As challenging as it is to be a teenager, it's equally so for parents as all grapple with new roles and responsibilities, writes Aidan Farrelly, Department of Applied Social Studies 

Aidan Farrelly
Being a teenager is a time of exploration, education and evolution. While many of the external influences might look, sound or taste different, the transitionary period of being too old for the perks of childhood, but too young for the autonomy of adulthood remains a frustrating period for many.

As parents, we tend to be quite conscious of our practices when our children require maximum physical intervention when it comes to food, hygiene and general health and safety. So, what happens as we witness our children evolve from childhood through adolescence – and how often do we reflect on our changing role as parents?

Professional youth workers in Ireland are tasked with developing relationships with young people in order to support their development and wellbeing, either as individuals or as a collective. In doing so, youth workers will regularly connect with parents and primary caregivers who consistently say the same thing; 'I just don't understand them'.

Ultimately, the foundation of any youth work process, and arguably the defining characteristic of any parent/teen interaction, is the relationship. The challenge for many of us as parents of teenagers is to acknowledge a change in the dynamic of that relationship. After all, we've spent the last 10 to 12 years telling our child what to do, where to go, how to get there and why it’s important.

The root of much tension between parent and teenager can often be found when young people begin to test the boundaries of those limitations – where to go, who to go with etc. As young people develop emotionally, we see it as a sign of strength and confidence if and when we are faced with questioning, opposition and critique. As the mechanics of young people’s minds engage a new gear, so should ours.

Building relationships takes time – and maintaining them requires a lifelong commitment. For them to work – there must be a mutual benefit. Understanding and valuing the opinions and experiences of teenagers is an important facet of any relationship they have with an adult.

Quite often we find ourselves reminiscing about the time we were young in an attempt to understand and empathise with what’s occurring for our teens. But the landscape of youth has changed to a degree that is possibly unrecognisable to us elders. What remains the same though, is the shared experience of being a teenager at one point. Our memories can deceive, but we've come out the other side.

Being quick to educate, inform or dismiss our young people’s experiences with a sentence that often begins with ‘well, when I was your age…’ can lose the room immediately. In youth work, we tend to listen first. When young people are naming issues of challenge or confusion, we often listen and question as opposed to advising or dictating at a ratio of four or five to one. We must let go of the assumption that young people always need telling what to do. Sometimes, they simply want to share.

Instead of teaching young people, youth workers will often answer a question with "I don’t know…" followed quickly with "but let’s find out." We as adults don’t have to know everything in order to teach children and young people. We found that out quickly enough when home schooling during lockdowns. What can be quite liberating is to admit to our teenagers that we don’t have an answer, but we stand ready to learn alongside them - and watch that relationship flourish.

As previously suggested, there can be a gulf between the power young people have and the power young people want to have. Indeed, in most life settings, teenagers are not presented with choice. As parents – albeit well intentioned - we can limit the opportunities to decide either for ourselves or for the wider family in order to minimise risk.

A buzzword around youth workers for many years has been empowerment – how to facilitate young people to realise the power they have, and how to use it. Many confuse the act of young people taking power as a parallel process of an adult or institution losing some of theirs, which doesn’t need to be the case.

In recognition of the changing mindset of young people, it’s vital that we facilitate them to be decision makers, risk takers and to make mistakes. As youth workers, we accept that some young people may do this whether they’ve secured permission or not. So why not adopt an approach of maximising the learning in opportunities where teenagers can step outside their comfort zone? Let them take a chance and then make the time with parents to debrief, reflect and be more informed in advance of the next set of decisions.

As challenging a time as it is to be a teenager, it’s equally so for parents. We are all finding our feet in our new roles and responsibilities. What we shouldn’t do though is miss the opportunity presented to solidify a relationship with our teens based on mutual respect, a willingness to learn together and to have fun. It takes time and that's something we can always afford to find more of.

This article originally appeared on RTE Brainstorm