Teenagers and Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying refers to any form of bullying or harassment that takes place through the use of electronic devices, such as a phone, laptop or tablet. This may take the form of a direct message to the victim(s) by SMS, text or email, or it can take the form of comment, photo, or video material about the victim(s) that is made available to a wide audience through social media or gaming sites. Recent statistics from both the US and the UK suggest that over 50% of teenagers have been aware of others being bullied online, and that in excess of 20% have been the focus of it themselves. It is, of course, the case that there has always been bullying. So, how is cyberbullying different from what has gone before?

No escape. The first way in which cyberbullying differs from previous forms of bullying stems from the 24-hour availability of the internet. Many victims of bullying in former generations knew they could go home from school at the end of the day and at least gain some respite in the safe space of home. For the victim of cyberbullying, there is no such respite. The internet is always there, and the bully might post new material at any time. This increases the pressure on the victim, day and night, always to be checking if there is a new post. Even if there is nothing new, the process of checking will bring back to their attention what is already there. It feels as if there is no escape.

Anonymity. In some cases, material may be posted online from an account created solely for the purpose of bullying, which gives the possibility for the bully to remain anonymous. This creates an intensified uncertainty for the victim, who may be left feeling that nobody in their circle of acquaintances can be trusted as any one of them could turn out to be the anonymous attacker. This situation can intensify the feeling of isolation felt by the victim as it effectively robs them of peers who can provide support.

Tips for Parents

There are a variety of things that parents can do to try to ensure that should their teenager ever experience cyberbullying, they (the parents) are in the best possible situation to try to support them.

Build up the child’s sense of personal identity. A strong sense of personal identity will help your teenager be more resilient in the face of all manner of problems, including forms of bullying should they become a target. Ideally, this is an approach that needs to start before the child reaches the teenage years, but if it is not something you have thought about before, it’s never too late to start!

Be careful what you post about your children/teens on social media. I have been shocked at times by the images of their children that some parents post on unrestricted social media. Causing your teenagers a mild level of embarrassment at a family gathering by showing around photographs of them when they were younger might provide entertainment for all – including the teenager. However, parents do well to remember that images of their children they consider cute or funny may unwittingly provide ammunition for cyberbullies.

Be aware of your teenager’s on-line behaviours. The degree to which this is possible will vary with the age of the teenager and will depend on the quality of the relationship between parent and teenager. Some parents of younger teenagers look to be “friended” on the social media sites their teenagers are using so they can exercise a degree of supervision, and this may be a good instructional tool. For all ages, however, the occasional family discussion about appropriate online behaviour could be a means of exercising some influence on the kind of apps that are used, appropriate levels of security and the kind of information that is made available through them to potential cyberbullies.

Watch out for tell-tale signs. If your teenager becomes a victim of cyberbullying, the earlier you find out about it, the better, in terms of supporting them through the experience. Even allowing for the moodiness that sometimes affects teenagers, and the reluctance that some have to discuss with parents what is going on in their lives, there may yet be changes of behaviour that will prompt parents to make further enquiries of their teenager. If the teenager become unusually withdrawn for more than a few days, especially if they seem to be withdrawing from their peer social circle, or if they become unusually aggressive in their responses, these could be signs that something else is going on in their lives. In and of themselves, such signs may not indicate that they are victims of cyberbullying, but they could be signs to the parents that some appropriate further enquiries might be made of their teenagers.

Your teenager is a victim of cyberbullying

If it becomes apparent that your teenager is experiencing bullying online, then the question arises as to what might be done to support them.

Reassure your teenager that they are not to blame for being bullied. This sounds obvious, but it is so very important. In the attempt to understand the cyberbullying targeted at them, teenagers are sometimes quick to find reasons within themselves for it having happened. Reassurance that it is not their fault is therefore very important.

Don’t retaliate on their behalf. Some parents may be tempted to leap to their teenager’s defence by entering into online combat with the cyberbullies. I strongly advise against such a response, the most likely outcome of which is to make matters worse by providing yet more material for the cyberbully to use.

Supportive action. Wherever possible, I would suggest discussing with your teenager the full range of options that might be available to them, and trying to ensure that they understand the implications of each possible course of action. Ideally, the teenager should take the decision about the course of action to be followed and you, as parent, will stand with them and agree the way you will support them moving forward. Such an approach will have the benefit of developing the teenager’s sense of responsibility, help them learn more abut decision-making in difficult circumstances, and help them feel a level of control in a situation where it is all too common for them to feel that they have lost control.

