenage risk-taking may be some form of complex combination of the above, with varying levels of significance attributed to each contributing cause according to the individual teenager and the communities from which they come.

Most commentators agree that risk-taking is a part of what might be termed “normal teenage behaviour”, part of the natural process of growing up. So, despite the understandable desire of some parents to prevent all forms of risk-taking, to do so should be regarded as ill-advised. If the freedom to explore and to try new things is part of the natural growing-up process, as it seems to be, then to obstruct it would be counter-productive to the goal of preparing teenagers for adulthood. On the other hand, if it is possible to moderate the more serious instances of risk-taking, so as to reduce the extreme dangers while still allowing room for experimentation and growth, then that would seem to be the preferred approach. This is the approach I shall pursue through the remainder of this article. 

Advice for Parents

Manage the risk-taking environment for younger teenagers. Finding a “safe” environment within which younger teenagers can experience the thrill of risk-taking is one avenue of approach that parents can explore. Family days out, perhaps taking along a few friends, to managed adventure activities is one way of helping younger teenagers experience the thrill of adventure and risk-taking within an environment where the risk-taking is managed to ensure safety, as far as possible. Roller coasters at theme parks, rope courses through the trees, zip wires, rock climbing, hiking, river rafting… are a few examples of the types of activity that carry the possibility of thrill-seeking for families and friends within a managed environment. Parents should be aware, too, that adventure activities are not the answer for every teenager. Some will gain more by way of thrill from performing drama, music or dance in front of a large audience. Parents will need to choose the activities in consultation with their young teenagers, taking into account the level of adventure and type of risk-taking to which they are suited. By supporting and engaging in such activities, the bond between parents and their teenagers can be strengthened, and the hope is that the thrill experienced in such ways will lessen the likelihood that the teenagers will feel the need to go and seek their thrills in other, unsupervised, environments.

Get to know their friends. Parents should be aware that teenagers are more likely to take risks when with a group of their peers than at other times. Vulnerability to peer pressure seems to peak at around the age of fifteen, so once again, this is a crucial factor of which parents of younger teenagers need to be aware. Making your home available for your teenager’s friends to hang out gives a great opportunity for getting to know their friends. Seeing your own teenager interact with their peer group at close quarters can tell you all manner of things about them and about the nature of the group dynamics in operation within the peer group. Such insights can be invaluable in subsequent private conversations with your teenager. Contrary to popular myth, teenagers are interested in finding out what adults think, and once they trust you, they may well ask about all manner of things. Being in a position to advise your teenager and their friends and to influence them with regard to the type of risks they might consider taking or avoiding is both a privilege and a responsibility.

Engage in straight talk with your teenager about risk-taking, dangers and possible consequences. At times, teenagers choose to go against their parents’ best advice. Parents cannot always prevent this from happening, but they can ensure that any such decisions by their teenager are at least taken from the position of being informed about the risks, dangers and consequences of their choices and actions. Some parents find it difficult to talk with their teenagers about such matters as alcohol and drugs, or unprotected sexual activity, but a few minutes of discomfort whilst engaging in straight talk about such matters is far better than prolonged periods of regret for not having talked through such matters in the aftermath of poor choices having led to serious consequences. An ongoing dialogue throughout the teenage years is the best context for such conversations, within which your teenager knows they can raise whatever issues with you that they wish and that you will always do your best to talk the matter through and give your best advice, even when they don’t like what you are saying. As an article in the New York Times expressed it, “… adolescents who have open lines of communication with their folks and describe their parents as available and understanding are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior”.

Be prepared to support your teenager through the consequences of their choices about risk-taking. Sometimes your teenager will heed your advice; sometimes they will choose otherwise. Whatever their choices, whatever risks they take, and whatever the consequences if things go wrong, parents need to avoid absolving their teenagers of responsibility and to offer support as they work through the consequences of their choices. Teenagers will take risks, they will make mistakes, but the essential thing is that they are helped to learn from those mistakes as they continue their journey towards adulthood.

Teenage risk-taking can be a worrying subject for parents, so perspective is important. As a research study undertaken at the university of Pennsylvania into adolescent risk-taking concludes, “For the vast majority of adolescents … this period of development passes without substance dependence, sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy, homicide, depression, suicide, or death due to car crashes.”

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Promote safety. Schools and teachers carry a responsibility for the safety of their students during the time they are in school or engaged in school-related activities. The spirit in which that responsibility is carried out communicates a great deal to students about a school’s attitude towards them. Safety can descend to the level of a box-ticking exercise. Concern about student safety can become submerged in a mass of procedural minutiae, from which students and teachers long to break free. However, genuine concern for student safety, backed up by clear communication about why procedures are necessary and which include the responsibility of students to look out for each other, can help shape the value students place on their own safety and that of their peers. This can provide a valuable context and framework within which those same teenagers will operate when making their own decisions about the kind of risks they are prepared to countenance.

Promote activities that challenge teenagers. Many schools give students opportunities to participate in the Performing Arts, where they can experience the challenge and excitement of performance before an audience. Many schools also offer group activities around the themes of adventure and service, thereby providing in a controlled manner the kind of thrills teenagers often seek. Teachers who have seen the effects of teenagers being encouraged to perform publically, or being exposed to cultures other their own through participation in international development projects, or who have accompanied expeditions, will readily attest to their value as learning opportunities. Teenagers who have the opportunity to find challenge and thrill through extra-curricular activities and programmes facilitated by schools will often talk, even years later, of the enormous influence for good such opportunities provided them during their teenage years, and about the life-shaping effects they experienced through them.

Helping Teenagers Argue Effectively

I have little doubt that a number of readers of this blog will feel that today’s teenagers argue too much. However, I wish to put the case for the opposite! So let me begin by clarifying what I am talking about in this article when I refer to the ability to argue. I am not, on this occasion, talking about those times when teenagers make unrealistic demands of us; or when a discussion passes boiling point and ends with the stomp of feet up the stairs and the slamming of a bedroom door; nor about those times when as parents or teachers we pass the point of frustration with what seems like the innate ability of teenagers to question absolutely any instruction, however small and reasonable it might seem to us. Rather, I am talking about the ability to present a point of view in a thoughtful way, whilst showing respect to those who differ in their opinion. I am talking about constructing an argument using a logical thought process, while taking account of the bigger picture that provides the context for whatever is under discussion. I am talking about the ability to listen to those with whom one disagrees, taking on board points that are being made, but nevertheless holding firm to important principles. I am talking about developing negotiation skills and ultimately reaching a level of maturity that understands that arguments are often about clarifying and learning; not necessarily about winning.

