Teenagers and Sex (3)

My past two posts have looked at the subject of Teenagers and Sex from the broad perspectives of Context and Sexuality. In this third post on the subject, I will try to deal with a few difficult questions that can be grouped loosely together under the theme of Growing Up.

It is a given for many that adolescence is a time for experimentation, when the parental rules that have governed childhood are either owned or set aside as the teenager develops the personal moral framework that will shape their adult life and guide their decision-making. This is part of the natural process of growing up, part of the journey from childhood to becoming an independent and responsible adult, and it involves a good deal of experimentation. Not surprisingly, this pattern of experimentation extends into the realm of relationships and sex.

At the same time as coming to terms with the changes initiated by puberty, whilst trying to understand the changes in their emotions and feelings, teenagers are trying to figure out a framework for the expression of their developing sexuality. Ultimately, they are trying to determine where they will draw the line about what is acceptable in terms of sex and sexuality – the kind of relationships they will pursue; what kind of conduct they find acceptable for themselves and for others; the kinds of sexual activities in which they will engage and which they will avoid. Their decisions will be influenced to varying degrees by their friends, their family, the communities to which they belong, and the beliefs they hold or are exploring. Some teenagers will play it safe in terms of their sexual experimentation; others will be much more adventurous.

As if the above were not complicated enough, there are other factors at play too! Young people develop at different rates. For most, puberty starts between the ages of 9 and 13 and lasts several years. The age at which puberty arrives can have a large effect on a young person, causing early-developers to feel they have outgrown their peers and late-developers to feel like a child in a group of adults. Differences in developmental age within peer groups influence relationships and sexual exploration, lending kudos within the group to some for their “exploits” and sometimes creating feelings of desperation in others that their biology leads them to being viewed as inexperienced or childlike.

The legal age of consent for sex varies both between and within countries, as do statistics relating to teenage sexual activity. I have seen figures ranging from a third to a half of school-age teenagers claiming to have had sex, and up to 70% for the proportion of school-age teenagers who have experienced some form of sexual activity. There is no ideal age for losing one’s virginity, the average age for which ranges from about 15 (USA) to 17 (Ireland). Attitudes to losing one’s virginity include regarding it as a rite of passage; as an enjoyable experience to be actively sought; as something to be delayed as long as possible; and as an experience to be properly reserved for marriage. Some teenagers take a vow to preserve their virginity until marriage, but it has been suggested that the impact of such vows on sexual experimentation are limited as some young people taking such vows regard them as applying only to full sexual intercourse whilst any other form of sexual activity remains open to exploration.

A further aspect that should be noted is the possible psychological impact for teenagers of engaging in sexual activity. For some, it will be an enjoyable and positive experience, boosting their confidence and laying a sound basis for future relationships. For some, however, it can be a painful or frightening experience for which they were not genuinely ready, yielding a loss of self-confidence and possibly having a long-lasting impact on future adult relationships and sexual encounters.

Advice for parents

Refuse to foster guilt or fear. A cursory glance at websites offering advice about teenagers and sex reveals how easy it is to adopt the approach of fostering guilt or fear. Some sites give the impression that the possibility of pregnancy or of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is pretty much all there is to say about the subject of teenagers and sex. I recognise the importance of teenagers understanding that there can be unwanted consequences from unprotected sex, but I cannot agree that this even begins to approach all that could helpfully be said on the subject. Parents will, of course, want their teenager to be well educated about the dangers and about steps that can be taken to minimise them. However, many parents will agree that if teenagers are given a picture of sex that does not extend beyond the dangers, then they will have been sold well short in terms of a balanced, informative and constructive education on the subject. Fostering guilt or fear as a tool to delay sexual experimentation by teenagers may bring a short-term delay in some cases, but ultimately it risks them entering adulthood with a negative, fearful view of sex that can damage future relationships and bring lasting damage to their relationships with those who fed them that distorted view in the first place.

Seek what is best for the teenager. Most parents will agree the importance of teenagers knowing about contraception ahead of the time it is needed. Many will feel able to talk with their teenagers about contraception to ensure they are well informed. However, this is very different from finding contraceptives in your daughter’s handbag or son’s jacket pocket – and very different from the reaction of some parents when this happens! I remember talking with a parent who had recently taken their teenager to university for the first time. They went together to buy food at a supermarket near the campus, only to see their teenager put a packet of condoms into the trolley “just in case”. It took about half an aisle for the initial shock to subside. This teenager knew about contraception and the importance of having it available should it be needed. They were also sufficiently comfortable to make the purchase with their parents present. This was not something for the parents to be embarrassed or ashamed about, but reassurance that their teenager was well prepared to leave home.

Work to eliminate taboo subjects. Most parents find some subjects easier to raise with their teenagers than others. Even where there is initial discomfort, however, wise parents find ways of broaching the trickier topics from time to time so that there are no taboos and the teenagers know that they can come to the parents if they need to talk – whatever the subject. Among the trickier subjects for many will be those of masturbation and pornography, especially if the parent has walked in unexpectedly and found the former in progress or the latter being viewed – or both!

For many teenagers, masturbation is part of the way they explore their developing bodies in a medically safe way. It seems to be an activity that is engaged in by a large proportion of teenagers and adults, but with very few being prepared to talk about it. If parents should walk in on their teenagers who are thus engaged, in addition to learning to knock first, I suggest acknowledging subsequently what was happening. In all probability, the teenager will be as embarrassed about the incident as the parent, and will probably be relieved that the parent was prepared to raise the subject subsequently rather than pretending it never happened. If a parent is able to raise the subject as part of a conversation under more normal circumstances, then some reassurance about the morally-neutral nature of the activity and of its medical safety as a means of exploration might be a good starting point.

Pornography has become far more readily accessible to today’s teenagers than was ever the case with former generations due its easy availability in the digital age. Statistics suggest that a very large majority of teenagers access pornography at some time or another. Wise parents will raise this subject with their teenagers from time to time, perhaps raising such issues as the difference between popular and hard-core pornography, the objectification of people, and the desensitising effect of repeated exposure to pornography. The most important aspect of pornography for teenagers to understand, I believe, is its illusory nature. The sex in pornographic videos is not real sex; it is staged. The biggest danger for most teenagers, therefore, is that they expect their own sexual experiences to reflect what they see in pornographic material, which will lead almost inevitably to disappointment and possibly to them making unreasonable demands on partners.

Both the above topics have the potential to become powerful taboo subjects within families. Taboos prevent communication, which is never a good thing in terms of the parent-teenager relationship. I recognise the discomfort many will experience in raising such subjects, but I believe that if by raising them, teenagers get the message that they can always talk with their parents if they need to, whatever the subject, then a few uncomfortable conversations will come to be seen as having been well worthwhile.

Beware of sending mixed messages. Within several of the areas discussed above, the danger of sending mixed messages is apparent. That is also the case when the subject of sleepovers comes up, especially when older teenagers are requesting that their current partners be permitted to “sleep over”, which everyone knows is often not really about sleeping, but about some level or other of sexual activity. The knee-jerk response of some parents to such requests will be “Not under my roof!” but that is a dangerous response because it is open to several interpretations. It could be taken to mean that the parents believe the proposed activity to be wrong under any circumstances, in which case they should say that calmly and give reasons. However, it could be seen as sending the message that the parents are not comfortable with their teenager having sex and wish to be shielded from such knowledge by it taking place in someone else’s house. The danger, of course, is that it could be interpreted to mean that sex behind the bins at the back of the local supermarket is ok, whatever the dangers of sex in such inauspicious circumstances.