Your teenager is a cyberbully

Some parents may discover that their teenager is involved at some level in the bullying of others. Whilst the response may vary according to the age of the teenager and the extent of the involvement, I suggest the following elements should find a place in the parent’s response.

Stance against cyberbullying. A clear statement that cyberbullying is wrong would be my recommended starting-point. This is not in any sense a comment about the worth or value of your teenager, but a simple statement that you believe their actions to be wrong and that the cyberbullying needs to stop.

Supportive action. I suggest this should start with a full discussion of the options available to your teenager, with regard to appropriate responses to the person they have bullied and consequences that might follow from their actions. There may need to be approaches to the family of the victim, and to those of others involved in the bullying, as well as to those in authority at school. Where approaches need to be made, I suggest the responsibility for making the approaches should be placed firmly in the hands of those who have engaged in the cyberbullying. As a parent, I believe it is important that you stand with your teenager to offer support, but this does not mean excusing them from their actions or seeking to remove the consequences. Ultimately, it is important that teenagers learn from their mistakes, and the parent is well advised to keep this as their guiding principle whilst continuing to offer support.

Tips for Teachers

Teachers will agree that there can be no place for cyberbullying within a school community, but beyond maintaining that stance with students whenever the subject comes up, what might their role be?

Significant Adult. Both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying will likely need to talk to someone at some stage. Teenagers will generally choose for themselves a significant adult for that purpose and it is not unusual for a teacher to find they are in that position. Playing the role of an “independent sounding-board” can be an invaluable support to a teenager as they try to figure out their best course of action, but for that to happen, it is important not to jump in and become their advocate with the school administration.

It is important, also, for teachers to maintain a professional distance from their students and not to get drawn into student online banter. There is a very fine line between banter that is genuinely funny for all involved and the beginnings of cyberbullying. Most of the time, students manage the distinction themselves, but when the line is crossed and victimisation begins to grow from the humour, a teacher who is involved in the banter can find themselves involved unwittingly in the cyberbullying. Students will choose their significant adults ultimately because they are adults, not because they can behave like teenagers. The professionalism of teachers is not only their best protection against inappropriate involvement with students, but also their primary qualification for becoming the significant adults who can help their teenage students as they journey towards adulthood.

Footnote: West Mercia Police in the UK have published information documents about cyberbullying for young people and for adults, which you may find helpful.

Communication…communication…communication!

Communication is an aspect of life about which teenagers sometimes receive a bad press, as is evidenced by the widespread caricature of the moody, sullen teenager. The public persona, with hood up, earpieces in, hair hanging over downward-directed eyes, sends out the message that communication is off the agenda.

At home, the closed bedroom door, perhaps with “do not enter/disturb” notices prominently displayed, sends a similar message. The noise level within the room can render even shouted messages inaudible. By contrast, family meals can sometimes be painfully silent, with monosyllabic responses representing the sole contribution to human dialogue. The apparently superior attractiveness of the computer or smartphone screen over a person can be a further deterrent to any form of conversation within the home.

At school, different dynamics come into play. Some shrink from social interaction, choosing to become practically invisible. Even when addressed with a direct question, the only response might be a frightened, silent stare. Others put on such a performance to project an image for the benefit of their peers that anyone attempting to communicate with them becomes part of the supporting cast.

The above are all one-sided caricatures, all of which I have seen multiple times. They represent a partial picture. In my experience, there are as many teenagers who communicate frequently and naturally, as there are teenagers who avoid communication. However, that does not take away from the fact that many adults find communication with teenagers difficult. So let’s remind ourselves of the nature of communication.

The Nature of Communication

Communication requires two (or more) people. It follows that where communication is difficult between two parties, the reasons could lie with either party or with both. Before jumping to accuse teenagers for being at fault when there are communication difficulties, then, I suggest we pause and first ask ourselves whether the reason might not lie, at least in part, with those of us who are adults. The reasons could be many: fear of engaging with those from a culture we do not understand; lack of self-confidence that makes us worry we might be shown up as foolish or mocked by those who are younger; not being able to find the energy for what we perceive will be an uphill task. Whatever the reason, we need to understand that if part of the reason for the communication difficulty resides with us, then that is the part over which we have direct control and which we need to address if we genuinely want the communication to improve.