The ability to argue effectively is an important skill for teenagers to have with them as they approach adulthood. It is a skill that will make them more marketable to potential employers; it will help them build stable adult relationships; it will help them in situations where they need to be able to listen to, and negotiate with, others. But this is not a case of developing a life skill, all of whose benefits lie at some stage in an uncertain future. In the shorter term, those who have begun to learn the skills of arguing effectively in their early teenage years are better equipped for some aspects of their future education as well as being armed with a powerful weapon to help them resist some of the negative peer pressures with which they might be faced in their later teenage years.

As indicated above, there are a number of aspects to arguing effectively. As with any complex skill, time and practice are essential to its successful development. One of the ways that human beings learn is through their mistakes, and learning to argue effectively is no exception. At times, teenagers will get it wrong: their frustration may take over, they may shout and become disrespectful, but when these things happen, they rely on the significant adults in their lives to help them learn from their mistakes. The important question for parents and teachers, then, is not how we can stop teenagers from arguing, but how we can best help them develop their argumentative tendencies in a way that will equip them for the adult world to which they are headed.

Advice for Parents

Try to keep calm. Parents, of course, can bear the brunt of it when teenagers are going through the learning process, and especially when they are getting it wrong. However, responding with the same type of broken behaviour pattern being portrayed by the teenager is not helpful in moving the situation forward. Responses like shouting over your teenager to stop them shouting, or trying to demonstrate that you can be even more stubborn and unreasonable than them, or becoming aggressive in response to their aggression, only ends up with two people behaving badly. Consequently, the teenager learns nothing about arguing effectively. If necessary, walk away until the temperature has cooled sufficiently for you both to be able to return and address the topic in a more rational way.

Model respect and good argumentation skills. The best way to help your teenager understand the need for respect, even when they disagree with someone’s viewpoint, is to model it in your dealings with them. The parent who takes time to listen to their teenager’s point of view, considers their arguments, asks questions for clarification when they do not understand, values good points made during the course of an argument, remains polite even when provoked, demonstrates empathy for their teenager and their situation, and who explains their decisions both models respect and demonstrates some of the important skills for arguing effectively. The teenager who knows how it feels to be respected is far more likely to respect others, and the teenager who has experienced significant adults in their life arguing effectively is far more likely to seek to develop a similar technique.

Keep the bigger picture of parenting always in mind. It is important for parents to keep in mind the overall goal in parenting a teenager – to help the teenager reach the point where they can enter the adult world successfully. For the parent, winning an argument with their teenager is not the ultimate goal. Sure, it may give a short-term feeling of satisfaction, but especially if the argument has been won through the use of bullying tactics, or by sacrificing truth for expediency, then the overall goal will have been set back. This is not to say the parent should always give in, or should step back from strongly held principles. However, the wise parent will look for opportunities to give ground when the teenager argues effectively, admitting that the teenager has explained a perspective that they (the parent) had not previously understood or appreciated. Through such comments, the teenager “feels” the value of arguing effectively and is more likely to press on with the development of this important life skill.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Differentiate between disrespect and argument. I have occasionally come across a teacher who seems to regard every student attempt to question as a sign of disrespect. Such an approach says more about the insecurity of the teacher than the disposition of the students. I have also come across students who wanted to take every possible opportunity to pick a fight with the teacher, often over unimportant issues. Neither approach facilitates learning. Even in situations where students have done wrong, or where tempers have begun to rise, there are often genuine attempts by students to gain clarification of issues through raising a contrary argument. Teachers who have developed the ability to understand what is happening even in the midst of a simmering situation, and who can answer arguments calmly, clearly and logically, do the most in such situations to foster learning. Teenagers often ask questions by arguing, and they need teachers who can model appropriate ways to disagree and good argumentation skills so that they can learn more about the issue under discussion and also about the good use of argument as a learning tool.

Promote the ability to construct logical argument. Teenage brain development starts at the back of the brain and moves forward. This means that teenage responses are governed more by the amygdala, situated at the back of the brain and triggering strong emotions, than by the pre-frontal cortex, which is at the front, develops later, and governs logical thought. As most of us have observed, teenagers often respond to situations emotionally and need help if they are to develop a considered and logical response.

Various aspects of the academic programmes followed by teenagers in school encourage debate and logical argument. Essay-writing in many subjects also depends on building a good argument. However, students are often told of the need for a well-constructed argument without anyone ever really explaining what that is or how it can be developed. Helping teenagers understand how to develop good argumentation skills and to put them to use in their academic work is an important factor in the development of their logical argumentation skills for life generally. However, teenagers often need help, too, in making the transition from using logical argument as an academic skill to using it more widely, be it within their school community or their family life. By asking the right questions, and by refusing to accept a lower standard of argumentation from students in their discussions generally in school than they would accept in their academic work, teachers have an important role to play in helping their students develop the life skill of being able to argue effectively.

Teenage Peer Pressure/Influence

When I talk with groups of parents whose children are approaching the teenage years, one concern that is frequently raised is that of peer pressure. Parents are afraid of the peer pressure to which their children may be subject in secondary school, believing it to be an almost irresistible force waiting to prey on their innocent children. Whist not wishing to deny the influential role that peer pressure can play in a teenager’s experience, reality is often very different from that anticipated and feared by parents.

I believe it is helpful to distinguish between peer influence and peer pressure, reserving the latter term to describe the situation where peer influence has become a problem. To varying degrees, people of all ages are subject to influence from their peers. In the case of teenagers, however, and probably due to a combination of factors, peer influence carries a heightened importance, sometimes spilling over into the negative experience of peer pressure.

It is important to understand that peer influence can be positive. The adult tendency to fear that teenage peer influence leads inexorably to undesirable or inadvisable behaviour is, in fact, ill-founded. As Maria de Guzman points out, “… peer influence … can actually motivate youth to study harder in school, volunteer for community and social services, and participate in sports and other productive endeavours. In fact, most teens report that their peers pressure them not to engage in drug use and sexual activity.”

Peer influence impacts across a range of areas from the superficial to the serious. It is most commonly observed in groups of teenagers dressing similarly, listening to similar types of music, or using their own customised vocabulary. Such common phenomena help us see that ultimately peer influence is founded on the desire to feel that one is accepted as a member of a group. However, as de Guzman points out, the similarities referred to above are often the reasons why groups of teenagers come together in the first place. So, whilst it may appear to the external observer that a group of teenagers portrays the effects of peer influence, those similarities may have pre-existed, and contributed to, the formation of the group.

It is difficult to identify precisely the point at which peer influence begins to tip over into peer pressure. One of the markers is the transition from group acceptance on the basis of similarity to pressure to conform. This feeds on the desire for acceptance and may be, at least to some degree, a self-imposed pressure whereby the teenager seeks to conform to what they think is the group expectation even though this may not have been spoken.

