Living with a teenager is no easy feat. It can be a daily challenge of moodiness, risky behaviours and sometimes feeling like he's turned into a recluse and your left wondering what you did that was so bad to make him avoid you! Living (and surviving) a teenage boy can be hard. especially in the UK where smaller homes and damp weather mean we're crammed together for at least half the year.
There's lot's that can go on in the world of a teenager, so in this article we'll unpack what's going on inside their head, how their body plays a major role, and give you some techniques and tips to help you survive the adventure! This is the place to get some quality help with how to bring up your teenager and thrive along the way.
What's going on in their head?
The human brain is still developing well into his early 20's (up to about 25 years old to be exact!) so there's a lot going on inside their head that we can't see and they don't even notice themselves. Have you ever felt your brain grow? No, neither have we. So it's understandable to consider that so much of a teenagers behaviour they aren't even aware of. Those mood swings, inappropriate behaviours and rudeness they do sometimes have a genuine reason to not notice.
They are simply unaware of so much of their own behaviour and actions, it's not on purpose.
The science here is really helpful for understanding the bigger picture. If you want to survive living with a teenager or understand what they are thinking, then it's really useful to understand the human brain. But don't worry, in this article we'll keep it really simple and maybe save the biology lesson for another day.
The Pre-frontal cortex is the sticky-out bit at the very front of the brain (see picture below), it develops last but it's the bit of the brain that controls: responsible behaviours, personality expression, moderating how you behave socially, and expressing your personality.
So you can see where we might have a problem - pretty much all those bits we've just described are probably some of the problem areas you see in your teenage son. Annoying because this bit of the human brain keeps developing over time till mid-twenties, we're stuck with some bits of behaviour for a while - or at least not with the progression we'd like to see.
Now this is a really important point to remember:
Some of the negative behaviours we see in our teenagers we simply have to be very patient and understanding towards. Sometimes teenagers can't change because they simply haven't got the physiology or bio-chemistry to do the change...yet.
That's not their fault.
Now we wouldn't say this is always the case, and you probably don't want to share that information with them at the times they are looking for an excuse; but the truth is there's sometimes actually nothing you or they can do to change (at that moment). Their body simply hasn't developed in that way... yet.
Now, we share this not to create excuses for poor behaviour, but because sometimes it's important to cut you and them a little slack. They will make mistakes, they will get it wrong and so will you. That's OK.
Stages, not ages.
A helpful thing to remember is that the human brain develops in different ways and at different speeds - and it can also go backwards! Yes you heard it right, sometimes we adults act like children. It happens to be best of us, and usually comes out when we're experiencing some sort of stress, pressure or trauma. It can also happen at the most unexpected times after the event. So just because he broke up with his girlfriend last month, it doesn't mean he wont throw a temper tantrum on Wednesday.
This delayed and sometimes re-occurring pattern of behaviour is something he may have learnt over time, so it becomes a biological habit. This is where we learn our brain learns a pattern of behaviour (good or bad) and self-repeats because it can predict the outcome (even if possibly negative) which helps it feel safe. Now this might sound strange, but our brains have developed so that they can put themselves in higher levels of safety - for survival - so if the body can create a situation which it knows what is going to happen next, that delivers an element of safety. As long as the person feels like they are in control (by fueling an argument for example), the pay-off is that they have control over whats happens; thus delivering an element of safety. Sound's strange, but you can see the biological logic behind it. If you would like some more on this, here's a nice article for you explaining the different ages and what development happens through the years from 0-17 years.
You may have heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's a well accepted model that explains the psychological development stages the human brain goes through in order to develop. For the development to move to the next level, the proceeding level needs to reach fulfillment. This means that development will stop (and potentially recede) if something happens or development is delayed. It runs in this order:
Physiological needs: breathing, water, food, sleep, basic bodily functions.
Safety needs: feeling secure (attachment), employment/future prospects, having resources available, physical safety.
Love/belonging needs: friendships, family, (sexual) intimacy.
Esteem needs: self confidence, achieving, having respect and being respected, self-esteem.
