Do you remember your own teenage behaviour?

No matter how old your child gets, no matter what comes out of their mouth or what they do, they generally want to make their parents happy and proud - didn’t you?

Of course teenagers don’t always get this right…

Your teenager doesn’t want to upset you, hurt you or make you feel sad. The truth is they need you now, as much as they did when they were your baby, just in a very different way.

Understanding teenage behaviour

If there is one constant about the teenage years, it is change. It’s not just the obvious physical changes – adolescence is a period of rapid development for your child’s brain too. All this comes with a host of pressures and expectations at home, at school and with friends. Some teenagers seem to take most things in their stride. For others it can be a time of stress, insecurity and confusion.

Teenagers may not be exactly sure why they are acting the way they are, so they can’t always explain this or tell you what’s wrong.

Teenagers can switch behaviour and mood so rapidly, so we can lose sight of the fact that they don’t have a fully formed adult brain. We talk to them like adults and expect them to respond like adults, but their brain doesn’t yet work like an adult brain.

Not all of the physical connections in your teenager’s adolescent brain are fully formed. They might also work a bit erratically at times. It can help to think of your teenager’s brain as a bit like a TV remote control. Some of the more complicated functions don’t yet work and the basic buttons can be a bit hit-and-miss. This can really help when it comes to your expectations of your teenager – especially when emotions are high.

Remembering that the child you know is still inside your teenager and understanding what’s behind their behaviour can help you respond in a way that helps them. It might even help you to keep your cool when things get fraught!

What changes a teenager’s behaviour?

As with younger children, changes in young people’s behaviour can be caused by significant events, such as: 

More often though, the causes are fairly common life experiences, worries and pressures which can still be very distressing for an individual teenager.

Parents talk to us about lots of the things that cause stress and distress for young people, like:

  • identity and belonging
  • sex and relationships
  • sexuality
  • physical changes and appearance
  • relationships with peers
  • pressures of school work
  • thinking ahead to their adult life and where they’ll fit in.

Teenagers have to try to make sense of their confusing relationships, pressures and feelings without having the emotional skills, or the fully grown brain, to manage all of this. This can come out as ‘bad behaviour’ – like cheek, backchat, moodiness, shouting, slamming doors or breaking rules. The world can be a scary place and teenagers don’t have the skills yet to work it all out. Even if sometimes they might think they do!

It can be hard in these moments for parents to be calm, to take a step back and look at things from a teenager’s perspective. But our adult calmness can make all the difference.

Getting the balance right

Many parents and carers contact Parentline because they don’t know what to do about their teenager’s behaviour.

Often, without realising, we can get stuck in a cycle of reacting in the heat of the moment as our children push our buttons. 

Rather than get stuck in this spiral of arguments where there are no ‘winners’, parents have to walk a tricky tightrope of managing their own stress at the same time as providing the boundaries, safety and structure  teenagers need as they become more independent. It’s a balance none of us gets right all the time.

Sometimes teenagers just need something to kick against, and – while friends are favoured – family members are often in the firing line.

If you’re the person your teenager has chosen to be stroppy with, it’s probably because they feel safe with you and don’t feel they have to be at their best around you all the time.

Allowing your teenager to release their emotions and stresses actually helps them to build a healthy adult brain – one that can make sense of the world and understand right and wrong. It will set your child up to have healthy relationships in the long run. 

It just goes to show that your teenager still needs you – and the boundaries you set!