However difficult some parents might find it to confront issues liked those discussed above, when it comes to talking with their teenagers about sexual matters, I would advise that the aim should be for clear communication. Parents will sometimes feel embarrassed about the subject matter, but for the sake of their teenagers, they will push beyond their embarrassment. Stating clearly what they believe and explaining why, even if it takes several conversations for this to be achieved, is important. Even where the teenager will not hear the reasons or heed the advice, the fact that the parents overcame their discomfort and tried to communicate clearly sends a powerful message about the value they place on their teenager and of the importance of sex in human relationships.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Sex education. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015 made the point that “Teenagers … said they felt let down by school sex education that is too narrowly focused on biology and risk-prevention messages”. There has been a welcome increase of late in discussion of the need to expand the scope of sex education in schools so that it includes more than “the basics” about sex and anchors sex more firmly in the context of human relationships. This is an area that schools have traditionally avoided, but which carries the potential for them to make an enormous contribution to the preparation of young people for life in the modern world. As a first step, I would encourage schools to begin a dialogue with parents with the aim of developing a mutual understanding of the aims and approaches of sex education in school, which is properly understood as complementary to, rather than being in competition with, the role of parents in this area.

Establishing the boundaries of acceptability. Schools have an important role to play in helping teenagers develop an understanding of the boundaries of acceptability. Public displays of affection (PDA) occur in all school communities at some time or other. In part, PDA stems from an inability of teenagers to exercise easy and effective control over their developing hormonal drives. It is also due to the fact that, at the same time as coming to terms with all the changes of adolescence, they need to develop their understanding of what types of behaviour are regarded as acceptable in various branches of human society. School is the workplace for teenagers and part of being educated in a school is learning the behaviour that is considered acceptable for the work environment. The best teachers develop ways of challenging excessive PDA that enable the teenagers to learn the boundaries while not feeling humiliated or victimised in the process.

Being there when it matters. Teachers are sometimes the ones to whom teenagers will turn when they need someone in whom they can confide. Teachers will know that this is an area in which their own self-awareness is of great importance. If a teacher becomes uncomfortable about the level of personal support a student is seeking, or feels that the depth of intimate detail being revealed by a student is inappropriate, they should pass the student to someone else for support. Additionally, teachers should develop their own systems of safe practice to reduce the risk of being accused of behaving unprofessionally, and schools should require such safe practice from their teachers. With all that having been said, however, there are times when teenagers turn to teachers for support or help. Being there for a student when it matters is one of the aspects of teaching that for many gives a level of job satisfaction which those outside the teaching profession will often find it difficult to appreciate fully.

 

Teenagers and Sex (2)

The first of this series of articles on Teenagers and Sex concentrated on the context for sex, looking at respect, consent, information and safety. The second article will be built around the general theme of sexuality.

Sexuality is a term that is very flexible in scope, seeming almost to mean whatever an individual wants it to mean. Our first task, then, is to define it for the purposes of this article. In terms of a broad-brush description, Wikipedia’s “the way people experience and express themselves sexually” provides a starting point that would be acceptable to many. Writers generally divide human sexuality into a number of areas. Such lists can be long, but for the purposes of this article we shall focus on four areas with specific reference to how they might impact teenagers specifically. We shall look at sensuality, gender/sexual identity, intimacy and relationships, and sexual health.

Puberty, with its many physical, chemical and emotional changes, brings about an increase in sensuality during the teenage years that is both vast and unavoidable. Teenagers become aware that there is a sexual aspect to adult human life, which they want to explore, experience and understand. There are many levels at which the sensual development of teenagers impacts them, including how they view their own body, how they feel about other people, how they experience and manage their desires, which relationships they choose to pursue and how they foster and develop those relationships.

Basically, gender/sexual identity is about whether we identify ourselves as “male, female, both or neither”. For the current generation of teenagers, this aspect of human sexuality has become more prominent than would have been the case for teenagers merely a decade ago. During that short period of time, some societies have undergone a paradigm shift in public opinion regarding the social acceptability of homosexuality, whereas others have seen a hardening of their traditional approach. Teenagers in the digital age are aware of the range and strength of opinion in this area, yet still have to get to grips with the development of their own bodies, feelings and desires. It is not unusual for teenagers to experience a confusion of heterosexual and homosexual feelings, some of which may be temporary, some of which may be permanent, and some of which they may not comprehend until years later.

The third area of human sexuality concerns intimacy and relationships, and includes the closeness, familiarity and acceptance we show both to ourselves and to others. Intimacy can be emotional, intellectual, physical, sexual, or a combination of all these things; just as relationships can take the form of platonic friendship, close companionship, or involve sexual activity. Teenagers, building on the experiences of their childhood, and in the context of the development of their sensuality and gender identity, are figuring out for themselves what are appropriate levels of intimacy and levels of friendship. This is no easy task; it may involve an element of experimentation; almost certainly there will be mistakes; and it is part of a lifelong process of learning, development and commitments.

The aspect of sexuality focusing on sexual health is as wide and all-embracing as human sexuality itself. A teenager’s self image; the way they respond to their developing body and sexual feelings; the way they embrace or fight what they perceive to be their gender identity; how they manage their sexual desires; the levels of intimacy they decide it appropriate to pursue; the relationships they attempt to build with others; the precautions they adopt against sexually transmitted infections – all these (and more) combine to determine whether an individual’s sexuality develops in a healthy way and whether or not it remains healthy.

In what follows, I assume the overall aim of parents, teachers and schools to be the creation of a climate that is likely to yield the best opportunity for a healthy development of sexuality in the teenagers with whom they live, engage and work.

Advice for parents

Within the field of human sexuality, there will be for some parents areas about which they feel particularly strongly. We shall touch on some of those areas below with the help of three keywords: honesty, openness and acceptance.

Ultimately, the teenager’s developing sexuality will be a determining factor in the adult they become, which is why it is so important for their sexuality to be genuine for them as an individual. The best means to ensure a genuine outcome is to ensure honesty about the exploration. It is important to be clear here about what is happening as a teenager’s sexuality develops. It is not a case of teenagers exploring a range of possibilities and choosing the one that appeals to them most or which will make them popular with their friends. Rather, discovering their sexuality is about uncovering something that already exists and is developing within them. Teenagers are essentially discovering who they are and parents can play an important role here by reassuring their teenager that they have nothing to fear from an honest exploration of who they are at the core of their being.

I believe parents make a big mistake if they seek to impose their own understanding of sexuality on their children, or if they communicate the message that certain expressions of sexuality are unacceptable from the outset. Parents can best encourage their teenagers to adopt an honest approach to exploring their sexuality by being honest themselves with their teenagers. At a simple level, that means being honest about their own ignorance if teenagers have questions that they (the parents) cannot answer, and then searching for answers, either together with their teenagers or separately and then comparing answers. Where there is a fear that teenagers might discover about themselves things that the parents will find difficult to accept, they should be honest about that too, but with the assurance that if there are outcomes that the parent finds difficult they will work with their teenager to find a way forward. Trying to force a teenager in a certain direction with regard to their sexuality, has the potential to result in a life built on deceit, as the teenager tries to hide who they really are from their parents; or on denial, as the teenager tries to force themselves to become the “ideal” held by their parents whilst they know deep-down that their efforts are determined to fail because that is not who they really are.

