Family Therapy UK


What happens when a child becomes a teenager?  This handout explores some of the changes that take place when a child becomes a teenager.  The teenage years mark a transition in a young person's life when they change from being a child to an adult.  Physically, children are maturing earlier than they used to, and changes in technology and lifestyle appear to have speeded up young peoples social development.

Teenage years are characterised by less dependence on the family and more exposure to the outside world.  It is a move from dependence to independence.  This process begins gradually and accelerates as the child becomes older.  A parents’ role changes from providing essential nurturing and protective care and instruction to preparing a child for independence and the ability to survive in the world outside the family.  At this stage, parenting styles change to provide advice, negotiation and contracts with their teenagers.

This process of change can be difficult for all involved – parents, siblings and for the teenager themselves.

Cognitive Development

Teenager’s brains are still developing particularly in terms of:

Developing advanced reasoning skills.

Developing abstract thinking.

Development of meta-cognition (making sense of everything).

How does this affect teenagers?

They need more sleep – around 9.5 hours per night.

Increased clumsiness can result as their bodies change and develop.

They can develop worries about being out of step in terms of development with other teenagers.

They can develop awkward feelings to opposite sex parents as they mature sexually.

They become more interested in sexual matters.

They develop greater sensitivities to weight and their general appearance.

They develop a heightened level of self-consciousness.

Strong over-dramatic feelings can develop – like: “You have ruined my life!” “No one understands me!”

They can become cause orientated (e.g. joining groups such as Greenpeace, the church or a gang)

They can become more interested in ‘justice’ – though often have difficulty seeing all the shades of grey in issues.

So what can you do to help them in this area of development?

Try not to over-criticise your teenage child.

Encourage a good sleep pattern and try to understand the need for sleeping-in.

Encourage healthy models of eating.

Encourage exercise.

Be open to answering questions about sex.

Respect their need for space.

Be patient about teenagers grooming habits.

Psycho Social Development

So what are the changes taking place in this area of a teenager’s life?

Establishing an identity (A sense of who they are)

Establishing a sense of autonomy (being comfortable with themselves)

Establishing intimacy in their relationships with other people – boyfriends and girlfriends.

Becoming comfortable with one’s sexuality.

Achieving educational goals.

How does this affect teenagers?

They begin to spend more time with friends and less with their families

They question more about sex, sexual attitudes and adult beliefs.

They may become upset and confused about their own sexuality.

Teenagers often keep diaries as a way of working through issues.

Issues of privacy arise such as insisting on doors being locked.

There may be an interest in multiple hobbies/interests and these may change quickly.

The development of elusiveness (difficult to understand or make sense of)

They may become more argumentative and frustrated and come out with comments such as, “You just don’t understand me!”

Teenagers may not want to be seen in public with their parents.

They begin to interact with parents as people in their own right (this can be particularly difficult for parents).

So what can you do about these changes?

Encourage involvement in groups and activities.  Don’t be surprised if they lose interest after a short time and want to try out something else.

Praise them for their efforts and abilities, even if they do not see things through.  They need encouragement at such a sensitive time in their lives, not criticising and putting down.  Try to encourage self-confidence and a belief in their abilities.

Explore career goals and options with them in an open minded way.

Establish clear and reasonable behavioural guidelines

Establish rituals to mark significant points in their development e.g. allowing them to have a party on their sixteenth birthday, modifying rules around time-keeping, giving them the key to the house etc.

Be aware of the increased importance of friends.  Make you house available for them.  This way you get to know their friends and can keep in touch with what is going on in their lives.

Although teenagers are developing new independence and social skills they still need a structured environment in which to live.  They don’t stop needing your love and guidance.

Impact on Family Life

We have already explored how teenage development may impact on the emotional climate of the family for parents.  Younger siblings will be impacted on too.  If you have younger children and teenagers, you will need quite different parenting styles for each set of children.  This can be draining and demanding.  Sometimes, you will need to remind yourself that a different approach is needed.

Modifying your management style can be difficult.  It’s important to take time out with your partner to discuss the situation so you work together and in tune with each other. Thinking about your own experiences as a teenager with your parents can help you identify difficult areas of engagement.  For instance, if you never felt you could talk to your own parents as a teenager, you may over do it with your own.  On the other hand, you might not know how to talk to your teenager because you were never taught how by your parents.  If you have a partner, sharing this information can help them understand your attitudes and responses. Younger children can worry about their older siblings if they are having problems and be upset by constant rowing and arguments.

