How to parent teenagers

Parents tend to see teenagers the way people see the world – with trepidation. But they don’t need to. Instead, teenagers could be seen as harbingers of hope – whether we agree with them or not. This is just one of the insights Clinical Psychologist Judith Ancer had for Henley Business School Africa students on Saturday 29 October when she presented her talk “Trick or Treat, Parenting the Teenage Brain” to students, their families and faculty members on campus.

“When we see the world we've only seen, we assume the worst of the world, (yet) when you look at the research about what's happening in the world, it is actually getting better for more people – more people have access to food, to electricity, and to medicine... and that applies to how we view teenagers – we shouldn't see the drama, we shouldn't just see the teenagers who've behaved badly or who are creating crises. What we should see is that teenagers today are actually offering a sense of hope.

“They are activists. You have to admire their courage and their capacity to think bigger.”

In fact, she said, Gen Z is the best-behaved cohort of teens in world history.

Dr Ancer, a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist, has recently written a book on mental health in the workplace. She was one of the founders of the Health Workers Care Network, volunteers who have offered counselling to healthcare workers since the start of the recent COVID 19 pandemic.

Fragmented attention, poor sleep patterns, FOMO and the all-pervasive effects of social media; from fake news, fake friends, disconnection and disinhibition, to cyberbullying and shaming – these were among the topics she discussed, as well as understanding teen neurology. Parents though, play a critical role in the process – as well as being a major part of the problem.

“Parents have to know themselves,” she said, “they have to understand their own triggers and issues and understand that if they catastrophise issues, their children will too. Is it a question of teenage hormones or are parents actually being unreasonable?” she asked.

Part of the problem is that the current generation of parents who grew up in the 80s especially, promised their children they would be the safest generation, but in a sea of social media; heightened expectations because of information overload, public health crises and wars, many young teenagers report a real drop in life satisfaction, particularly among those aged between 11 and 15. Parents, she said, have to be present but not over-bearing.

“There are many ways to ruin your teen: adopting the philosophy of ‘coming second is first loser’; blaming others and refusing to take accountability; losing perspective; taking things personally; and, living your life through your teen.”

The solution instead, she explained, was to set boundaries and create reasonable expectations: “Understand that life involves stress and that sometimes failure is not just unavoidable but inevitable for optimal performance. School is often boring and hard. Teach them that life is a marathon, not a sprint and learn to work with their temperament, not against it.”

The worst kind of parents were those who were high demanding but low in their engagement with their children. This, she said, would only create a toxic environment.

“Act more, yack less. Remember this is a developmental process not personal.”

Parenting, she said should be about teaching children about consequences, not about being punitive. Parents needed to instil responsibility by allowing healthy risk-taking and fostering resilience in their children.

“The key thing is to remember not to lose perspective; you are not alone and that this phase won’t last. Relaxation is not a luxury. Put joy on the to-do list.”

The talk was one of the regular family-friendly events that are once again now being held in person on Henley Africa’s Johannesburg campus since the end of the lockdown.

“It’s a vital part of what we do,” says Henley Africa dean and director Professor Jon Foster-Pedley. “When we designed our flagship MBA course more than 10 years ago, we set out to create a family-friendly MBA to break away from the stigma of the degree as the Marriage Break up Academy. Events such as these with helpful tips to understand what’s happening at home with your kids, are vital.

“We aren’t alone, we all share the same concerns and having someone of the calibre of Dr Ancer address us really does help. We are also very proud of the fact that while she is well known in Johannesburg especially, Henley Africa is the first business school that she has presented this talk to and I hope she will be able to present it at other business schools too.

“We give our students the skills to become the leaders who will build the businesses that will build Africa – but the very foundation of it all, is building and sustaining a happy family – especially through the terrors of the teenage years.”

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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