At the more serious end of the range from peer influence to peer pressure are the instances feared by parents. Some teenagers engage in riskier activities, make unhealthier decisions, and indulge in more problematic behaviours when they are with others than they ever would alone. In areas such as sexual activity, alcohol, smoking, drugs and illegal activity, some teenagers risk significant damage to themselves and serious long-term consequences. Peer pressure can be a contributing factor in all these areas. Parents, teachers and schools face the question of how they can best prepare teenagers to distinguish between the more benign peer influences, on the one hand, and the more serious aspects of peer pressure that need to be resisted, on the other. Additionally, there is the question of how teenagers can best be equipped to offer that resistance when it is required.

Advice for parents

Model a good understanding of what is important. Many arguments that occur between parents and their teenagers are focused on things that do not ultimately matter a great deal. To see their teenager wearing ripped clothing may irritate, for example, but it pales into insignificance alongside participation in cyberbullying or getting into a car with a peer who has been drinking alcohol. Wise parents will accord age-appropriate liberty with regard to the relatively unimportant matters, but will agree clear boundaries with their teenager regarding the more serious issues. Parents who are able to distinguish clearly between relatively minor and more serious matters, and to justify their distinctions, provide a good model for their teenagers. They also provide a sound basis for the teenagers to use as they come eventually to their own decisions about the relative importance of matters, and especially with regard to those that require resistance of peer pressure. This is even more the case if parents can refrain from “making an issue” out of something unless it belongs to the more serious category.

Work to build your teenager’s self-esteem. Parents should not under-estimate how difficult it can be for a teenager to stand firm in the face of peer pressure, especially in the age of social media. Teenagers with a strong sense of self-esteem have an improved chance of being able to assert their independence in the face of peer pressure when the need arises. Of course, the building of self-esteem will start during childhood, but it is an aspect of parenting that can be undercut as children become teenagers unless a deliberate effort is made to ensure its continuance.

Promote communication. Discussion between parents and teenagers of a wide range of issues can be helpful to the teenager as they seek to develop their own values and opinions. Many teenagers want to know their parents’ views on all manner of matters as it gives them a strong reference point as they seek to work out their own views. Discussion of peer influence and peer pressure can be included, especially if family discussions are a regular occurrence, along with possible strategies for resisting peer pressure where necessary. Especially with younger teenagers, rehearsal of simple strategies for saying “No” can be a valuable exercise. I believe it is important that teenagers learn to justify their views, rather than simply assert them, and to that end, they should understand that “everybody does it” is never an acceptable reason for a decision.

Get to know their friends. Wherever possible, get to know the friends of your teenager, perhaps by encouraging them to use your home as a meeting place. Engaging with your own teenager in private about some aspects of their friends’ beliefs or behaviours is appropriate, but avoid direct criticism of their friends as that is more likely to drive them away from you and towards the friends about whom you may have reservations.

Support your teenager. It is important for your teenager to know that you will always support them, whilst expecting them to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. They need to know that they can come to you with any matter that is causing them concern, that you will listen to them and support them, without absolving them from the responsibility that is properly theirs. Peer pressure can be a powerful influence for sure, but it is not an excuse-all, as ultimately we are each responsible for our decisions and actions.

Advice for teachers and schools

Promote an accurate view of society. One of the reasons peer pressure operates is that many teenagers want to feel they belong, which means for them that if “everybody is doing it”, they want to make sure they are doing it too! Often, however, the behaviour that is perceived by teenagers to be the norm amongst their peers is in actuality the norm only amongst a small minority of their peers. Teenagers often have little or no concept of the bigger picture. For example, statistics indicate that in western societies, around 10% of teenagers are smokers. This means that around 90% are not smokers but, sadly, those who take up smoking “to be like everyone else” and so to appear cool, have no idea that they are leaving the position of the vast majority in order to align with a small minority. A more accurate view of society and a better understanding of statistics may not solve the problem of peer pressure but it could reverse its effect for some.

 Promote positive peer influence. The Red Cross uses peer educators to teach teenagers about safe sex because they have found that teens are more likely to listen to positive messages when they come from those in their own age group (Ref teens.lovetoknow.com). Schools are well placed to promote positive peer influence through similar initiatives and through mentorship programmes between older and younger students. Such schemes have enormous potential for good in the lives of today’s teenagers.

Teenage Idealism

The March For Our Lives demonstration this past weekend is a good example of what can be achieved when teenage idealism becomes focused on a particular issue. The event, in support of tighter gun control, was sparked by the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February of this year. Last Saturday’s event is widely reckoned to be one of the largest demonstrations in American history, added to which there was a truly global response as marches of support took place in cities around the world.

Adults can sometimes be remarkably resistant to engaging with ideas advanced by teenagers. As Tyler Huckerbee says, “When your ideological opponent is a teenager, he or she is easy to dismiss … Why wrestle with the substance of their argument when it’s so much easier to just sigh about “kids these days” and be done with it?” Idealism is generally recognised as a characteristic of adolescents, and consequently can be given short shrift by adults. Certainly, there are situations where an idealistic view, allied to naivety, can be dangerous. However, idealism is by no means always a bad thing and can sometimes enable a level of clarity that seems to elude those with a more complex “adult” perspective.

Teenagers exhibit idealism as a result of the way their brains develop during adolescence. Early in adolescence, the brain’s computational capacity increases dramatically, bringing with it the ability for abstract thought. However, since the brain develops from back to front, younger adolescents rely more on emotional responses (located in the amygdala at the back of the brain) in their decision-making and responses. The ability for logical reasoning (located in the pre-frontal cortex at the front of the brain) develops much later in adolescence. Early on, then, teenagers are enabled to see the world in a new way through their capacity for abstract thought, but are likely to experience an emotion-driven “idealistic” response to how they want the world to be. The ability to analyze their response logically and to reason comes later, sometimes not until the early twenties, when a more complex “adult” view of the world develops.

Of course, the above is a simplified summary of a very complicated process that is subject, also, to individual variation. Additionally, how the teenage brain is used affects its development, so the way adults engage with teenagers can either promote or hinder the development of a healthy brain and patterns of thought. This is as true with the way adults respond to teenage idealism as with any other aspect of a teenager’s development.

Advice for Parents

Be interested, encourage and ask questions. At times, your teenager’s idealistic views will seem over-simplistic, but that’s because their idealism is a stage in their thought development. Teenage idealism is a sign of a work in progress, so it is important that by listening, encouraging and asking questions, you give them opportunities to refine and develop their thinking. Of course, that may mean that you need to invest some time in exploring for yourself the issues about which they are becoming passionate. Resist any temptation to dismiss their idealism. Well-informed discussion and thoughtful questions can be invaluable learning aids for your idealistic teenager. No discussion is wasted, even if their focus switches to another concern, as ultimately they are shaping their outlook on life and developing their moral approach to the world. By the way you engage with, and respond to, their idealism, you are seeking to model the healthy adult thinking processes that you would ultimately like them to adopt as their own.

