When to worry – the four key things all parents of teens should be looking out for

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Zoe (not her real name) 14, sat across from me listening to her mother reel off a long list of what was worrying her. With each item, Zoe rolled her eyes with such ferocity that I feared she'd detach a retina. 

Mum said that Zoe could be super sweet and super moody, all in the same half-hour. In the last few months she'd become uncommunicative, didn't do anything around the house, spent almost all of her time at home in her bedroom watching Netflix and Youtube, and was pushing every boundary that her parents had put in place.

I thanked mum for the list of her concerns, and then said, " before you leave the room and I talk to Zoe alone, was there anything else you wanted to say?" This is a technique I have used for years to politely kick parents or adult carers out of the room, establish a rapport with the young person and start my assessment.

Once mum had departed, I introduced myself to Zoe, explained the meaning and limitations of confidentiality. Apart from the fact that breaking confidence is illegal and unethical, there is no point in fudging this, as most teens have an in-built bulldust detector. I gave her permission not to answer any question that she didn't want to - and launched into my standard information-gathering spiel.

Like many 14-year-olds she was going through the normal physical, intellectual, social, and emotional changes. She told me her friends were her lifeline, parents and school were boring, and she was trying to understand her feelings which seemed to change like the wind.

What I wanted to know, was despite mum's concerns whether Zoe (as a neurotypical young woman) was on track to tackle the key developmental tasks of adolescence. There are quite a few, but for the purposes of this article and simplicity I'll focus on just four.

First, I wanted to ascertain whether Zoe had a proven capacity to obtain, maintain and retain positive peer relationships, in other words, did she have a rich repertoire of pro-social friends?

The research seems quite clear that one of the greatest predictors of wellbeing, is having some mates your age – preferably with similar values, attitudes and beliefs. Pro-social peers means not the local outlaw motor cycle gang!

Second, did she have an island of competence, a "spark" - something that interests her, that gets her passionate and up and going every day. It doesn't really matter whether it is an interest in art, music, dance, drama, sport etc.

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All that matters is that there is a mechanism for Zoe to take healthy risks, learn about herself, hang out with friends and establish meaningful relationships with other adults (for example coaches, teachers etc).

Third, what was her school experience? Did she feel safe at school, actively enjoy learning, did she like some of the teachers, were there learning problems (disability or difficulty) and did she understand that school was there to help her acquire skills for future economic independence?

This is important as Zoe will receive a total of 11,000 hours of instruction throughout primary and high school, a substantial investment of time, which can provide much-needed structure, ritual and routine.

Lastly, an important part of being 14-years-old, is psychologically separating from one's parents, in a process called emancipation. To what extent is Zoe redefining her emotional relationship with her mum and dad, moving from that of parent and child to that of parent and pseudo-adult?

Was this the reason, she was refusing to go on family holidays, go out to the local restaurant as a family and why she was spending inordinate amounts of time at her best friend's house, almost "adopting" her BF's family as her own?

The good news was that Zoe warmed quickly to sympathetic, respectful questioning. She was happy to talk within the bubble of confidentiality we had created and it turned out that on the basis of the key developmental tasks, she seemed to be doing OK. 

She had a stable group of friends who she felt "had her back" and were more in to shopping than taking risks with drugs or alcohol. Her major interest was dance which she did with her friends twice a week and enjoyed enormously. She liked school and especially the art, music and drama component, and had a couple of teachers she thought were inspirational.

As far as her parents were concerned, she said that she loved them both, but she felt they weren't on the same page, had different rules and expectations which were confusing and inconsistently enforced. She admitted to feeling sad from time to time but she felt she was doing OK.

While there are obviously other issues that psychologists look for, as a general rule - the successful completion of these adolescent tasks is a great start and represent one of the most important parental skills - having a developmental perspective. 

It's undeniably hard for parents of teenagers who have to deal with sometimes stubborn, oppositional behaviour while at the same time helping their offspring to plan for the future.

On top of that, parents have to encourage them to be part of family decision-making, show an interest in her friends, school, and activities - all the time setting limits on her use of phones, devices, and social media. Not easy.

 Knowing that Zoe is a work in progress and what lies ahead , however, might make the journey a little easier.

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg is a Child and Adolescent Psychologist