Parents can help their teenagers a great deal in this regard if they can offer reassurance of their openness to what the teenager might discover about themselves. Sometimes, parents are fearful that their own reputation might suffer with their friends, or within the wider family or their faith community, if their teenager declares a certain gender identity, for example. Rather than trying to force their teenager to conform for the sake of their own reputation, I would encourage parents to support their teenagers through times of opposition to who they are. I recognise that this is not likely to be an easy course for parents to adopt, but ultimately it is the course I advocate for the sake of the teenager. Of course, for the majority of parents they way their teenager’s sexuality develops will create no such difficulties, but the fact that the parent assured them that they would have stood by their side if difficulties had emerged will have been an enormous confidence boost on their road to adulthood.

What this all boils down to, is that teenagers need to be reassured of their parents’ acceptance. This might come as a surprise to some, but it remains the case that the vast majority of teenagers, although they may not be prepared to admit it face to face, actually want the approval of their parents. Parents are in the process of setting their teenagers free to become autonomous adults, helping them to understand their sexuality by guaranteeing them acceptance is an important element of what it means to parent a teenager in today’s world.

Advice for teachers and schools

The development of student sexuality is one area where it is of paramount importance that teachers and schools offer protection against bullying. Adolescent feelings run deep and lasting damage can be incurred if students find any aspect of their developing sexuality held up to ridicule. Bullying takes many forms: verbal, physical, online, overt, hidden; so teachers have a vital role to play in remaining aware of what is happening within the student community, and students need to know where to turn if they need help.

I would encourage schools, also, to develop curricula that address the many aspects of teenage sexuality. Fear and mockery have their roots in the unknown as individuals and groups try to protect themselves from those they perceive as different or from things they do not understand. Schools are about education, so ensuring the educational programme addresses issues that go to the heart of what it means to be human should be an important priority. Where appropriate, I would suggest schools encourage student involvement in the formation and delivery of such educational programmes.

Teenagers and Sex (1)

In this article, the first of several under the general heading Teenagers and Sex, I wish to focus on context. I am not talking here about dimming the lights or playing soft music, but rather about the way a teenager’s attitude and approach to sex are shaped by a much broader context. This broader context includes how they perceive and behave towards people generally. It also involves the beliefs of the society, cultures, communities, and family to which they belong. Also influential are the quality and sources of the information they receive about sex, about health issues relating to sexual activity and about their safety and that of others. I believe it is an easy mistake to treat sex as an isolated aspect of life rather than seeing it as part of life as a whole. Both parents and teachers are key participants in helping to shape that broader context for our teenagers with regard to sexual activity.

Beginning in the area of relationships, the first key word for consideration is respect. Respect values oneself and others as people, leading to genuine regard for well-being, wholeness of relationships, and integrity of feelings and personality. With regard to sex, respect is important for the protection it affords against the objectification of others that can lead to them being seen and treated as objects to be used for pleasure or gratification. Respect gives a perspective on sexual activity that understands it as an aspect of relationships between people rather than as an isolated activity.

Respect leads on to the subject of consent, our second key word. The recent rise of the #MeToo movement has led to an increased awareness generally about the importance of consent. Leaving aside for the moment any debate about what constitutes consent, it is important that teenagers understand early-on the importance of the concept of consent with regard to sexual encounters. Those whose general approach to other people is characterised by respect are more likely to appreciate fully the need for consent, and to understand that there is never a place for coercion when it comes to this particular area of life and relationships. The widespread reporting in recent months of non-consensual sexual encounters, sometimes relating to incidents going back decades, should serve as a reminder of the crucial importance of genuine consent when it comes to any form of sexual activity.

A further constituent element of the broader context with regard to sexual activity is that of information. Teenagers are at the stage in life where they experience the development of their sexuality, which provokes exploration and a search for information. They need to understand what is happening to their changing body and how those changes impact on their relationships with others. We live in an age of information. The Internet has given teenagers in many societies around the world easy access to almost unlimited information. Such easy availability of information, however, creates problems of its own. There is no quality control on the information available online and those in search of information are often not in a position to distinguish between high and poor quality information on a particular subject. The possible life-long impact on teenagers of poor choices in the area of sexual activity ought to caution us that this is too serious a subject for it to be left to chance that high quality information might be stumbled across.

The fourth and final key word for the purposes of the present discussion of the broader context for sexual activity is safety. Recent figures of falling numbers of teenage pregnancies has led to some speculation that the current generation of teenagers is having less sex than previous generations. However, nobody really knows the reason for the decline in these numbers, and the speculation about teenagers engaging in less sex sits uneasily alongside the current rise of incidences, in many western societies, of sexually transmitted infections. The importance of protection against such physical risks is known widely amongst teenagers, but frequently ignored. Far more difficult to quantify, however, are the psychological risks than can ensue from sexual activity that has been coerced, entered upon in the heat of the moment, or simply experienced before the teenager was genuinely ready.

Advice for parents

It is probably embarrassment that causes some parents to fear the time their children will reach the stage that the “big talk” about sex becomes unavoidable any longer. Whilst the big talk approach might work for some, I suggest that for many, it may not be the best approach. Investing so much significance in one occasion is likely to heighten any feelings of awkwardness for both parent and child. Many, I believe, would find it more comfortable, and hence probably more effective, to try throughout the pre-teenage years to answer questions honestly and age-appropriately as they arise naturally in conversation and so to impart information in stages as the child develops. The approach will vary from person to person, since we are all different. However it is done, it is important that parents do not duck the responsibility to ensure that information is conveyed in such a way that their children understand, before they reach the teenage years, not just the mechanics but also the place of sex within relationships, how safe sex can be practised and in such a way that consenting sexual partners are affirmed rather than objectified or used. Teenagers are resourceful, and if the information they seek is not made available to them, they will go out and find it. Many parents will feel that their own feelings of awkwardness are a small price to pay to ensure their teenagers are well informed about sexual activity ahead of the time the information is needed. Any list of alternative sources of information is likely to be headed by their friends or, for many, by whichever porn site is most popular amongst their friends at the time. In the area of sex, neither should be regarded as a reliable source.

The parental role in this area is far broader than simply conveying information. Children and teenagers are observant. They notice both the good and the bad aspects of how their parents relate to each other and to those outside the immediate family. None of us is perfect and we all make mistakes, but our teenagers will be aware of the general approach to others that is followed by their parents: whether it is one of respect, whether it uses others for their own ends or whether it regards others generally as worthless. Teenagers do not automatically accept the approaches they see in their parents, but the approaches to life modelled by their parents over the years has a far stronger effect than many of us might find comfortable.

Alongside the behaviour of parents, family values also play an important role with regard to the way teenagers view other people and sexual activity. Family values have often evolved over generations and are frequently bound up with those of a variety of communities with which the parents identify themselves. These could include the close family including former generations, faith communities, ethnic groups as well as a variety of friendship groups. Some of these communities will be more influential in terms of shaping opinion than others, some intentionally so. Whatever the influences that have contributed to the shaping of the family values, there comes a point for (often older) teenagers when they will choose whether to accept or reject those values. A dogmatic approach that such values are not up for debate can prove counter-productive, provoking an outright rejection in some cases. Once again, I believe it is important that teenagers understand not just what the family values are, but why particular values are held to be important. With regard to sex, understanding why certain values are held to be right, especially if backed up by the way they are modelled by their parents, can prove an invaluable foundation to teenagers who are trying to find their way forward in life through a maze of conflicting opinions and approaches.