Encourage the move from idealism to activism. Many older teenagers will eventually take this step for themselves. By encouraging the step from merely holding views about a subject to doing something practical about it, even with younger teenagers, you are facilitating the progress. Of course, the nature of the activism will vary according to the age, available resources and character of the individual teenager, but becoming actively involved at an appropriate practical level helps underline the necessary link between ideals and actions, and this is important for the development of responsibility.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Show interest. It is very easy during the course of a busy day for teachers to brush aside the idealistic views of the teenagers around them. Finding a few minutes to listen and to ask a question can be helpful for the individuals concerned. Beyond that, however, especially when the idealistic concerns of teenagers “fit” with the subject, teachers have the opportunity to promote discussion and debate. This enables teenagers to explore their concerns as a learning community, within which they can challenge and help refine each other’s views and opinions. The presence of the teacher affords a measure of protection to those who are less willing than others to advance their idealistic views.

Refuse to give all the answers. Another shortcut to be resisted is to give “the correct answer” and to cut short teenage debate. This might save the teacher time but it will not help teenagers develop their thinking processes, so it must be regarded as suspect from an educational perspective. Asking questions, encouraging further research and exploration, introducing different perspectives to a debate, pushing students to explore further the consequences of the stance they are taking: these are all helpful ways of building on teenage idealism to advance the educational experience.

Support teenagers to pursue their idealism. It is difficult within a school community to allow every student to advance the causes about which they feel passionately, and in some cases it may simply be inappropriate. However, wherever possible, I would encourage schools and teachers to support teenagers as they pursue their journey from idealism to activism. Occasionally, such as with “The March For Our Lives” with which we began, idealism may galvanize an entire school community or generation and lead to undreamed-of outcomes. In many cases, that will not happen, but still there can be valuable experiences on many levels of teenagers learning to build on their idealism and make a difference. As Huckerbee states at the conclusion of his article, “Teenagers are going to change the world — if not today, then most certainly in the near future. The only question is how long it will take before the rest of the world takes them seriously.”

Supporting Teenagers through the Exam Season

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, many teenagers are becoming aware that the exam season is moving inexorably closer. For some this will mean an assessment of progress made during the current school year; for others it will mean a series of exams that could play a large role in determining their future: which university they will be able to attend, if any, and ultimately the career upon which they might embark.

The exam system has its detractors, who argue that it is possible to learn how to be good at exams, without necessarily being good at anything else; or who see exams as a poor basis for taking decisions that may have such a long-term effect on a person’s future. However, universities and employers seem generally to be agreed that, whilst the exam system may not be perfect, it remains the best tool we currently have as a means of assessing academic potential. Many use other additional factors or measures alongside exam performance, but even so, exam results still carry enormous weight.

Of course, there are some students who look forward to exams, knowing they are likely to perform better than they do ordinarily. For others, however, exams begin to loom on the horizon like some kind of mythical beast that needs to be fought and conquered. It is not just the importance of the outcome that contributes to the stress surrounding the exam period. Fear of failure, exaggerated parental expectations, realization that time during a course of study has not been used wisely, knowing that their hopes for the future might be dashed by the outcome – all these factors, and more, can combine to make the exam season a time of extraordinary stress and anxiety. So what can we do, as parents and teachers, to support teenagers through this stressful time of year?

Advice for parents

Practical help. I have lost count of the number of parents who have said to me over the years something along the lines of, “I decided the most valuable thing I could do was feed them!” Practical measures that enable the student to focus on revision and preparation for exams represent one way that parents can show support. The nature of the support will depend on the teenager and the family. Other approaches I have encountered include: suspending certain household chores until the exams are over, funding one night out a week during the exam season to ensure the student takes some time off from revision, and making adjustments to the pattern of life in the household to try to minimize disruption for the student.

Encouragement. Parents will want to encourage their teenagers to keep going in the face of pressure and when they feel like giving up. But there are other forms of encouragement that may be required too. Students work best when their revision programme is balanced. Encourage your teenager to draft a revision plan. It does not need to account for every minute over a three-month period, but it does need to include all the subjects! Also, encourage them to include time off, exercise and sleep so that their overall approach is balanced, as that will enable them to work much more effectively. Ultimately, encourage them to accept that your love for them is not determined by the level of their exam achievements, and if the results turn out to be disappointing, reinforce that message when they find out. In the meantime, encourage them to work hard through the time that remains to them before the exams and to do their best.

Place responsibility with the student. Ultimate responsibility for your teenager’s exam results rests with them. Teachers, tutors, peers and parents can all offer support, expertise and help as appropriate, but that will achieve little if the student does not put in the work. None of the above, nor exam boards, are there to act as scapegoats if the results do not turn out to your teenager’s liking. It is important that your teenager understands that this is what reality looks like when it comes to exams.

If your teenager is among the small minority of students who, despite being made aware of their responsibility, persist in doing next to no work, there is little a parent can do other than reinforce the message about responsibility. Difficult though it may be for parents to watch, some teenagers will only learn the hard way. If the worst happens and the results are disappointing, I can only say that I have worked with a number of parents over the years whose teenagers have not been admitted into their chosen university at the first attempt, or who have needed to take a year out and re-sit a number of exams. Often the teenager has succeeded the second time around, or they have decided on a different direction for their future, and both the teenager and the parents have found eventually that the initial poor results were not the end of the world, even if it felt like it at the time. For a significant proportion of those who found themselves in that position, the experience turned out eventually to be a valuable learning experience.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Advice about revision. I would encourage schools to offer some form of programme to help prepare students for revision and exams. Such a programme should explore a variety of approaches to revision that will appeal to a range of learning styles. Also, they should help students develop the skills they need to make revision plans and to know how to use those plans helpfully. It is also helpful for teenagers to understand the value of sleep, of a healthy work-life balance, and of good examination technique, so all these might helpfully be included in a programme of preparation.

Active revision. Over the years I have had numerous conversations with teenagers about their preparation for exams. Many of them have told me that their teachers have stressed the need for active revision, but when I have followed up with a question about what that means, a surprisingly large proportion of them seemed not to know. Good advice is soon wasted if it contains educational jargon that the students do not understand! The term active revision is trying to get the message across that there is far more to a good revision programme than the student just reading through their notes, which a surprisingly large number seem to think is sufficient. That may be part of it, but there should also be working through examples from scratch, checking notes against textbooks, asking teachers or peers for clarification where needed, trying out past exam questions. I have seen a number of instances where students have formed their own revision groups for certain subjects, where they teach, help and support each other through the exam season.