Communication is a two-way activity. Good communication requires parties to engage in speaking and in listening – in turn! If our interactions with teenagers stem from the need to “set them straight”; or if we rush in to accuse or criticise when they have only had the chance to utter half a sentence, then it should come as no surprise to us if we leave the interaction feeling that communication was unsuccessful. The old saying that two ears and one mouth are an indication that we should listen twice as much as we speak has some truth in it! Being prepared to listen and to hear, even when we do not like the message, is fundamental to communicating with teenagers. Of course, there is a place for responding and challenging, but sometimes, if we take the time to listen and hear, then the need for us to “have our say” might well go away.

Suggestions for Parents

The recent holiday period will have thrown many families together for unusually long periods of time. For a number of families, communication will likely have become an issue at some point. If our family is one in which there is ordinarily little communication between the adult and teenage members, this ought not to surprise us. The expectation that families who do not ordinarily communicate can be thrown together for an extended period and experience smooth communication throughout is unreasonable.

Create good conditions for communication by making it a regular feature of the life of your family. This will work out differently for each family. For some it will revolve around eating together as a family; for others it may mean becoming involved in a shared activity; for others it might require the carving out of a time that is regarded as sacrosanct by all members of the family. How it happens is not the issue here, but it is important that it does happen. If it has not been the habit of your family to make time for communication, it will be difficult at first, but communication generally becomes easier with practice. A time of crisis comes to most families at some point. It is during those times of crisis that the ability to communicate is crucially important, and regular communication is the best possible preparation for those times.

Model active listening. An active listener sets out to hear what a person is really saying, rather than resting content with thinking they know what is being said or hearing what they want to hear. Conflict is much more likely to find a satisfactory resolution when both parties understand and practise active listening. Parents who listen actively to their teenagers have a higher chance of getting to know what are genuinely their teenager’s concerns. Additionally, by modelling this approach to communication within the family, they increase the likelihood that the teenagers themselves will learn this important life skill that can transform communication.

Take the risk of talking about taboo subjects. Most of us have subjects about which we find it difficult to talk. They can be because of the personal nature of the subject, such as sexual matters or intimate feelings; they can arise from religious beliefs or cultural assumptions linked to our heritage. Learning to overcome our personal reluctance to address such topics from time to time, using straight-forward, clear language, is a valuable approach to model for our teenagers. Frequently, these are the very topics about which our teenagers are seeking information and advice. All too frequently they become the topics on which they turn to their peers for that advice because they are aware of the taboo nature of the subject for us. However valuable a contribution their peers might be able to make to helping them reflect on the issues, they are probably not the issues that we want to leave entirely at the mercy of peer influence.

Suggestions for Teachers

In some respects, teachers are professional communicators. What we are dealing with in this article, however, goes beyond the transfer of academic information and skills. How does our communication in the classroom influence the ability of the teenage students to communicate effectively?

Model effective workplace communication. Learning how to communicate effectively for the workplace is an important element of learning for teenagers. Teachers make a valuable contribution to this aspect of education by ensuring that their classroom communication embodies respect for others, values differences and approaches problems with an open mind. With such approaches modelled by the teacher, it becomes easier to establish these as standards for communication amongst members of the class.

Say what you mean, and conversely, if you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Teenagers are exposed to all manner of communication online and in the media: exaggerated claims from politicians, uses of hyperbole in advertising, celebrity boasts, and so on. The lines are not always clear between persuasion, argument and advocacy, on the one hand, and abuse, threats and coercion, on the other. Language is a powerful communication tool and how teachers use it in the classroom and how they help their students decipher the message being communicated is another valuable element of a teenager’s education about communication.

Challenge the peer games that obstruct communication. Communication is such an important aspect of human life and society that it is crucial for teenagers to learn how to communicate effectively. The refusal to allow the peer power games of teenage social interaction a place in the classroom is another valuable way in which teachers convey the value of communication and the power of its proper use.

Teenagers, personal mobile devices and social media – a reasoned approach

For many, this is a hot topic. The past decade has seen a massive increase in the availability of personal mobile devices. Over the same period, there has been a large-scale development of social media sites and apps, which are very popular amongst teenagers. (For a recent statistical summary see How Much Time Do People Spend on Social Media?, Evan Asano, Social Media Today, Jan 4th, 2017).