So what can you do?

Try not to take things too personally.  Teenagers can say and do hurtful things, which they later often regret. Try to empathise, listen to what they are saying and try not to get drawn into arguments with them.  Try not to see things as a battle.

Listen to their ideas.  Involve them in decision making around rules.

Provide opportunities to involve them in voluntary work.

Be curious about their ideas and what they are doing.

Be open to discussing your own views with them.

Build a relationship with your teenager.  You can do this by discussing your own teenager years, your mistakes and your vulnerabilities.

When to Seek Help with a Teenager

There are times when a teenager may not cope with these life changes.  Look out for the following difficulties. Sometimes you may need to seek professional help.

Marked changes in school performance.

An inability to cope with problems and daily activities.

Marked changes in sleeping patterns.

Changes in eating habits.

Lots of physical complaints.

Depression - shown by sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude, often accompanied by poor appetite, difficulty sleeping, thoughts of death and social withdrawal.

Abuse of alcohol.

Sexually acting out.

An intense fear of becoming obese (fat) that is out of proportion to their actual body weight, vomiting food, restricted eating and/or over-exercising.

Persistent nightmares.

Threats of self-harm to self or others.

Self-injury or self-destructive behaviour.

Frequent outbursts of anger and aggression.

Threats to run away.

Truancy, thefts, vandalism and violation of the rights of others.

Strange thoughts and feelings and unusual behaviours.

These are typical symptoms of Teenage depression:

Poor performance in school.

Withdrawal from friends and activities.

Sadness and hopelessness.

Lack of enthusiasm, energy or motivation.

Anger and rage and overreaction to criticism.

Feelings of not being able to satisfy ideals.

Poor self-esteem or guilt.

Indecision, lack of concentration or forgetfulness.

Restlessness and agitation.

Changes in eating or sleeping patterns.

Substance misuse.

Self-harm such as cutting arms or other parts of their body.

Problems with authority.

Suicidal thoughts or actions.

If you feel your chid has depression, encourage them to seek help from their doctor or counsellor.

Video on Depression from youtube


Where to get Help for Teenagers

If you are having difficulties or have concerns for your teenager try the things mentioned above.  If they do not work, consider these other sources of help:

Get another family member to talk to them (partner, sibling, grandparents etc.)

Ask their friends if they have concerns or worries (in a discreet way).  Ask if they will talk to them.

Ask at school or college if their tutors have concerns or worries.  Enquire if the school or college have access to a counsellor.  In the UK, young people at High School have a Connexions worker allocated to them at age 14. The Connexions service may offer counselling services to young people.  Some schools have their own qualified counsellors as well. All schools have SENCO's - teachers who are trained to support children who are experiencing difficulties at school.

If your teenager has a mental health problem take them or encourage them to see their GP (doctor.) GP’s can refer to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services often called CAMHS.  CAMHS offer a range of services to families and young people.  Remember, that you cannot force your child to have therapy unless they have a very serious mental health problem.

In the UK you can contact NHS Direct for information and advice about mental health problems and who to contact for help in your area.

If your teenager has a complete mental breakdown such as a psychotic episode, contact your GP and/or the police if things are getting dangerous.  They can arrange an admission into a mental health unit even if the young person refuses.  However, your teenager will have to be judged to have a severe mental health problem before this will be done against their will.

If your teenager is being violent, aggressive and/or destructive of your property you can call the police.  They may contact social services if they feel it would help.

Social services may offer help with severe family-relationship difficulties.

Arrange to see a family therapist.  Family therapy is an effective treatment approach for many family teenage difficulties.  In the UK, Family Therapy is often available through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.  You can get it privately too and find qualified Family Therapists here

In the UK, Youth Offending Teams provide family support and help for young people who are at risk of getting in trouble with the law or who have received a conviction.

There are many voluntary agencies offering support to young people who have drug and alcohol problems.  A search on the internet will find national and local services.  Your GP and social service departments will give you information too.

There may be local youth workers available to give you advice and to provide help to your teenager.  Ask your local social services department to find out how to contact them.

Some social services departments and health services offer teenage parenting classes.  These aim to improve parenting skills and are especially useful when parents are falling out over the management of their teenagers.

In the UK your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service operate ‘duty professional’ services staffed by well-qualified mental health practitioners.  They can advise you on whether a referral to their service would be appropriate and if not, where you might look for help.

See my other handout – Finding Help – for information on how to contact some of the above services.

Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

1st May 2008

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