I believe it is important that parents ensure their teenagers are well equipped in advance of their first sexual encounters with information and life values that will help them make well-informed decisions. Ultimately, teenagers will make decisions for themselves about their sexual partners and practices. If parents can ensure that their teenagers arrive at decision-making points with good quality information and life values that are built around respect for themselves and for others, then they will have provided a good foundation for those decisions. Whilst there will always be debate about sexual activity and its place in the lives of teenagers, there should be no room for doubt that sex without consent is always wrong and that safety is an aspect that should always be considered.

Advice for teachers and schools

Teachers have an important part to play in helping to shape the broader context discussed above. The teenage social world can sometimes be brutal and how sex is viewed and used within it, likewise. The respect shown by teachers to their students, and expected in the classroom from teenagers with regard to their peers, can be an important factor in helping to build a culture of respect. Life does not break down into clearly defined, distinct units. Building a culture of respect within a school community can contribute to the outlook and approach shown by teenagers to others, even in the field of their sexual encounters.

Additionally, where appropriate, whether in conversations or class discussions, teachers have the opportunity to make clear some of the essentials such as consent and safety. Many teenagers have great respect for their teachers and listen to their views. Clear statements about non-negotiable elements can be a powerful factor in shaping the way teenagers approach the subject of sex.

Most schools these days incorporate sex education into their curricula at a variety of levels. There is a tendency to focus more on teaching the mechanics, which perhaps feels safer, and has its own value. However, I would encourage schools not to shy away from discussion of the broader context, which is possible without being prescriptive in approach. Today’s teenagers have grown up in the information age, but that does not mean they are well-informed, and sex is an area where it is important that they are helped to distinguish between high and poor quality information and to weigh which approaches affirm, and which denigrate, others and themselves. Schools can make a valuable contribution in this area and there is room for more creativity in developing sound educational ways for this to happen.

Considering Teenage Introverts

Teenagers are often misunderstood, but one group that is misunderstood more than many are teenagers who also happen to be introverts. In an international school where I was principal, we were used to students arriving from other countries and knew to keep an eye out to see they were settling in. Within a couple of weeks of their arrival, it became apparent that one particular student did not seem to be settling – the student rarely said anything in class, seemed to sit alone at lunchtime, could often be found on their own during breaks. A series of teachers and several students expressed concern. On talking with the student, I discovered (and their parents subsequently confirmed) that this was not a case of a homesick student who needed help, but a very introverted individual, who was very self-aware, comfortable with their introversion, and who had worked out how to find space within the busyness of a school day.

It is generally accepted that somewhere between a third and a half of people are introverts, the figure depending on the definition of introversion used. For the purposes of this article, I will assume an energy-focused definition (Susan Cain,  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Penguin, 2012, p.10). Introverts find the experience of being with others generally energy-draining and need time alone to recharge, whereas extroverts gain energy from socialising with others. There is considerable doubt whether anyone can be described as a complete introvert/extrovert, but we are all to be found on a spectrum somewhere between these two extremes, and the end of the spectrum to which we are closest leads to us being described as either introvert or extrovert.

It is important to be clear about the nature of introversion. It is not the same as shyness, which is more about fear of being judged negatively by others. Nor is it snobbery, which believes others to be of less value. It is certainly not an illness that can be cured, nor a failing that can be corrected. It is, rather, part of a person’s character; part of the way they are “wired”. Put simply, introverts value being alone as much as extroverts enjoy being the centre of attention. They are likely to avoid occasions involving many people, and perhaps maintain just a few close friendships rather than being part of bigger friendship circles. That’s just how they are.

The above holds true for people of all ages, and so includes teenagers. With a third to a half of teenagers being introverts, one might expect to find a ready supply of role models of introverts in entertainment, sport, politics, leadership positions in business and industry, etc., but a ready supply of such role models is lacking. There are a few exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of role models are extrovert in nature. The reason for the lack of introvert role models is not that introverts cannot be found in such areas, but that human society on the whole has unthinkingly bought into the idea that the extrovert role model is the model par excellence of what it means to be a successful human being. “Loudest is best”, or at least, loudest is easier to “sell” as the kind of model to which others can aspire. In short, one end of the spectrum has come to be viewed as the norm.

We are familiar with the idea of teenagers struggling to establish their own identity, but what about the effect on an introverted teenager when faced by a plethora of extrovert role models which they know deep-down they can never emulate? We are aware that teenagers live in a highly social environment, where it matters who belongs to the group and who does not, but where does that leave the introverted teenager who craves time alone in order to be able to cope with the social stresses of their daily environment? We accept that teenagers can sometimes be argumentative, rebellious, loud and boisterous, especially in groups, but what about the introverted teenager who does not fit the social stereotypes and who, by their very nature, seem to place themselves outside of the groups of which it seems to be the general expectation that they will want to be a part?

As parents and teachers, we aim to help teenagers find the adult they have the potential to become, but do introverted teenagers get the same opportunities as their extrovert contemporaries, or are they destined to have whatever is left once the extroverts have taken the best?

Advice for parents

Parents are well placed to know the character of their teenager, but they can also become frustrated at what they think they see. So, for example, the extrovert parent who does not understand their introvert teenager’s apparent preference for another quiet night in, rather than attending the party that is the talk of the town, might vent their frustration with a comment such as “It’s not normal!” or “What on earth is wrong with you?” To an introverted teenager, struggling to understand their own choices, such remarks can raise all manner of questions about the possibility of mental illness, questions the parent may not even have considered as they blurted out their instinctive question. Parental attempts to get their introverted teenager to talk might feel like an uphill struggle in the face of sullen defiance, but it could simply be that the teenager cannot find the words to express what they are feeling or know how to explore what the underlying reasons might be.

Acceptance. The most valuable support a parent can give their teenager is acceptance, especially in the case of an introverted teenager who may be struggling to understand why they do not fit comfortably into the social culture of their peers. Acceptance sends the message to the teenager that they are valued for who they are, regardless of the similarities to, or differences from, those around them. Acceptance provides a solid base from which the introverted teenager can explore ways to develop the social aspect of their life in a way that is manageable for them.

Challenge appropriately. Whilst the introverted teenager may crave time alone, they also need to develop the social skills that will enable them to survive, and hopefully thrive, as an adult. The key here for parents is to help their teenager find the right balance between time spent with others and time spent alone to recharge their energy. This may require some negotiation, perhaps agreeing to collect them at a pre-arranged time so that, if they go out, they are not faced with an open-ended social commitment. It may mean helping them to develop strategies to make social occasions more manageable. It may mean allowing them to opt out of some family times in order to find the solitude they need to prepare themselves for the next school day.

Watch for behaviour changes. Introversion is not a form of mental illness, but because the introvert will likely spend more time alone than others, the introversion can sometimes help mask the onset of a problem that needs to be addressed. It is important that parents keep an eye on their teenager’s behaviour, not so they can draw comparisons with other teenagers, but so they can look for changes in behaviour that represent a departure from what might be considered normal for their teenager. If there are concerns, talk with your teenager in the first instance, and if concerns persist, offer to go with them to seek professional advice.

Advice for teachers and schools

Question systems. Schools are busy places and teachers are busy people, so it is easy to overlook the impact on individuals of the way we do things, especially if those individuals are the quieter members of the group who might be less likely to make a fuss if things do not go their way. Schools often use group activities these days, enabling students to develop collaborative and teamwork skills. However, groups are not always the best approach, and even within larger group projects, it should be made known that students can sometimes work individually towards the group’s aims. When it comes to student government or other roles where elections might be held, having students address large groups, or even the entire school community, favours certain students. Technology is such today that students could be given the option of addressing students directly for a couple of minutes or making a video recording of the same length. This is such a simple measure that could level the playing field for some introverted students at a stroke.