Opinion concerning the effects of the technological age on teenagers is mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, there are those who seek to shield teenagers from technology, listing increased anxiety, sleeplessness and the danger of moral corruption among reasons for their approach. On the other hand, there are those who point to benefits such as increased access to information, ease of communication and life skill development for the 21st century, in their catalogue of benefits accruing from the technological age.

Those at either extreme of the spectrum of opinion concerning teenagers and their use of personal mobile devices and social media are unlikely to change their opinion. Most, however, feel somewhat bewildered by the extraordinary range of views on this subject. Let me outline some basic tenets of what I believe to be a reasoned approach.

Both the benefits and risks associated with teenage use of personal mobile devices and social media are real. It seems to me that this represents a reasonable starting point. Personal mobile devices and social media sites are essentially tools and as such they are morally neutral. But as with most tools, when placed in human hands, they can be used for good or ill. What is important, therefore, is for us to understand the range of benefits associated with their use, whilst at the same time recognizing the dangers. The challenge with respect to teenagers then becomes that of how to help them develop boundaries that will lead to the optimum balance between the benefits that can be gained from their use set against the minimum exposure to the risks.

Boundaries need to be flexible according to the age and culture of the individual. We should never lose sight of that fact that all teenagers are individuals. Whilst we may refer to them generically as “teenagers”, who share common opportunities, concerns and challenges on account of their stage in life, they nevertheless remain individuals and what is right for one might not be right for another. Especially in the early teens, it might be necessary to have stricter boundaries whilst the teenager develops a feel for where their own boundaries should be, along with the will to establish and the capability to observe those boundaries. How personal mobile devices are to be used, which social media sites should be accessible, and which type of site or material should be considered inappropriate, will all change with the age of the user and the cultural beliefs of their family and community of origin.

Personal mobile devices and social media should be approached as any other issue affecting teenagers, not separated into an “extra serious” category of its own. It is, of course, true that the technological aspect of teenage life is one of the areas that distinguishes the experience of being a teenager today from what it may have been like for their parents or teachers when they were themselves teenagers. Whilst we should not underestimate the enormity of the shift that technological advancement has brought to society, I believe it is a mistake to invest this area with an extraordinary significance when it comes to our approach to helping teenagers navigate their way through it. Rather, our approach to helping them through this particular aspect of teenage life ought, I suggest, to be similar to the approach we take to other areas of teenage life, including matters like the development of sexuality, responsible behaviour within the family, and the management of alcohol intake. The subject under discussion will be influenced by a multitude of other areas of teenage life, each of which will also be influenced by the aspect of technology. Overall, consistency is important so as to create a unified approach to the whole of life rather than risk the creation of taboos through a disproportionate focus on one particular area.

Basic tips for parents

An article by Ana Homayoun earlier this year in the New York Times, based on a survey by Common Sense Media, suggested that 86% of teenagers claim to have received general advice about life online from their parents. Alongside this, some 30%, it has to be said, reckoned that their parents knew little or nothing about the social media apps and sites they use. However, the most striking finding was that most teenagers “still say that their parents have the biggest influence on determining what is appropriate and inappropriate online” (Homayoun).

Whilst it may not always feel like it, then, the vast majority of parents retain a powerful opportunity to influence their teenagers in the area of online activity. With that in mind, here are some basic tips.

Make “responsible use” the goal. Whenever the issue of setting boundaries arises in the context of technology, I encourage parents to make “responsible use” the goal. Any boundaries developed with the teenager ought to have as their aim the goal of promoting the teenager’s responsible use of the technological tools available to them. This approach seeks to shape behaviour in the present in such a way that it provides a firm foundation for the future.

Communication is the key – listening. Communication between parents and their teenagers is not always smooth or easy. However, clear communication is a key requirement if the teenager is to be enabled to set helpful boundaries in the realm of their personal mobile devices and use of social media. It is important to remember that good communication is two-way in its nature! Parents need to take time to listen actively to their teenagers about how it feels to be immersed in a world of technology with its 24-hour demand for their attention from social media sites. Those who thus gain an understanding of the world their teenager inhabits, and who hear the areas in which their teenager would like help in shaping boundaries, are showing themselves to be wise parents.

Communication is the key – explaining. Alongside careful listening, there needs to be patient explanation in terms of making clear the need for helpful boundaries with regard to the use of personal mobile devices and social media. If the aim of developing responsible use is kept clearly in mind, then patient explanation, as opposed to aggressive assertion, provides a reliable path towards acceptance on the part of teenagers of the need for boundaries to enhance their freedom to explore online from a position of relative safety.