Self-actualisation needs: developing morals, being creative, problem solving, showing fairness and lack of prejudice, accepting of others & world facts.
So you see, lots of the problem behaviour we can experience with teenagers are because they may have stumbling blocks lower down the list - now that's nothing to worry about - that's normal. But it would be unfair for us to expect massive changes from someone who doesn't have all the tools to do the job properly, and that's what it's like here. Sometimes they will move on quickly, other times something happens to shake and challenge their development. It's by these experiences that we'll see our young man develop into a well rounded member of society. Just have this sort of model in the back of your mind and you'll be surprised how accurately they'll track through the stages!
How their body is developing impacts the chemistry of their behaviour.
Have you heard of something called attachment theory? Attachment is the quality of the connections and relationships between people. In humans there are various stages of development, and from birth a baby will move through the stages as they hopefully develop when exposed to positive relationships.
When a baby is brought up in a positive, caring environment it will look something like this:
Pre-attachment (Birth to 6 weeks): no particular connection to a specific caregiver
Indiscriminate attachment (6 weeks to 7 months): shows preference to primary and secondary caregivers
Discriminate (7 months+): the child shows preference to one specific caregiver
Multiple (10 months+): the child shows multiple bonds with multiple caregivers
From this point on the child will more likely develop healthy attachments to others as they grow into teenagers and then adults. This will then possibly see stronger romantic and friendship relationships because they have a had a secure attachment and are able to mirror the care they were given as a child and develop a clear understandings of who they are. This enables them to have a sort of picture in their emotional head which says something like "I know who you are, therefore I know who I am. Of that basis all my behaviour's and relationships will be formed".
What you can do to help:
Good news! The major things that affect how this attachment relationship develops is based on just 2 things, which you have some control over:
The quality of the care given: consistent and quick care giving helps your son learn that he can depend on people who give him care. This helps to build trusting relationships which he'll take with him into all other relationships.
Having opportunities for secure attachments: If a young person doesn't have the opportunity to develop a relationship with a primary care giver, then they will not learn to trust. You can help them with this by being available when they need you. It can be a challenge, and within reason of course, but by simply being there in those moments you'll be doing wonders for his sense of security.
Why teenagers take risks and what you can do about it.
This is such a common issue for so many parents: their teenagers staying out late, drinking excessively, smoking, drugs, risky sexual behaviour etc - it can all create chaos not only for them, but for you living with a teenage boy!
So let's take a look at why they take those risks (even when as a parent, you can see just how stupid their decisions sometimes are!).
Firstly, as we have talked a bit about here already, some of their behaviour they genuinely can't help. They have a whole ecosystem of hormones and changing chemistry in their body and brain which makes so much of life very challenging.
The brain appears to be hard wired for increasing amounts of risk taking as a child grows, so as they enter the pre-adult world and have access and freedom, a lot more opportunities present themselves to a young person. Their brain is growing as it's exposed to new risks, so by trying things their brain is learning how to keep safe.
Some scientists believe boys are pre-programmed to take greater risks that girls because of this pre-disposition to be independent. This helps them learn how to spot dangers in the real world but can lead to destructive risk taking.
Teenagers go through a development stage where they become predominantly focused on the rewarding feelings they experience when they are admired by their growing group of friends. This can become an infatuation and quite addictive during adolescence as their brain rewards them with feel-good hormones when they know their friends admire them.
So what can you do about it?
This is easier said than done, and living with a teenager can be really hard, but by being the consistent, caring and supportive parent; you will genuinely be helping them navigate the path into adulthood. They won't always take your advice (otherwise it isn't a risk, so no reward) but if your caring message is always the same and is delivered with love, your in for a good chance of success.
It's through navigating the storms together that you'll build a stronger attachment and healthier relationship. Even the most challenging of teens, over time, will adjust when these principles are put in place.
The DRUCEBOX shaving kit is a really useful tool here because it enable you to start building a bridge, without the danger of being over the top, invasive or distant. It's a really good way to show you care (by showing your thinking of him), but without being too "in their face" or over bearing. It's a great way to open the door to future conversations.