Affirm introverted students. A question to the more introverted members of a class from time to time to establish that they are OK can have a lasting effect. Simply bothering to ask conveys the message to that person about their value in your eyes. Taking the opportunity of an informal chat about aspects of school life they find difficult, or asking about the strategies they have developed to make school life manageable, can be valuable for introverted students because it sends the message that you recognise some, at least, of the difficulties they face.

Create quiet spaces. Many introverts need space from others at times, even if only for a few minutes. Deliberately creating small areas for those who wish to be quiet, and helping them to maintain those areas as quiet places, could be a powerful way of helping introverted students manage their school day.

Teenagers and the new school year

The months of August and September bring the start of a new academic year for schools throughout the northern hemisphere. For some, it will bring the challenge of attending a new school, but even for those returning to the same school, the new school year need not be merely a repetition of the patterns of the past.

The teenage years are a time of bewildering change. Most teenagers, most of the time, cope well with a myriad of changes as they journey from childhood to adulthood. For the most part, the changes are gradual, part of an on-going process of development to which teenagers become accustomed. From time to time, however, there come changes that are of a greater magnitude, that are more comprehensive in nature: starting a new school is a good example of such a change.

Often, attending a new school will coincide with the transition to a higher level of education, introducing students to subjects they may not have studied before. The teachers at the new school will likely have different expectations of their students than was the case previously, and this can mean an increased workload. Getting to know a new group of fellow-students has its attractions, but there will be the unspoken competition between them as a social order is established within the new peer group.

For others, of course, the new school year means a return to the same school. However, many of the challenges referred to above may still be present, even if the environment feels familiar. For some returners, the return to the familiar may bring its own fears, especially in the case of those haunted by past mistakes or failures. The extent to which we allow ourselves to be defined by our past is an issue for all of us, whatever our stage in life, but for teenagers in the process of shaping their adult identity, the overcoming of the negative perceptions of those within a school community as to their character or capabilities can be a task of truly mammoth proportions.

Whatever the situation of the individual teenager, however, there is an undeniable element of opportunity with the annual beginning of a new school year. Difficulties there may be, but a new school year brings the undeniable opportunity of a fresh start. Things can be different; the past can be transcended; it is possible to move on from past mistakes; it is possible for a new school year to turn out to be successful – even when the challenges seem to outweigh the possibilities. The key question is “How?”

Advice for parents

Give attention to the basics. It is surprising how often teenagers ignore the basics of personal care and hygiene, such as ensuring they get enough sleep, eat regularly and healthily, exercise and shower daily. In and of themselves, these things will not ensure a student’s success. However, ignoring such basic lifestyle issues can lead to all manner of subsequent difficulties. Students who fall asleep in class, or who are wilting mid-morning because they skipped breakfast, or who find themselves excluded from group activities due to their body odour, are not in the best condition to perform well in class. Parents have an important role to help their teenagers get the basics right and the beginning of a school year is a good time to revisit such issues.

Be interested. There will be times in the lives of many teenagers when they may not want to talk about how things are going, but it is important nevertheless that parents communicate their interest by asking questions and taking time to listen. Understanding how school is different for today’s teenagers than it was in their parents’ day is important for any meaningful discussion. Important also is the realisation that there is no necessary correlation between the preferences of parents and their children when it comes to academic subjects. At its root, it might appear that the complex world of teenage social relationships is the same as it has ever been, but the social media-dominated environment in which such relationships have to be worked out and experienced today will be alien to those of former generations.

Face fear. If your teenager expresses fears about any aspect of their school life and education, or about their social world and its impact on their schooling, it is important to take what they say seriously. Never dismiss fears out of hand, since it could be devastating to a teenager who has struggled to express their fears to feel they are being ignored. It is always better to face fears squarely rather than avoid them. Wherever possible, encourage your teenager to explore the best way forward with your support. If there are serious issues underlying the fear, encourage your teenager to involve the school, again with whatever support they desire from you.

Talk about targets/goals. The question of goals or targets for the school year is one with which students these days will be familiar since many schools attach importance to student-set targets. Encouraging teenagers to think about their goals and to review progress towards them from time to time is one way parents can participate in the on-going education of their children. It is important, at all times, for the student to be supported as they formulate their own goals. Self-determined goals are far more likely to receive active “buy-in” from your teenager than parental- or teacher-set goals, and so far more likely to contribute to sustainable progress.

Advice for teachers and schools

Keep an eye out for those who might be struggling. It is always important that teachers keep an eye out for students who might be struggling, but especially at the beginning of the school year, and especially if students are new to the school. The simple act of enquiring if everything is OK conveys the message to the student that somebody cares, and this may be all they require to be able to find the strength to address whatever is concerning them. Occasionally, such an enquiry may provide a “relief-valve” for the student to be able to express their concerns before they grow to unmanageable proportions.

Give everyone a fair chance. The vast majority of the teachers with whom I have worked over the years will do all in their power to ensure that every student is given a fair chance. Occasionally, especially if a student joining their class has a reputation, teachers find it more difficult. However, in such cases it is even more important that students feel they are being given that fair chance. An early, honest conversation with the student that acknowledges the reputation but which makes it clear they start in the class with a clean slate may be a helpful way of trying to start the year on the right foot. In the past, when I have seen students rescue a school career following a disastrous episode, the recovery has almost invariably involved an individual teacher who believed in them, even when the student did not believe they deserved a fresh start.

Set a positive tone for the year. Getting the year off to a good start is invaluable for all the students in the class. I would encourage teachers to set high standards for their classes from the outset, to model those standards, and to hold their students to the same standards.

Teenagers and Career Choices

I still remember a talk from the “careers teacher” when I was at school, back in the 1970’s. I remember, also, being somewhat sceptical when he claimed that his small, plastic box of index cards contained information about all the known careers that might be open to us. Things have moved on a lot since then, many schools have career guidance specialists on their staff, but the explosion of career opportunities may well mean that today’s teenagers are as ill-informed about the range of possibilities available to them as I consider myself to have been all those years ago.

For today’s teenagers, however, the picture is considerably more confusing than it would have been for teenagers even just a few years ago. The annually increasing pace of technological change has had an enormous impact, and the emergence of increasingly able robots will ensure the pace of change continues to accelerate. This will mean that many current jobs will no longer exist by the time today’s younger teenagers enter the workforce, and many of the careers/jobs upon which today’s teenagers will embark do not even exist at the current time.

Projections concerning the future of employment indicate that today’s teenagers are far less likely to enter lifelong careers than many did in the past. They are likely to work much more in a series of project-based jobs in a kind of portfolio career. This will require the development of new skills and will heighten the importance of resilience. It will also increase the need for retraining at points of transition. Whilst the jobs may change fairly regularly, however, the general area within which a person works seems likely to remain generally consistent. For many teenagers, the choice of a career path will be about setting this general direction.