Basic tips for teachers

Model responsible use within the educational process. The way technology is put to use within the classroom in pursuit of the curriculum is an important area where the responsible use of technology can be modelled for teenagers. Students can see with little effort when the use of technology provides for genuine enhancement of their education and when it is more a case of their teacher using it simply because they (the teacher) thinks it’s cool. As with all educational tools, both personal devices and social media can be used to great effect in school, but they can also be used frivolously and that is of no help to anyone.

A forum for teenage discussion. It is important that schools accommodate the need for teenage debate about the benefits and drawbacks of technological resources. Teachers can do their students a great service by allowing their classroom to become, when appropriate, a forum where debate is encouraged about aspects of the use of personal devices and social media. For many, debate provides the opportunity for the honing of personal beliefs and approaches, and in this area, as in others, schools provide an invaluable service by allowing debate to occur.

Support teenage action. A recent article in the Daily Mail Online (UK) drew attention to the emergence in some schools of an opportunity for a digital detox. Students and teachers agree on a number of days during which there will be no use of technology in school, either in class or during breaks. This could have value in several respects. It emphasizes that these technologies are tools and that human life and education can continue without them. At the same time, it emphasizes the importance of the technologies by reminding participants of some of the ways that we have come to rely them for the more effective pursuit of education. But most importantly, taking the deliberate decision to manage without the technologies for a period of time models to students that it is possible to control the use of technology, and control is an essential feature of responsible use. A digital detox, of course, is unlikely to be very effective if it is imposed. However, if the concept is discussed with student leaders, so that they see the potential benefits, and if, consequently, they are prepared to own the event and carry through its management themselves, it has the potential to be a powerful experience within the school community. Such an event could provide an effective model that students can choose to carry over also into other areas of life.

Teenagers and Boundaries

Recent events in the worlds of both entertainment and politics have underlined for many the importance of teenagers learning to construct and observe appropriate boundaries. Our boundaries define who we are, allow us to interact smoothly with those around us, and lay the basis for successful family, professional and social relationships.

Teenagers are sometimes caricatured as seeking to live without boundaries. However, life with no boundaries is anarchy, and whilst it might sometimes look like this from a distance, anarchy is not a fair description of the teenage world. Such descriptions are, rather, examples of the human tendency to dismiss the unfamiliar, to bad-mouth those who are perceived to be different from us.

Teenagers, however, do test and challenge boundaries. This is part of the process of growing towards maturity and working out which boundaries are appropriate for them to adopt as their own. To this end, an understanding of the importance and purposes of boundaries, the reasons given for particular boundaries, and the benefits and responsibilities attached to boundaries are all important.

The importance and purpose of boundaries

Teenagers are apt to see boundaries as control mechanisms by which adults seek to keep them in check. Boundaries are, however, so much more than control mechanisms.

Limitation. It is undeniable that there is an element of limitation within the concept of a boundary. Just as a property boundary delineates the limit of land ownership, so our personal boundaries help define the extent of acceptable behaviour. This is the characteristic of a boundary that a teenager might see as controlling, but that understanding comes from an egocentric interpretation of a concept that is essentially social. Theoretically, we all accept limitations to our personal freedom of expression so that we might all feel comfortable interacting with each other in society. Such boundaries lay the basis for the ways family, professional, social and intimate relationships are all conducted.

Liberation. A further purpose of a boundary is to define an area within which there is liberation. In terms of the analogy of the property boundary introduced above, the boundary of one’s own property defines an area within which there is a considerable degree of freedom for the owner to decide how they will conduct their life. Similarly, the concept of personal boundaries defines an “area” within which the individuals, teenagers included, are at greater liberty to experiment with their lifestyle. Boundaries concerned with the time a teenager returns home in the evening is an example of such a boundary as it accords freedom to explore up until the time boundary is reached.

Protection. The third purpose of a boundary to which I wish to draw attention is that of protection. The property boundary again provides a helpful analogy. One’s own property is the place to which one retreats to find peace and security – it’s the place where you feel safe. Similarly with personal boundaries, they are meant to provide protection, both to us and to others. Boundaries built around the concept of “safe sex” would be an example of a boundary providing a measure of protection to all involved.

The role of parents in helping teenagers develop boundaries

It is important to make clear that in talking of boundaries, I am not talking about the plethora of tiny matters about which many families have their own rules. In talking about the need to develop boundaries, I am talking about major areas such as what defines us as individuals, our relationships with other people, and how we function as members of society.