Understanding the WHY will help you live in the NOW.
This brings together several things we have shared so far - by looking at the bigger picture, trying to work out what's the reason for the behaviour it's possible to plan your next move.
Let's recap what we've covered so far and how it all comes together:
Teenagers develop at different stages, not necessarily ages
Teenage boy's brains are pre-wired to take risks
Teenagers need strong, secure, consistent relationships to feel safe
The chemistry inside their body plays a major role in their behaviour
The golden rule of teenage parenting:
Everything (really, everything!) is built on relationship. Every single action you do that impacts your son should be focused on helping build stronger and more positive relations with him.
If you keep this in mind, no matter how mad he makes you feel or how bad the thing he has done seems, keep in mind that your response needs to encourage connection and relationship; then you won't go far wrong.
Shouting, screaming, shaming, blaming and arguing all help build a wall. It can happen quickly over a couple of weeks, or sometimes years, but a brick wall will have been built, brick by brick. That means relationship is impossible (not just difficult) and any exchanges with him will become transactional and based on "what can I get out of it" thinking from both parties.
Communication with teenage boys is key to building/repairing a strong relationship.
We touched on it there, so let us explain a bit more and set the scene. Imagine your relationship with your teenage son as something which exists in a big open grassland. It's a good place, but it has seasons, experiences winter and can sometimes look like a desert wilderness in a hot summer.
Now imagine you own one field and your son owns the field next door. You both love your fields, but he likes to let it grow wild to encourage wildlife, and just to see what happens. Or maybe sometimes he's just lazy. That's OK, think of the environmental benefits after all.
Anyway, you like to look after your field in a completely different way. You grow flowers, vegetables, invest in making a harvest and even grow food for your neighbours. Your a nice person after all, and you like to do your bit.
Now over the years and over the seasons, you both find bit's of rubble and bricks that have been left in your fields. Some of them you seem to remember forgetting to tidy away after a messy project and other bricks your sure people have dumped in your field along the way. Your not sure, neither is he, and that's OK.
What do you each do with your bricks and rubble? Well, you've each got no free space but you notice there's a gap between your fields, a bit of a ditch really. So you both sort of inadvertently agree to dump stuff there. The problem is, that over the years of tidying up your own fields you've managed to build a wall right in the middle. You can no longer see each other, there's so much clutter in the way of each other that it's now impossible to communicate. You might as well not be neighbours because you live in very different worlds now.
Can you see where we're going with this? By removing the bricks from a wall you and he may have built up over the years, it's possible to re-open channels of communication and restore the relationship. It doesn't have to all happen at once (and probably never would anyway!) but by removing bricks piece by piece the wall will come down...but slowly remember (bricks are heavy).
As more of the bricks are removed, the easier it becomes to communicate. You don't need to talk all the time, but when either of you wants to, it's a lot easier, can happen quicker and is much more enjoyable when you can see the person your talking to.
As parents, we are in the business of being wall demolition experts.
Top tips for living with your teenage son:
Be honest and patient with yourself. Changes won't happen overnight, years of behaviour don't suddenly reverse; but through accepting that the situation is what it is and giving yourself a break (you probably did your best right?), you can then stand at the beginning of a new season for you and your son.
You need to be in a strong place first in order to even start to help him move forwards. Think of it like a cup: if your an empty cup and your son's the cup sitting below you, you need filling up before you can even start to pour good things into his life. Make sure your only tackling things when your in a level headed, calm, positive place - i.e. not when your seeing red and ready to explode: you are guaranteed a negative outcome.
Shouting at him will never, ever lead to a positive outcome. Even if your right (and you probably are!).
Nagging has been proven to usually work (drip feeding you could call it!) but only if it's the gentle, caring way it should be intended and delivered. Make sure you heed tip 2's advice!