Advice for parents

Be aware of the following:

  • The world of work has changed considerably since you first entered it. Legal requirements, employer/employee expectations and responsibilities, workplace culture and practices have all changed since you first entered the world of work, resulting in a very different environment for today’s teenager. Recruitment practices and educational expectations have changed too, so make sure the advice you give to your teenager is based on up-to-date knowledge rather than out-of-date personal experiences.
  • Your teenager is a unique individual. Perhaps the biggest mistake a parent can make in the area of career choices is to assume that their teenager will follow in the footsteps of their parent. This simply does not follow automatically, and parents who set out to force their teenagers into their own mould can end up creating years of sadness and resentment in their children. A similar mistake occurs if parents see their children as channels through which they can seek vicariously to live out their own unfulfilled dreams. Your teenager is a unique individual with enormous potential, and it is the role of parents to be helpers to their teenagers in finding the best way for their potential to be realised both for their own good and for that of society.
  • University is not necessarily the best route into a career. For an increasing number of teenagers, a university or college education has come to be seen almost as a rite of passage. For many, it is a good choice; but for others, there are alternative routes that may serve them better as part of their preparation for the future.

Help your teenager discover what is best for them. Reasons that teenagers find it difficult to determine their future path vary enormously. The chosen career direction is laden with life-shaping potential, so it is well worth investing time and resources into making the choice a well-informed one. The teenager’s character, strengths and desires are all important factors. Put simply: some are better suited to some careers than others. As your teenager forms ideas about the direction they may wish to go, encourage them to find some kind of work experience that will help them discover what their potential career path may be like. Voluntary involvement is possible in some career areas; holiday internships might be possible in others; opportunities to meet people from various careers and, if possible, to visit them in their workplace – all these can be useful in helping them gain the insights that will lead to well-informed choices. Through it all, ask questions about their thoughts and experiences to help them clarify their thinking. Get them to explain why they think a particular career is for them. Listen carefully to what they say, challenge their assumptions, suggest a few alternatives they might like to check out, but avoid telling them what to do. Ultimately, their chosen career direction might be one of the most far-reaching decisions they will ever make, so it is important that it is their decision.

Advice for teachers and schools

Help teenagers appreciate a range of opportunities. One of the dangers for teenagers when trying to figure out their career direction is that they simply “fall into” one of the first areas they come across. This can, of course, work out well for some; but for others, it may lead to a lifetime of “If only I’d known …” statements and a persistent feeling of a lack of fulfilment. Schools have an important role in helping teenagers come to an understanding of at least some of the vast range of career opportunities that exist in today’s world. Schools use a variety of approaches, including work placements, vocational discovery programmes, career fairs, etc. Whatever approaches are used, it is important that they are sufficiently varied to be able to inspire interest in a diverse range of students. In this area, schools working cooperatively (for example, across a city) could represent a way of providing a wider range of insights into career opportunities than any one school can hope to provide when operating alone.

Preparation of students for the future is an important focus. The rapidly changing nature of modern society brings new challenges to the schools and teachers of today. If predictions are correct that today’s teenagers are likely to face frequent career changes during their working lives, then adaptability, innovation and resilience will grow in importance. More than ever before, schools need to be looking at ways to ensure their programmes help develop the “people” of the future as well as providing the academic foundations upon which future knowledge developments can take place. The likely need for periodic re-training during the working lives of current teenagers means that education will need to be seen as a lifelong pursuit much more than it is currently. To that end, teachers who can excite students about education and ignite in them a genuine desire for discovery and learning are providing an invaluable preparation for the future, whatever form it may ultimately take.

Teenagers and Anxiety

Considerable concern has been expressed of late about an apparent rise in teenage anxiety. The number of teenagers receiving medical treatment for severe anxiety is on the rise and a variety of theories are being advanced as to why this might be the case.

It should be clear from the outset that a certain level of anxiety (for example: when faced with new challenges) is both a natural response of the human body and a good thing. Anxiety in the face of changed circumstances or new experiences is part of the body’s “fight or flight“ response. It sharpens our focus, heightens our concentration, provides a surge of energy to face and deal with whatever challenge has come our way – an invaluable asset for exams, public performances, college and job interviews, and the like. It is also useful for prompting teenagers to reflect on unsafe situations in which they might find themselves. Given the amount of change that occurs during the teenage years, it should come as no surprise that teenagers experience varying levels of anxiety. Indeed, learning how to control and use anxiety could be seen as one of the many tasks of the teenage years.

Most of the time, and for most teenagers, anxiety is a temporary phenomenon that resolves itself as the situation that prompted its arrival is faced and resolved. There are times, however, when anxiety can become a problem, times when

  • feelings of anxiety become very intense so that they begin to envelop more and more of the teenager’s life, or
  • their anxious state does not recede but persists over weeks or months, or
  • anxiety begins to eat away at the teenager’s ability to manage and enjoy daily life.

In circumstances such as these, anxiety loses its usefulness as a tool to help manage and enhance life and may develop into an anxiety disorder for which medical or psychological support may be necessary.

The causes of such a change in the nature of anxiety from a life-enhancing tool to a potentially destructive force are varied. Genetic, personality, environmental and physical factors have all been suggested among the list of possible causes, and for many it seems likely to be a combination of a variety of factors. Whilst identifying the causes can help those managing treatment and care to find an appropriate path towards a solution, many of the causal factors cannot be eliminated or avoided. We shall therefore concentrate below on steps that parents and teachers can take to help teenagers learn to manage “normal” anxiety in such a way that it retains its power as a tool to help them shape life positively.

Advice for parents

Be well informed. As with so many areas of raising teenagers, parents are required to walk something of a tightrope. On the one hand, seeking to shield teenagers from all situations that might provoke anxiety will leave them ill-equipped to face the stresses of the adult world. On the other, seeking to over-expose them to anxiety-producing situations as a form of “innoculation” against future anxiety may well undermine their confidence and leave them more prone to anxiety than they might otherwise have been. Rather, careful observation of how your teenager handles stress, knowing the classic signs of “anxiety”, recognizing the signs your teenager gives out when they are becoming over-anxious about a situation, learning when to encourage them to face their fears and when to avoid situations are all aspects of becoming a well-informed parent on this particular subject.

Maintain a healthy relationship with open channels of communication. Certainly, there will be times when teenagers reject the advice and guidance of their parents, but maintaining a relationship within which teenagers know they can share their concerns when they feel the need to do so, is an invaluable means of support that can give teenagers confidence through the years of adolescence. If parents are able, when appropriate, to talk about their own experiences of managing anxiety, including times they may have struggled with it, this can help teenagers see that it is not a subject and experience to be avoided at all costs and may well dispose them to be more open about their own experiences.

Watch out for the warning signs and don’t be afraid to act if necessary. Becoming aware of the classic signs both of anxiety and of over-anxiety is something of an academic exercise, but knowing how to act on those signs in the best interests of your teenager is highly personal. It requires the kind of detailed knowledge of your teenager that only parents, and perhaps a few others, can acquire. Of course, parents should avoid any inclination to jump in and take over their teenagers’ lives, but when the danger signs are there, parents should not be afraid to act. If anxiety gets out of control, a teenager’s longer term mental health could be affected so early intervention in terms of seeking professional support is strongly advised. School counsellors, therapists, family doctors are all possible starting points for finding professional help for those who need it.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Inform students about anxiety, its symptoms and how to find help. The ready availability in schools of age-appropriate resources is as important in equipping teenagers to manage anxiety as in many other areas. Funding the provision of resources covering a wide range of mental health and social issues might be beyond the budgetary capabilities of many schools. However, if it were possible, it could be developed into a major contribution to student health and well-being. Schools are starting to include more aspects of well-being within their social and health education curricula, which is to be encouraged, and certainly the management of anxiety should find a place within such schemes. Anxiety carries something of a stigma of fragility and an inability to cope with life. Handled wisely, this need not be the outcome for anxious students, although it represents a danger for those whose anxiety spirals out of control. Such stigma is often best addressed by openly addressing the subject, whether it be in a classroom setting or in private conversation.