Encouragement. There may have been times throughout a course of study when a teacher felt the need, either with groups of students or individuals, to highlight their misuse of time and bemoan lost learning opportunities. However, as the exam period moves closer, such an approach can have a marked negative effect and might even lead some students to feel that there is no point even trying to prepare as it is already too late. In the exam season, encouragement needs to be the order of the day, and I have seen a number of instances over the years where students have achieved beyond all expectation due to the optimistic encouragement of their teachers.

Consider gender differences. It is generally accepted that girls mature earlier than boys, which can give them an edge in exam situations where students sitting an examination are pretty much the same age. Self-doubt can affect many teenagers, often girls especially; whereas lack of organization can be an affliction that is more common in boys due to their comparative immaturity. Whilst students do not always follow their gender stereotypes, there is nevertheless sufficient truth within a stereotype to give teachers an understanding of things for which they need to be looking. Whatever the cause, such characteristics can be a disadvantage during the pressured exam season, but they are also issues that can be addressed and managed with help.

Place responsibility with the student. Teachers, as well as parents, need to remember that ultimately students are responsible for their own exam results. Teachers offer instruction, insight, clarification, additional help and encouragement, but students are responsible for their own performance. In very unusual circumstances, such as teaching the wrong syllabus, teachers and schools might be held responsible for the outcome, but such situations are very unusual. Generally, the majority of students will perform in line with teacher expectations, whilst a few will over- or under-perform. That is the nature of the exam system and within that system students carry responsibility for their level of performance.

Helping Teenagers Learn from Failure

Teenagers are far more fearful of failure by the time they leave school than they were at 14.” This was one of the findings of a survey of 1000 teenagers, conducted just three years ago in the UK. Furthermore, the report goes on to suggest, fear of failure seems to be spread across society, seemingly unaffected by the socio-economic background of the teenagers surveyed.

Fear of failure can, of course, be a crippling experience at any age. It can lead to a lack of openness to new experiences, a restricted vision of life’s possibilities and reduced hope. It can lead to a complete refusal to take on challenges to avoid failing in the attempt, and ultimately to reduced self-confidence and depression. Such consequences would be serious at any stage in life, but for teenagers in the process of forming their life expectations and setting their life goals, its longer-term effects can be severely restrictive indeed and end in chronic life-long under-achievement.

The prevailing culture of contemporary Western society is very much oriented around success and happiness. These are widely sought and almost universally lauded as fundamental elements of a good life experience. In this context, it is not difficult to understand how failure has developed the reputation of something to be avoided. However, success and happiness do not necessarily go together, nor does the presence of one imply the other. Furthermore, neither success nor happiness is guaranteed by the avoidance of failure, the experience and handling of which may actually make their eventual attainment more likely.

A moment’s reflection will confirm that failure is a ubiquitous human experience. It is not the experience of failure in and of itself that is important, but how we respond to failure and learn from it. On one level, there is the learning from failure that enables us to do better next time. But at a deeper level, there can come the development of character, the growth of resilience and the ability truly to be empathetic with others.

Advice for Parents

It is undeniable that parents often find it painful to see their teenagers suffer the experience of failure. The desire to lessen the pain and to give their teenagers a wholly happy experience of life is understandable. However, I believe it is a mistake for parents always to rush in to try to shield their teenagers from the experience of failure. It is important to keep in mind what might be described as the fundamental purpose of parenting teenagers, namely, that of bringing the teenager safely to the point where they can take on the full responsibilities of adulthood. If our teenagers are given the false impression that life will always appear cloaked in happiness and crowned with success, then they are being fed a false picture of reality. Life is not like that. Happiness and success come bundled up with disappointment and failure, and for teenagers to be equipped to navigate a world of mixed experiences, they need to develop characteristics such as resilience and determination. When failure is faced and responded to constructively, such characteristics are allowed to develop.

Park the helicopter. Helicopter parenting leads to young adults who are ill-equipped to face the modern world with its mixed experiences, including failure. Of course, nobody would suggest that teenagers should be set up to fail, but when failure comes along, responsible parents help teenagers to find a way through the experience and to find ways to learn from it, rather than seeking always to protect them from it.

Talk about failure. If discussion of failure and what can be learned from it becomes a normal part of family conversation, the fear of failure will be diminished. If teenagers see that their parents are not afraid of failure, be it their own or that of their children, they are more likely to face their own failures and see them as learning opportunities. Honest discussion of failure when it happens helps set this aspect of our humanity in a healthy perspective.

Help your teenager develop their own understanding of success. Success means different things to different people. One of the reasons failure can become such a fearful ogre is that sometimes we accept other people’s definition of what makes for success even when their definition is inappropriate for us. Help your teenager develop the ability to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses, to see where they have genuine potential and to set targets that are realistically challenging. If they encounter setbacks or failures on the way, help them pick themselves up and learn from the experience, re-shaping their goals if necessary. Ultimately, the aim of parents is to see teenagers become responsible, well-adjusted adults who thrive. For your teenager to have a clear understanding of what constitutes success for them is another step along the road towards this goal.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Build a culture that rewards effort. Of course, success should be celebrated, but recognition of effort is as important. There is nothing even-handed in the way life distributes abilities, be they academic, sporting, musical or other. Consequently, success comes more easily to some than to others. Those who are not naturally gifted in a certain field, but who make progress through their effort, deserve recognition alongside those who excel. Helping students appreciate the value of effort and determination in bringing about progress will help them understand that success and failure need to be understood differently for different people.

Regard failure as part of the normal learning process. Those who accept failure as part of the process of learning are more likely to make progress than those who regard it as a matter for shame or embarrassment. Teachers, who can help teenagers develop a healthy approach to failure as a means to advancing their learning, give a valuable gift to their students. Learning from failure helps develop resilience, and resilience is regarded increasingly as an indispensable and valuable tool for survival in today’s world.

Using Extended Adolescence Creatively

Adolescence, the period of life between childhood and adulthood, is popularly defined as beginning with puberty and ending with social and financial independence. On this basis, adolescence can begin as early as ten years old (in girls especially) and continue into the mid-twenties. This means that, as Professeur Laurence Steinberg points out, “… adolescence is three times as long as it was in the 19th Century and … twice as long as it was in the 1950s.”

A host of factors are thought to have contributed to this trend of lengthening adolescence. Within Western society, the increased occurrence of child obesity is frequently suggested as a possible contributor to the earlier onset of puberty, but there is no real consensus that this is the only, or even the major, contributing factor. At the same time, people are generally living longer and this, in turn, has lessened the pressure for adolescents to become financial contributors within the family, a powerful propellant towards adulthood for earlier generations of young people. A lack of affordable housing for young people has increased the financial pressure for many to stay within the parental home, further delaying the move towards financial and social independence.