Agreed boundaries are better than imposed boundaries

Good parents establish boundaries for their children from a very young age, and for the most part, their children accept those boundaries as “the way things are” within their family. Once they reach the teenage years, however, they will begin to question, in some cases if there’s a need for boundaries at all, and in most cases, why these established boundaries cannot be placed somewhere else. It is at this point that boundaries need to have some flexibility. As age and maturity increase, there needs to be a flexibility to create space within which teenagers can examine whether they will adopt the exact same boundaries as their family of origin, or whether they will modify or replace those boundaries. The concept of an agreed boundary, which allows the teenager to have input, and in which there are agreed consequences if the boundary is ignored, is advantageous for all concerned.

The best way of teaching boundaries is to model them

Teenagers can be idealistic in their views. If teenagers perceive their own parents as demanding higher standards from them than they are prepared to live by themselves, the likelihood of them rejecting parental boundaries is increased. Put more positively, the best way for parents to help their teenagers develop good boundaries for themselves is to model those boundaries. Parents, for example, whose personal boundaries ensure they treat others with respect whatever the circumstances convey the importance of such boundaries to their teenagers.

The role of teachers in helping teenagers develop boundaries

Alongside parents, teachers have a key role in helping teenagers develop boundaries.

School is the primary environment for developing a sense of workplace boundaries

School is the daily workplace for most teenagers. The standards and expectations a school sets for its students lay the basis for their understanding of acceptable workplace conduct. The establishment of personal boundaries and respect for those of others are essential areas of learning, such as those that define a person’s “space”. Appropriate boundaries enable us to function most of the time without having actively to ask in every situation questions like how close it is appropriate to stand or sit to another person, or if, when and where it is acceptable for one person to touch another.

Teachers model professional boundaries

Teachers are the primary models for teenagers of professional boundaries since teachers are the professionals with whom most teenagers come into contact on a daily basis. It is not simply the teacher-teenager relationship that is important here. Students see the value teachers place on each other and how they relate to each other. They see how their teachers relate to the school’s secretarial staff and the cleaners. They see how they relate to parents when issues arise that need to be addressed. Teenagers use their observations as they form their understanding of what might be the appropriate boundaries to take with them into the workplace. Much of this is not “taught” in the traditional sense of classroom teaching, but it is communicated nonetheless and it is an important element of how the best teachers help prepare their students for the world of work.

A case study in boundaries: the world of personal mobile devices and social media

The advent of personal mobile devices and the development of social media have demolished many traditional social boundaries. During the past week, CNN reported a survey conducted in the US for Common Sense Media. The survey suggested that 50% of American teenagers feel they are addicted to their mobile devices which, given the human facility for denial, suggests the figure is considerably higher. Personal mobile devices allow the inclusion, or intrusion, of social media into every aspect of the teenager’s life.

The survey did not examine the way teachers use personal mobile devices. However, the 78% of teens who check their phone at least hourly was followed closely by the 69% of parents who do the same! So how can parents and teachers help teenagers establish reasonable boundaries with regard to the use of social media? In next week’s blog, I will aim to discuss that question. In the meantime, if you have an opinion about the above discussion, or about the best way to help teenagers construct appropriate boundaries for use of their personal mobile devices and social media, I invite you to leave a comment on this site.

 

All change for teenagers

Teenagers are in transition from childhood to the adult world and experiencing one of the major changes a person will ever face. All too often, those who have made that transition, whether long ago or more recently, forget what it was like and show little understanding of, and patience with, those who are currently experiencing that journey for themselves.

Everything changes

During the teenage years, literally everything changes. Some seem to experience the changes with few problems; whereas others hit problems and suffer enormously. The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but to give a summary of some of the changes that occur during the formative teenage years.