Communicate concerns. Teachers will expect to see a certain level of anxiety amongst their students from time to time, especially during the exam season, for example. However, teachers will often be the first to notice when individual students begin to show signs of becoming overly anxious. When teachers are concerned about individuals in this respect, it is important that they communicate their concerns promptly. Whether that communication happens with the student or their parent, or with someone who has pastoral responsibility in school will depend on a whole host of factors, including the age and personality of the student, the procedures in place within the school, the relationship that the teacher has with the particular student, and so on. Whatever its most appropriate form, the important thing is that the communication happens and that difficulties are not allowed to push that communication aside.

Don’t underestimate the value of encouragement. We all need encouragement from time to time, and encouragement can be a particularly effective means of support for those who are anxious. In some cases it may take the form of encouragement to face a challenge head-on despite the anxiety, but in others it will be about helping a student to find another way of achieving a goal. The approach will vary according to the individuals and circumstances involved. However, the value of the encouragement offered by a concerned teacher should never be under-estimated when offered in the context of student anxiety.

Teenagers and Alcohol

In many societies, alcohol has come to be viewed as the most socially-acceptable of drugs. For many teenagers, consequently, learning to use and manage alcohol is seen as a normal part of the growing-up process, and the experience of becoming drunk a kind of rite of passage. The result of social acceptance, however, is a kind of collective down-playing of the dangers of alcohol, both in terms of the drug itself and in terms of the increased risks it brings to other activities.

We begin our consideration with a look at the basic facts about alcohol.

  • Alcohol is a drug.
  • It is a depressant.
  • It is addictive.

When a person consumes an alcoholic drink, about a third of the alcohol is absorbed immediately into the bloodstream through the stomach wall, whilst the remaining two-thirds is absorbed more slowly through the small intestine. Once in the bloodstream, the alcohol circulates the body where it can affect all its organs, but its primary focus is the brain and central nervous system. As a depressant, alcohol acts to slow down the processes of the human body. Initially, it inhibits the area of the brain responsible for self-consciousness, which means the person can experience a short-lived sense of freedom, and which leads to alcohol sometimes being seen mistakenly as a stimulant. However, after this initial effect, its depressant nature becomes more readily apparent in symptoms like slurred speech, unsteadiness in standing or walking, reduced inability to process information, impaired memory and drowsiness. Over-exposure to the drug can have serious consequences, including suppression of breathing, coma and death.

Brain scans have confirmed the depressant nature of alcohol, which acts to suppress the activity of the pre-frontal cortex: the area of the brain responsible for decision-making. The initial experience of freedom from inhibition is one of the features of alcohol that contributes to its highly addictive nature, helping people relax in social situations they might otherwise find stressful. Those who are unable to control their response to the drug’s addictive nature are known as alcoholics, who require alcohol to sustain their day-to-day functioning. The long-term damaging effects of alcohol on the human body are both well known and well documented.

The legal minimum age for drinking alcohol varies between countries. Whereas 13 is widely given as the average age for a first drink, an article published in The Guardian at the beginning of 2018 claimed for the UK that, “… 14% of girls and 20% of boys had tried alcohol at the age of 11”. Furthermore, the article went on to claim, “… the latest findings show that overall almost half of teenagers had tried alcohol by age 14”. The rise in binge drinking (usually defined as more than 5 drinks in a session) amongst older teenagers during the last decade has given rise to considerable societal concern.

The dangers associated with drinking alcohol for teenagers fall mainly into two categories: the possible effects of the alcohol on the developing teenage brain and body; and exposure, as a result of the alcohol consumption, to activities riskier than those to which the teenagers would ordinarily be exposed. Much has been learned over the past decade through brain research, about the major phase of human brain development that occurs during the teenage years until the mid-twenties. This phase of extraordinary brain development occurs coincidentally with the time period which, for many, is the heaviest period of exposure to alcohol of their entire lives. As one Australian publication warns, “Drinking alcohol can cause irreversible changes to the developing brain, particularly to the area of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking. Damage to this part of the brain during its development can lead to learning difficulties, memory problems, and impaired problem solving.”

Alongside the health-related dangers of alcohol, there is the element of risk that comes from engaging in certain activities whilst under the influence of alcohol. Top of the list is driving, or being a passenger of someone, under the influence of alcohol. Teenagers are also more likely, when under the influence of alcohol, to engage in unprotected sexual activity, to become the perpetrators or victims of sexual assaults, to become involved in violent incidents, to commit self-harm or suicide.

Advice for Parents

In light of the widespread availability and social acceptance of alcohol in many societies, on the one hand, and of the dangers outlined above, on the other, the best advice to parents is twofold. Firstly, delay as long as possible the initial use of alcohol by your teenager. Secondly, when delay is no longer a feasible option, stress the importance of the safest possible use.

Delay initial exposure to alcohol. This advice is strongly rooted in the effect of alcohol on the teenager’s developing brain. As the article cited earlier from Reachout.com states with regard to the teenage brain, “… the longer your teenager delays using alcohol, and the less they drink, the better their brain functioning will be now and in later life.” The findings of teenage brain research are still relatively new, but as they receive further confirmation, and as they become more widely known, I would expect the drive to delay the initial exposure of teenagers to alcohol also to intensify. For years, one of the favoured approaches of many parents was to introduce their teenagers to alcohol a little at a time in the safety of the home environment. The results of an Australian study reported in The Lancet in early 2018 reached the conclusion that “There is no evidence to support the practice of parents providing alcohol to their teenagers to protect them from alcohol-related risks during early adolescence”. In fact, the study’s findings “strongly suggest that parental supply of alcohol to adolescents does not protect against future alcohol-related harm, and might in fact increase risk.”

Safe use. Regardless of the strategies used by parents to delay the use of alcohol by their teenagers, there comes a time for most when teenagers decide to try it for themselves. From this point on, the role of the parent shifts to trying to ensure the safest possible use. This includes (at the very least):

  • making teenagers aware of the effects of alcohol on the human brain and body;
  • giving advice on maintaining an acceptable level of consumption;
  • suggesting how to resist peer pressure to drink more or to excess;
  • making clear the dangers of binge drinking;
  • agreeing sensible transport arrangements to and from parties;
  • making it clear to your teenagers that they remain responsible for their actions towards others even when under the influence of alcohol;
  • assuring teenagers that you are always there for them whatever their situation;
  • putting in place emergency arrangements for you to “rescue” them at a moment’s notice from situations where they feel they might be in danger.

Role model a responsible use of alcohol. However strong a parent’s words about alcohol and its dangers, the way their parents handle alcohol will have more effect on the teenager. Teenagers notice the discrepancies between the words and actions of their parents. Such are the dangers to teenagers from the misuse of alcohol, however, that parents will want to avoid sending mixed messages about its use, about drinking and driving, and about all the other areas where alcohol impinges on social behaviour.

Communicate openly about alcohol and related issues. Teenagers may view their parents as old-fashioned or party-spoilers when they communicate about alcohol, but sometimes that’s what being a parent demands. Parents have to accept that sometimes their teenagers make decisions that go against their best advice, but parents can ensure that their teenagers make those decisions with full knowledge of the dangers, effects and possible consequences.