As adolescence has lengthened, there has been more emphasis on the need for enhanced educational qualifications, which has seen a large increase in the proportion of teenagers attending university or college, increasingly to pursue both Bachelor and Masters degrees in the quest to secure the level of job that might bring about their elusive financial independence. Additionally, the ageing nature of the population has led to more people remaining in the workforce for longer and for societal power to be focused increasingly in the hands of the older generations, often robbing adolescents, in the process, of the opportunity to enter and rise within the world of work. Governments, anxious both to control the number of younger people included in jobless statistics and to manage the affordability of caring for an increasingly elderly population, have colluded in the development of these societal trends.

Breaking out

I have referred already to the increase in the number of teenagers and those in their early twenties who are engaged in college or university education. For some, this provides an opportunity to experience a more independent lifestyle outside the family home for at least part of the year. However, increased financial pressures on families and on student funding has led to more students attending a local college or university so that they can continue to live at home and so keep costs down. Even for those who live away from home in student accommodation, there remains the question of what happens after the completion of their educational course(s), and for those who do not immediately secure a place in the world of work, there is often the prospect of returning to the family home as a matter of financial necessity. Additionally, those able to find training within the workplace, often find that apprenticeships and internships provide insufficient financial reward for them to do other than continue living in the parental home.

It has been interesting over the past decade to see the emergence of what might be termed “star value” as a route towards independence. Some families invest heavily in a particular sport in the hope that their teenager will emerge into sporting stardom and so become independent. It was particularly interesting recently to witness the large proportion of teenage participants in the Winter Olympics. These young people represent the top few percent of those involved in the pursuit of sporting stardom, those who might make it, but there are many more whose years of training and commitment do not yield anything like the return of the initial investment, let alone a route to financial independence. Similarly, the rise of a plethora of talent shows might provide a route to independence for a few, but for most, such speculative routes to independence will provide little more than heartbreak.

Brain research has made considerable advances in recent years and, as well as providing valuable insights into a number of aspects of teenage behaviour, has shown that the full development of the adult brain is not complete until the mid-twenties. However, rather than simply seeing this as providing unqualified support for the delay of adulthood outlined above, I believe we should ask how we can create the optimum conditions for teenagers and those in their early twenties to gain from the period of increased brain elasticity and so to maximise the development of their potential for the future.

Advice for parents

There was about a decade between the departure to university of our oldest and youngest children, and one feature of their relative experiences during the first year at university underlined for me how society had changed in the intervening period. Our eldest experienced weekends at university as a time for relaxation and socializing, much as I remember my own experience at university. Ten years on, our youngest had a different experience due to the large number of students who spent virtually every weekend at home, only to return on Sunday evening, often with a pile of Tupperware boxes containing pre-cooked meals for the entire week ahead! Whilst I suspect parents were seeking to lessen the pressures on their teenagers, such a pattern of student life robbed them of the opportunity to take an important step towards independent living! To me it spoke more than a little of parent concern at the level of pressure on teenagers in today’s world but also of parental insecurity about the move of their teenagers towards independence.

Create a structure for letting go. Starting in the early teenage years, I recommend parents negotiate with their teenagers a structure for letting them go. Through the years of adolescence, there needs to be a staged process of allowing teenagers increased social and financial independence, within which they can experience increasing independence and carry more responsibility for their own lifestyle, choices and decisions. If their ultimate attainment of social and financial independence is delayed as outlined above, then a strategic approach to increased responsibility at home could allow them to assume responsibility for the administration and running of areas of the family home. This may not be the complete social and financial independence they require to bring their adolescence to a conclusion but it could represent a meaningful experience of independence within other constraints that are beyond the control of the family.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Seek to promote real student independence. There are many different aspects to education, some of which are more in vogue than others at any given time. In the context of this post, I would appeal to those involved in education to make the promotion of real student independence a priority. This can take a myriad of forms and each school will want to consider their own context before developing their approach to this area of education. As stressed in the advice to parents above, there needs to be an approach that develops from year to year so that students can grow in their sense of independence as they move up through the school. Many schools already have forms of student government within their structure, though sometimes I fear this is more for the sake of appearances than for the development of real responsibility. I would encourage in the first instance the establishment of a working group of students with one or two carefully-chosen adult advisors at the most. Give such a group the task of planning how the school can best encourage the development of real student independence, and see what they come up with. Once the ideas have been formulated, let the students drive the implementation, deliver the programme, advertise the opportunities across the school, report on their progress to the Board. In short, let it be their programme and their responsibility. I would love to hear how it goes!

Teenagers and Sexting

Sexting refers to the electronic sending, receiving or forwarding of sexually explicit messages, photos or videos. For most teenagers, it seems to involve nude or semi-nude photographs.

The more excitable elements of the press would have us believe that sexting is something in which virtually all teenagers are involved, but in reality that is probably far from the truth. Surveys I have seen give varying estimates of the proportion of teenagers likely to be involved in sexting, and these estimates average out to around 20%.

Sexting can come about in a variety of ways. Often it will start out as a private activity between two teenagers who have or want a relationship with each other. In this case, the dangers lie chiefly in what the sexting might lead to, especially if the relationship goes sour or breaks up. The image might have been shared originally with the unspoken assumption that it was intended only for the eyes of the two people in the relationship, but the rupture of the relationship can lead to the image being circulated more widely as revenge. In such a case, it is the electronic nature of the communication that puts the incident on a level that is beyond the experience of former generations. Whereas previously, a grainy photograph might have been shown around amongst a group of friends by a jilted lover in an attempt to embarrass the other person, now the image can be made available to literally thousands of viewers in seconds, especially if the image is uploaded to a social media site.

For some, sexting comes about as a result of peer pressure. The teenager is led to believe that “everybody’s doing it” and that the route to popularity is through participation. Sadly, for a number, this is not the case, and the images become the tools to be used by unscrupulous peers in cyberbullying. For others still, sexting may be the result of coercion, perhaps from someone they have met online, who has gained their confidence and persuaded them to upload images.

The legal status of sexting depends primarily on the age of the person in the image. If they are under 18, the transmission of electronic nude images (even of oneself) is likely to be regarded in law as the distribution of child pornography. In most countries this is a very serious offence that could lead to a jail term and to having one’s name recorded on a register of sex offenders.

Having compromising pictures in circulation amongst one’s peers can be a devastating experience for a teenager. The humiliation and embarrassment of the image being circulated in one’s peer community may, of course, be short-lived. For some, however, it can lead to years of ridicule, social exclusion and loss of self-confidence. It has certainly led to some having to move and change school in an attempt to escape the fallout. In the longer-term, the virtual permanence of items on the Internet brings potential consequences that seem to elude many teenagers, but it means there is always a risk of potential universities and employers uncovering the material and in some areas that could prove fatal to a promising career.

Advice for parents

If you can help your teenager develop a strong sense of their own worth as an individual, that may help them find the strength to resist peer pressure to send images of themselves should they experience it. Similarly, a strong sense of the worth of others will provide a firm base for the way they are prepared to deal with any material that might come to them from others.