  • Physical appearance. Compare a photo of yourself aged 13 with one aged 19 and note the difference. In some cases it’s difficult to believe you’re looking at the same person! But what you can see is only part of what changes – a boy’s voice, for example, changes completely too! Accepting, shaping or fighting physical changes occupies a lot of teenage attention.
  • Gender & Sexuality. Gender consciousness and increasing sexual awareness have a major impact for many teenagers.
  • Levels of responsibility. Increasingly, teenagers need to take on greater responsibility, owning the consequences of their decisions and actions.
  • Outlook on life. During the teenage years, personal values are often developed, either confirming or replacing the parental values embedded during childhood. This can be a major source of conflict within the family, especially if it includes the rejection of the family’s faith or cultural values.
  • Relationships. Family relationships can be transformed as the teenager moves away from parental control towards independence. Peer relationships often take on a much larger influence than previously. Intimate relationships grow in importance and are explored by many.
  • Education. The nature of education changes, becoming more competitive and laying the ground for choices regarding life’s direction.
  • Career aspirations. These develop for many during the teenage years, providing confirmation for some of a long-dreamed-of future, but opening up completely new horizons for others.

The above is the kind of list that provokes responses like, “I’m glad those days are past!” and “Thankfully, I won’t ever have to go through those times again!” Perhaps such expressions of relief give us a hint as to why those who have completed the journey to adulthood can demonstrate little patience with those still struggling through that time of tumultuous change.

Many of us prefer to leave the more painful memories behind of what it was like for us, but today’s teenagers are a constant reminder, and all the more sharp when they are within our own family or our classroom. Parents and teachers are the two groups of adults in positions to interact most with today’s teenagers. Their roles are different, but complementary, under the overall aim of helping teenagers reach the world of adulthood. How that happens will be different for every teenager, parent and teacher, but here are a few pointers that I hope will stimulate some helpful reflection.

Three Basic Tips for Parents

  1. Accept that your teenager experiences the world differently than you did. Not only is it true that no two people are the same, but the world has changed greatly since you were a teenager yourself. The pace and pressures of life have increased; the attitudes and values of society have changed; advances in technology have revolutionized the way life is experienced. Taking the time to find out what life feels like for your teenager could be a great eye-opener, and one that could change the quality of your relationship with them.
  2. Take the risk of letting them go. The process of letting go needs to be gradual and spread throughout the teenage years, but it needs to be real. Independence is learned by experience, and wise parents will take the risk of passing increasing amounts of responsibility to their teenagers so that when the time comes for them to leave home they’re ready to embrace the challenge. When they fall, help them recover, challenge them to learn from their mistakes, but resist the temptation to hold on to them more tightly.
  3. Allow them to experience the consequences of their own decisions and actions. When their decisions prove to be good, give them the credit. When things go awry, resist the urge to take over. It can be painful for a parent to watch and support while their teenager experiences the consequences of their chosen course of action that has gone pear-shaped. However, the parent who always jumps in and shelters their teenager perpetuates the view that we live in a world where there are no consequences, and that is a delusion.

Those who travel regularly know the importance of dressing for their destination. In the journey through teenage, it is the destination of adulthood that needs to be allowed to shape the journey since that is the best preparation for a safe arrival.

Three Basic Tips for Teachers

  1. Treat teenagers as adults; not as children. The caricature of a teacher may say, “I’ll treat you like adults when you behave like adults”. In reality, I suspect such an approach may have more to do with the insecurities of the teacher than anything else as it feels so much safer to assert control. However, treating teenagers like adults often elicits adult behaviour. This is an important way of helping to ensure that those on the teenage journey are dressed for their destination.
  2. Give genuine responsibility. The giving of responsibility to teenagers is vital to them learning how it is handled. From taking responsibility for their own learning to taking leadership responsibility within the school community, teenagers need to be trusted with responsibility. It takes considerable skill on the part of teachers to develop the ability to trust teenagers with real responsibility and to help them learn from all aspects of it. It takes tremendous resolve to resist the urge to grab that responsibility back again as soon as something seems not to be working out.
  3. Fulfil the role of a teacher. It is sometimes thought to be a shortcut to teenagers becoming adults if their teacher becomes like one of them. Such confusion of roles rarely results in anything good. Of course you should be friendly, but they need you to be their teacher so that they can learn from your greater perspective, expertise and example. Trying to become just another of their friends is to shortchange them. Furthermore, in the long-term, they can come to resent such a move as a mark of disrespect, or can use it to take advantage of their teacher.

For all who seek to engage with teenagers, the importance of reassurance and encouragement, alongside appropriate levels of challenge, cannot be over-emphasised. In the experience of many adults, reassurance, encouragement and challenge are significant aids to growth. To those going through the enormous changes of the teenage years, they can make all the difference. They can even be life-savers.

(The intention of this introductory blog has been to sketch out an overall picture. Many of the issues touched upon could form the subject of individual blog posts and will do over weeks to come.)