It is exhausting sometimes living with a teenage boy - believe me, the constant thinking, strategies and planning are genuinely exhausting. So give yourself a break when you don't feel up to it. Make sure you plan in some rest time on a regular basis without him - it doesn't matter what you do, just make sure you 1) enjoy it 2) it's without him. This is really important for resetting your head and keeping a wide perspective.
Be consistent - and again - be consistent. He will change like the clouds in the sky, but he needs your consistent approach and responses to be like an anchor: fixed securely in the world of stormy seas. Remember what we said about attachment? He needs a secure, positive attachment in order to work out his identity and form himself and his character, behaviours and responses. In time, consistent positive parenting can do wonders for the wildest of teenage boys!
Remember teenagers can act like toddlers sometimes - the heat of the moment stuff - so don't panic or feel like you've raised a complete monster when actually things do go wrong and he lets you down. You need to be the consistent one, not him.
Never use the D word (if you can help it!). Now we don't mean a swear word, but the word "disappointed". Phrases like "I am so disappointed you did that" are loaded with judgment, control and ultimately manipulation. They are a sure fire way to throw bricks back on the foundation of the walls (remember our point earlier?) - severing relationship.
Keep things short and simple: if your looking for a response then ask gently and wait for answers. If he's not speaking or can't give an answer, ask yourself what's the real reason behind that behaviour. Then give him some space, you'll sometimes be surprised how he hasn't forgotten what you said; he'll just be processing it.
Ask yourself "why?" and "What's really behind that?" a lot! Pretty much every time he does something you notice. Here's a couple of examples to show you what we mean:
Why is he ignoring me? Maybe he knows he'll feel bad when he faces up to it, so is trying to avoid feeling the pain of what happened, not necessarily avoiding you. Maybe he just knows that hes not in a good place and able to control his emotions that well in the moment, so he's trying to avoid doing more damage.
Why did he slam the door in my face, but manages to chat happily on his phone to his friends moments later? He might be dealing with complex feelings and an easy way of coping is to limit the things he'll have to think about. If he closes the door to you, he can reduce competing thoughts.
Has something just happened? Arguments, bust up's with partners, or even positive things like getting notice by that girl/guy he likes can all be top of his mind and your in the side wings.
Is he just tired? Yep, we all get cranky, forget things, say the wrong thing and can easy offend when we're not on our A game. Teenagers are no exception (just an amplified version!)
Is he just hungry? This is so true in our experience! Poor behaviour can frequently be attributed to moody teenagers, and thanks to fast working metabolisms and lack of experience of being self aware, they wont even know they are hangry.
You get the point - there are a lot of reasons to his behaviour, anything could be going on. But you might also be able to make the informed guess on the odd occasion - so by having the "Why?" question in the back of your head you'll start to learn a new way of thinking that gives you the advantage of thinking ahead in the relationship.
One final tip to dealing with your teenager:
Pick your battles. And be choosy about it.
Shoes left for you to trip over in the hall are really annoying, we're not minimising the issue here, honestly - we've lived with that annoying habit ourselves! But actually if you had to choose between having a good relationship with him (where he openly trusts you) or a son you occasionally get grunts from; we think we know which you'd rather have.
...that said, nagging can still work - but only if the relationships in a good place to start with.
We hope this has been really helpful, so keep following what we do because we're on a mission to keep helping parents and teenager live side by side in their natural habitats. From shaving advice to mental health tips and shaving kits: we have lots of solutions for parents all across the UK.
If you'd like some further info as well, here's a few services we think are great:
YoungMinds: is a great service that offers practical and emotional support to teenagers directly by providing a listening, supportive ear and to parents through groups and helplines. They are well worth checking out if you want to know a bit more about teenage mental health support.
Health For Teens is a really useful website for teenagers to directly access. It's pretty good at giving lots of advice and provides genuine answers for young people asking genuine questions in it's frank style.
This article was written by James, DRUCEBOX founder and experienced Youth Advocate. James has worked with young people all his life in various faith, public sector and charitable settings. His experience has seen him and his partner foster teenagers, develop community support and work with council's to contribute to beneficial children's services. You can contact James here.