Keep safety the number one priority. A late night phone call from your teenager because their driver has been drinking and they do not want to get into the car with them is certainly inconvenient and not what you wanted after a long week at work. However, it is the kind of phone call that I would rather receive and respond to than have a visit from the police after a serious or fatal accident. Your teenagers need to know that on the few occasions they feel they have to make that call, you will respond and that they will not be in trouble for having made the call.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

Make clear information available. If they are so minded, teenagers can find information on the internet to support any stance they choose to adopt on alcohol. Parents can sometimes struggle to know good sources of information, as opposed to opinion. One way schools can support teenagers and their parents is to keep and make available, both to students and their parents, reliable information about alcohol, its effects and dangers, warning signs of alcohol dependence, where to find help if it is needed, etc. Reliable and easily accessible, up-to-date information can be an invaluable resource and a means of ensuring that discussions between parents and teenagers commence from a common starting point.

Be alert to the warning signs of alcohol-related issues. Teachers will often see the signs of alcohol-related problems in school, but schools need to ensure that teachers know what signs to look for, whom to tell, and what to do if they see those signs. This is an area of student care where regular and informed professional development of the whole teaching staff can make a big difference.

Have clear policies about alcohol and enforce them. Students, parents and teachers all need to know what happens if a student brings alcohol into school or attends school-related events whilst under the influence of alcohol. To be effective, such policies need to be communicated clearly and regularly, and they need to be enforced.

Promoting Resilience in Teenagers

Have you ever wondered how it can be possible for two people of the same age to face vey similar challenging circumstances, and for one to crumble whilst the other rises to the challenge and emerges from it strengthened for the future? The factor that makes the difference is what we call resilience. Resilience is variously defined, but it boils down to the ability to cope well both during and following challenging circumstances, to adapt in the face of difficulty and to bounce back following setbacks.

An article in the New York Times Magazine in October last year focused on the frightening increase of severe anxiety amongst teenagers in the United States. The article indicates that growing numbers of students lack the resilience to “problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively”, leading more of them eventually to stop attending school altogether as anxiety overwhelms them. It is not clear whether the major contributor to the increase in anxiety is a decrease in the number of teenagers who are equipped with the resilience to face today’s turbulent world, or whether it is the result of the increased pressures and stress heaped on teenagers by our technologically advanced world. In all likelihood, it is a combination of the two. However, whether it is for confronting everyday difficulties, or facing one of life’s more difficult challenges, like losing a family member, commentators agree that today’s teenagers need to become more resilient.

Commentators also agree that, whilst a variety of personal characteristics may impact resilience, it is not in itself genetic; but is rather a skill that can be learned and built. Lists of what might be considered the building blocks of resilience vary, but most would include: a sense of belonging; self-respect and empathy; social skills; a positive outlook; and the availability and accessibility of supportive adults.

A sense of belonging can be gained from a variety of sources: family, school, peers and the wider community. We all need to know there are people who care about us and to whom we matter, people who will offer encouragement and support when we experience difficulty, and structures to which we can contribute in appropriate ways. Whilst a sense of belonging might be thought of as providing a cocoon within which the individual teenager exists, there needs also to be a sense of self-respect, which enables the teenager to know their own value as a person and have a realistic view of their own capabilities and strengths. Empathy, which allows respect for others and their feelings to develop, helps the teenager look beyond themselves. When this extends to supporting and helping others, there is a positive feedback that strengthens further the teenager’s sense of self-respect.

A teenager’s social skills enable them to make friends, resolve conflicts, maintain healthy relationships and cooperate with others. The ability to keep a positive outlook on life, even in the midst of difficulty, contributes to the ability to regard challenges as opportunities for growth rather than reasons to give up, and also feeds the ability to maintain hope. The availability of supportive adults provides an added level of reassurance that there are those to whom the teenager can turn to ask for help when they feel the need for the additional support of an experienced and trusted adult, who may be a family member, teacher, peer or professional supporter. These basic building blocks, in different combinations for different people, are required to help the teenager build resilience, to the nurturing of which we now turn.

Advice for Parents

Be models of resilience. It is not possible to nag teenagers into becoming resilient, but whatever parents say on the subject is likely to be less effective than the resilience they demonstrate. Teenagers observe how their parents handle life and its problems, and what they see can be a key factor in helping the teenagers develop their own approach. This applies as much to resilience as to any other aspect of life, and it requires parents to look at their own levels of resilience and to seek to address any deficiencies they find. Parents who lack resilience can communicate the message to their children that life’s difficulties are best avoided or given into; whereas parents who have developed their own resilience give the message that life’s challenges are for facing as opportunities for learning, growth and development.

Allow teenagers to face their own challenges. Since resilience is primarily to do with facing difficulties, it is important that parents resist the urge to shield their teenagers from all difficult circumstances. Resilience grows through practice, and children and teenagers need to develop their coping skills and strategies through putting them to use. Teenagers are helped when parents talk through approaches to difficulties, support and encourage them as they face difficulties, help them to keep their difficulties in a proper perspective, compliment them when they win through, and help them to reflect and learn from their experiences subsequently.

Observe how your teenager functions and help them address their weaknesses. Parents need to keep in mind the building blocks outlined earlier and encourage their children and teenagers to develop in areas where they are weaker. This can start before the child becomes a teenager. If, for example, the parent observes a reluctance to become involved with others, or hears from the class teacher that the child seems to be a loner, or sees that their teenager seems unable to maintain friendships beyond a couple of weeks, then a helpful avenue to explore could be that of helping them find ways to strengthen their social skills. When genuine difficulties arise during the teenager years, a supportive network of peers can be a valuable contributing factor to resilience, but such friendship networks need to be built before the crises hit.

Help your teenager develop a positive and realistic outlook on life. A vital element of resilience is the ability to maintain a perspective on life that gives a realistic view of difficulties when they arise. Not all difficulties need to affect the whole of a person’s life. A poor test result, for example, may prompt reflection on how the teenager studied and whether changes might be made to their study routines for the future, but there is no immediate reason for it to impact family holiday plans, sports team participation or a complete revision of one’s university applications. Especially if your teenager is prone to panic in response to a setback, a level-headed parent can be a valuable aid to keeping things in a proper perspective.

Advice for Teachers and Schools

 Observe and encourage. Teachers are in a great position to be able to observe how students cope with difficulty and to offer some encouragement at an appropriate moment. Two categories of student come immediately to mind as those who might benefit from the support of an observant teacher: those who generally seem to lack resilience, and those who ordinarily seem able to manage setbacks but who show an unexplained change in behaviour. For those students in the former category, regular reassuring comments about their ability to cope allied with complimentary remarks of encouragement when they succeed are a great combination. Such comments need not take a great amount of time, but they send the message that someone is interested in them and in their progress. Such comments can have a great impact on a student whose resilience is low. For those in the latter category, a gentle enquiry if everything is okay opens a door for a student to ask for help if they find themselves unexpectedly in a situation where they need it.

Incorporate a resilience programme into the curriculum. An age-appropriate resilience programme embedded in the curriculum not only makes students aware of the importance of resilience and how it can be built, but it also creates natural opportunities for those struggling with their resilience to identify their needs and to ask for help. Such a programme should aim to make students aware of the building blocks for resilience, give practical opportunities for students to try out strategies for strengthening resilience, and give clear information about the kinds of help that might be available and where. Resilience is an important protection and tool for students in today’s world, and a programme focused on its development could be an important contribution to students’ well-being and ability to succeed.

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.