Talk honestly about sexting with your teenager. As so often seems to be the case, meaningful conversations about this issue are best conducted outside of the charged atmosphere of personal involvement in an incident. Wise parents will find opportunities to talk occasionally with their teenagers about the subject, making clear the possible consequences, such as are discussed above, that could follow from their involvement in sexting . Additionally, advise them never to send images of themselves that they wouldn’t be happy to show their granny (or whoever happens to be their favourite relative).

Your teenager receives unsolicited images of others. Given the nature of social media apps, it is quite possible that your teenager could receive images of others that they have not solicited: perhaps the material has been circulated to all members of a group of which they happen to be a member, for example. Getting them to consider how they might want a friend to act if that friend were to receive a compromising image of them might represent a way to helping them find a solution. I believe also that one of the hard lines of which teenagers should be made aware is that if they receive such material, they ought never to forward it to others.

Your teenager has already forwarded images of others before talking with you about it. Without becoming overly critical, I believe it is possible to express disappointment in your teenger’s decision-making in circumstances such as this. Seeking to have them reflect on what their action says about the value of the person in the image may be the start of a way forward. From there, I believe the emphasis should be on helping your teenager find ways to redress the situation as far as that is possible. This may include them approaching those to whom the material was sent to get them to delete it, seeking to get material removed from social media sites if it has been uploaded, involving the school authorities if the others involved are from the same school. So far as possible, I would advise seeking to make the matter a learning opportunity for your teenager, not shielding them from uncomfortable consequences but reassuring them that you are there to support them through the experience.

Your teenager has sent images of themselves to others. Initially, try not to panic, since ultimately such a reaction will likely do more harm than good to your relationship with your teenager. There are two categories of issue here: (i) what to do about trying to limit the damage; (ii) why they sent the images of themselves in the first place. The natural tendency for most of us will be to start with the second point concerning their motivation. However, by working with them firstly on the practical level of trying to limit the damage, we may enable trust to grow in them for the deeper exploration that needs to follow.

(i) Limiting the damage. This might include seeking the deletion of the images by those to whom they were sent; brokering discussion with the person to whom the images were sent and their parents; accompanying your teenager to school authorities or the police, depending on the seriousness of the incident and the ages of those involved.

(ii) Examining the motivation. I suggest that generally it would be a mistake to view the images, even if they are offered. The aim of exploring the motivation of your teenager in sending the images originally should be that of helping them to learn about themselves from what has happened and about how they might handle situations differently in future. Through such discussions, always remember that teenagers make mistakes – it’s part of growing up – and the most important thing is that they learn from their mistakes. There will be times in some families where parents might need to involve a professional to explore the underlying issues with their teenager in order for there to be a beneficial outcome from such discussions.

Advice for teachers

Restrict communication with students to official channels. The main danger for teachers with regard to sexting is that of being drawn into it unwittingly. That could happen easily if the teacher shares their personal contact details with students and is a member alongside students of groups in text apps. Simply having received the material as a member of a group means that the teacher then has on their phone compromising material of one of their students. This could be more than unfortunate for the teacher and their career if a police investigation should ensue. Using only official channels, such as a school email address, for communication with students affords the teacher a level of protection.

Be on the lookout for students who are suffering from misuse of their image. On occasion, a trusted teacher might be approached directly by a student for whom sexting has gone sour. Working with the student to find a way forward, or finding someone who is better placed to help them, will be the way forward here. However, a teacher who keeps an ear to the ground for what is happening amongst their students might well pick up on students who are suffering as a result of their image being abused online. In this case, finding an opportunity to chat quietly with the student outside class, might give the opportunity to a student who is feeling increasingly desperate to be able to unload their concerns and find help.

Have strict limits on student banter in the classroom. I suspect a number of students get drawn into sexting “for a bit of a laugh”. Classroom banter can sometimes carry undertones that could contribute to pressure being brought to bear on individuals to participate in sexting. No one wants to lose the opportunity for a class to laugh together at times, providing individuals are not being targeted and ridiculed, but it would be tragic for a teacher to discover subsequently that the banter in their class had been used to pressure individuals into participating in sexting and that it had become a tool for subsequent cyberbullying. Clear limits that disallow inappropriate banter help provide a safe environment for all students in a class.

The Blame Game

I recall the opening gambit of a parent at parent-teacher conference, “X used to be good at maths until she came into your class”. The implication was clear, whatever the difficulties the student was facing, in the eyes of this parent, the teacher was to blame. On other occasions, I have heard teachers speculate on the extent to which parents should look to the deficiencies within their own parenting skills to see the reasons for their teenagers’ lack of progress.

The above are examples of what I call The Blame Game, within which parents and teachers blame each other for the lack of student progress. The Blame Game takes various forms and occurs on a daily basis in some school communities. Tragically, the only guaranteed outcome of the game is the one thing everyone says they do not want – the student loses out.

Even though some teenagers might try to deny it, the most significant adults in the life of a teenager are likely to be their parents and their teachers. These are the adults under whose jurisdiction they spend most of their time, so these are the adults, too, who have the greatest opportunity to exercise an influence on them as they journey through the formative teenage years. Also, whilst teenagers sometimes have the reputation of being in constant rebellion against parents and teachers, for many this is not the case and both parents and teachers figure prominently amongst those whose approval they seek to gain.

That having been said, however, there comes a time for many teenagers when they try to avoid responsibility or to shift the blame for their lack of progress in a particular area onto someone else. In such circumstances, The Blame Game gives the opportunity for the teenager to play parents and teachers off against each other. By feeding selective information to parent and/or teacher, the teenager can ensure that each party hears information that reinforces their presumption that the other party is to blame. Attention is thereby diverted away from the issues the teenager may need to address. Whilst the teenager may feel that as a result they have “won” the situation, in reality they have “lost”. Until parent and teacher can find a way to break out of The Blame Game, the teenager is less likely to come under pressure to address whatever is impeding progress, and so less likely to make progress as a result.

I believe the model we should all be working towards is that of parents, teachers and student working cooperatively with the goal of enabling the teenager to make the best progress of which they are capable. It is with that in mind that I offer the following.

Tips for Parents

Examine your expectations honestly. Parents sometimes get drawn into playing The Blame Game because their expectations are unrealistic. Of course parents want the best for their children, but the best is not necessarily the making of the child in the precise image of the parent. Parents who achieve highly in a particular field do not automatically produce children who are suited to becoming experts in the same field of specialisation. It will most likely be during the years of adolescence that the teenager will become aware if this is the case and it can lead to a high level of sadness for all involved if parents fight the realisation that their teenager wishes to move in a different direction than the one they (the parents) had hoped. Playing The Blame Game to avoid facing the issue will likely only compound the sadness if a teenager is forced in a particular direction at this crucial developmental stage of their life.

