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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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