Recognise that both society and education have changed since you were a teenager. The rate of change in society has increased exponentially with the arrival of the digital age. In order to prepare teenagers for adult life in society, education has also had to change its approaches and emphases. When parents play The Blame Game, they often make unfavourable comparisons with the education they received when they were at school, not realising that in terms of education, they are years out of date. To put it bluntly, the fact that a parent once attended school does not make them an expert in education!

Listen carefully to what the teachers tell you about your teenager. Sometimes, the teenager at home and the same teenager at school would seem to any impartial observer to be two different people. If this is the case with your teenager, the person who can best bring it to your attention is the teacher, who sees them at school in a different environment from the one in which you see them. Many of us modify our behaviour to some degree depending on our surroundings, but sometimes, the difference is so marked that it is a sign of other issues that need to be addressed for the well-being of the teenager. Playing The Blame Game will prevent you from hearing what the teachers are saying and could block important information that you need to hear for your teenager’s sake.

Do all you can to cooperate with teachers. The vast majority of teachers, in my experience, are committed to their profession and care about the teenagers they teach. Despite having a difficult job to do, they care genuinely for the teenagers entrusted to them and seek the best for them. That accords exactly with what the vast majority of parents want for their teenage children and it is more likely to come about when parents and teachers work together.

Hold your teenager accountable for their own progress. Ultimately, the person who must take responsibility for your teenager’s progress is none other than your teenager. If parents play The Blame Game, they make it less likely that their teenagers will learn to take responsibility for their own progress and this is a vital life lesson.

Tips for Teachers

Listen carefully to what the parents tell you about their teenager. If the teenager at school is very different from the teenager at home, then the teacher needs to be aware of this as well as the parent. Sometimes, the best person to tell the teacher about it is the parent, who sees their teenager in a very different context than the one in which the teacher sees them. Playing The Blame Game will prevent you hearing what the parent is saying and may mean you miss an important pointer as to how your approach to this particular teenager could be modified for their benefit – and sometimes, even a small change of approach can make an enormous difference.

Keep your focus on the student and their progress, even if the occasional parent seems intent on playing The Blame Game. Whatever the drawbacks of being a teacher, when you are able to help teenagers move forward in their understanding of themselves and of your subject, it makes the struggle worthwhile.

Do all you can to cooperate with parents. Some parents, perhaps due to the intensity of their desire to see their teenagers succeed, come across as difficult, but the vast majority are not – they just want the best for their teenager. Ultimately, parents and teachers are on the same side and share the same goal of helping the student find success. Sometimes, the teacher is able to bring more objectivity to a situation than the parents of a student. Occasionally, a parent might ask for teachers to exceed the limits that their professionalism will allow and have to be refused. Generally, however, it remains true that teenagers are more likely to be helped towards finding success when teachers and parents work together to help bring it about.

Hold students accountable for their own progress. Ultimately, it is the student who must take responsibility for their progress. By maintaining your insistence on this point, you help teenagers learn a valuable life lesson. It is also one of the best defences against getting drawn into playing The Blame Game.

I want to be like …

Role models are important, not just for children, but for people of all ages. It seems that being able to see some of our own areas of potential lived out by others helps us visualize better what we want to become. Role models give us something to aspire to and to seek to emulate, a target at which we can aim: “I could be like that!”

Many young children will look to their parents as their first role models, perhaps adding an early teacher before turning their attention to their favourite footballer, dancer, singer… At this stage, having a role model is often akin to hero worship, seeing only the good and wanting to imitate them in every respect.

Teenagers have their role models too, but at this stage of their lives, young people are becoming more discerning, learning to differentiate between the aspects of their role model they would like to emulate and those they would not. They will be learning to see that their heroes (including their parents and teachers) have flaws as well as desirable qualities, selecting which aspects to avoid and which to continue to seek to emulate. So, it is not unusual that their role models also become their anti-role models in other respects.

Over the years, I have found teenagers reluctant to accept the idea that others might see them as role models. Younger brothers and sisters often see teenagers as role models, and younger students sometimes see those a few grades above them within a school community as role models too. All too often, this goes unnoticed, which is a shame since being respected by others can be a source of personal affirmation for those whose actions or character has been noticed.

Tips for Parents

Either positively or negatively, being a role model is an aspect of being the parent of a teenager from which there is no escape! They know you better than you think, not just your actions and behaviours, but your motivations too. Teenagers are at the stage of learning to be critical and parents sometimes find teenage critical analysis relentless and the honesty ruthless!

Be honest with your teenager about your own strengths and weaknesses. One of the things that I have heard teenagers denounce most often and most vehemently is hypocrisy, wherever it occurs, but especially if it comes from their parents. Admitting that alongside the things you do well, there are also things you do badly or with which you struggle, and encouraging them to emulate the former rather than the latter, could be an important step in raising the level of honesty in the relationship with your teenager.

You cannot choose your teenager’s role models for them. For many parents, there will be a considerable measure of relief on discovering that their teenager’s role models are people for whom they also hold some admiration. For others, however, there might be fear of the possible outcomes of their teenager seeking to emulate role models of which they disapprove. Fighting your teenager’s choice of role models will often be a fruitless enterprise. However, especially if you have been able to talk honestly with them about yourself, as suggested above, it might be possible to extend the approach to the evaluation of others. Acknowledging that there are some aspects of their role model that you recognise as admirable, whilst there are others about which you have considerable reservations, is more likely to gain a hearing from your teenager than a wholesale dismissal of the person they hold in esteem.

Talk with your teenager about your own role models. Whether it is someone who currently inspires you, or someone you once held in esteem, talking with your teenager about how they are/were helpful to you as a role model could be a helpful step to take. Helping them see how you wanted to emulate an aspect of someone, whose flaws you also recognised at the time, could be a step towards helping them to learn more about the effective use of a role model.

Tips for Teachers

Be a role model. Teachers are in a unique position to be role models for their teenage students of a whole range of aspects. From behaviour in a professional environment, to refusing to discriminate on the grounds of gender or race, to the patience shown towards students who are struggling with a subject in which the teacher is considered an expert – students will see and learn from the example set by a quality teacher in their classroom.

Give feedback. Teachers sometimes become aware of younger students holding older students in esteem for something they have achieved or the way they have behaved. Feeding that back to the older student, quietly and in a way that protects the identity of the younger students, can have an enormous affirmative effect.

Don’t allow banter that demeans an individual for being a role model. One of the ways teenagers sometimes protect themselves is to talk down any recognition of the achievements of others in the class. By refusing to allow such banter in the classroom, the teacher can support those who are already becoming good role models for others, and also be a role model in the way they refuse to allow the loudest voice to dominate their classroom.