Q&A with behavioural specialist Charlie Taylor
Untidy? Monosyllabic? Endless arguments? Communication by grunt? Seismic sulking? Lives ruled by FOMO (fear of missing out)? Sound like your teenager?
Behavioural expert Charlie Taylor joined us in September 2010 to answer your questions on unruly teenagers. Charlie has been a behavioural specialist for more than 10 years and has taught every age group, from nursery to 16-year-olds, working in inner-city primary and comprehensive schools. He is currently head teacher of a special school for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties in West London and is the author of Divas and Doorslammers.
Q. Quicklookbusy: How do you approach 'encouraging' a teenager with college work? My daughter is 16 and just started her A-levels. She worked hard during the run-up to exams, but during the rest of the year, she had a very laidback approach - according to her teachers as well as me. She really wants to go to university but I know if she doesn't step up a few gears, this won't happen. Any attempt to ask about work is met with a grunt! Should I back off and just let her get on with it, even if it probably means she won't work to her full potential?
A. Charlie: Always a difficult one getting that balance between being too pushy or leaving her to make her own mistakes. My feeling is that she isn't yet responsible enough to do it by herself so you are justified in cracking the whip. If there is a friendly teacher, ask if you can be cc-ed by email on your daughter's homework. Teachers are usually supportive with this. You then know what she is supposed to be doing and she can't play you off against the school.
Try to have set times when she does her homework and don't allow her to do anything else until it's done. Tell her that once she is in the habit you will back off and let her do it in her own time. First term in sixth form is early days, so there is plenty of time for her to begin to take responsibility.
Q. Bigtillymint: How do you deal with a hormonal (budding teenager) new year seven who is struggling at home to manage the demands of secondary school - wanting more independence and self-management, while still needing a lot of adult support with homework and so on? What do you do about 'teenage' tantrums and rudeness in tone of voice as well as what is said?
A. Charlie: That transition from cosy primary to scary secondary is a frightening process for many children and they express their fear by being cool and bolshy - ie copying the older children they see. This is your opportunity to set up routines for organisation and homework, it will never be as easy as it is now! Initially, s/he does homework at a time and a place of your asking. Check what s/he has to do and look at it to ensure it is done properly. The deal is this – when s/he can show you that s/he is responsible to do his homework in her/his own time, then you will be off their case. Until that moment, you are the boss. With the tantrums, never ever give into them or give your child what he or she wants when they throw a strop.
Q. Nottirednow: If you really have very well-behaved, children don't you worry about them just a little bit? Is a bit of rebellion actually a good thing? Can you suggest a way to encourage a teen to speak out more in class? They are not lacking in ability but it's not going to help them get their choice of university.
A. Charlie: Enjoy it while you can, it might change or it might not. Not all children feel the need to rebel, the gradual cutting of the apron strings can often be a gentle process.
It is difficult to get your teen to speak out more in class, some people just don't like it, but don't worry too much, some children learn very well by listening. You could have a word with the teacher and ask if they could direct more questions to your child.
Q. Lovemygirls: My daughter is only 11 but has had an attitude problem for a few years now. I can mostly deal with it by saying firmly "I will not be spoken to in that tone" and refusing to cooperate with her if she won't cooperate with me, which usually sorts things out. But since she started secondary school, she is being very argumentative and is changing her views on a lot of things to try to fit in. How should you deal with children getting more freedom?
A. Charlie: You are right, she is trying to fit in. Teenagers suffer from FOMO – the fear of missing out and you are seeing some early signs. Transition to secondary school is really hard and children will do what ever it takes to fit in. As children get older the approval of their friends gets at least as important as the approval from their parents. Remember, even teenagers like boundaries; they will test them, but they help them to feel contained emotionally and cared for.
Q. Pathfinder: I've got three teenage sons and I got divorced two years ago. I've struggled to establish a relationship as their divorced mother as they only stay with me at weekends. My eldest seems to be burying much of his emotions, energy and time in his online games and chatting online to pals. His school work has plummeted, but his dad doesn't seem worried and doesn't communicate with me.
I do have some ideas - a friend recently suggested I draw up a contract with my sons for when they stay with me, that would help me keep my house tidy and raise the topics of what we all consider acceptable and what not.
My eldest can get angry and agressive when I try to set bedtime and internet rules, but I know I need to do them - somehow - but how? He is far taller and stronger and angrier and louder than I am. Shouting isn't the answer.
A. Charlie: I think your ideas are excellent about setting up contracts and giving more structure for your sons when they're staying with you. The more you can get teenagers up and about the better, they will moan, but they will enjoy it and deep down they even like being made to do their homework!
But if you can't get your ex-partner on side, then you are likely to end up fighting an exhausting and losing battle that may damage your relationship with your teens. Sit down with him when you are both calm and see if you can come to a deal about what you can do for your sons and how you are going to work together to support each other.
Q. Thesecondcoming: My teenager goes to bed after a perfectly nice evening with us and in a lovely mood, but wakes up like a banshee from hell and doesn't speak to any of us - including her two-year-old sister! Unless we're all going in in the night to piss her off then I really don't know where we're going wrong. She sometimes seems so desperately unhappy and is really unpleasant to all of us. Then, for no reason, snaps out of it. I am finding it very difficult to access my loving feelings towards her sometimes. Is this normal? Or is it because we've had another baby?
A. Charlie: Yes, I'm afraid it's very normal. The teenage brain goes through a big growth spurt and this involves a rewiring of the nerve connections. Result: all this electrical activity is a cause of typical teenage moodiness. There may well be some jealousy of the little one, even if your daughter probably won't admit it. Try and make some quality time with your older daughter – something like a shopping trip or a cinema visit together.
Q. Castille: I'd like to know how to re-teach my 13-year-old daughter some basic rules of courtesy and politeness. She drives me insane by pushing past people instead of letting them pass (like on the stairs or on to a bus), by not looking at someone who is talking to her and not greeting people properly. These are all things she once knew how to do!
A. Charlie: Don't try to change too much at once, just pick on one aspect of her manners, for example good eye contact. Let her know what she does (you can do an imitation, but not in a nasty way). Then be explicit about how you want her to be. Tell her you are going to be looking out for her giving good eye contact and then praise her every time she manages it. When she doesn't look at you try not to react, but don't respond unless she is looking at you. When you have cracked this go onto something else in a month or so.
Q. Redpanda: My 15-year-old daughter has just turned to the dark side and I'm struggling to readjust and remind myself to zip it so I don't react and provoke further rudeness/"I know best" responses/sulks/silences/retorts/tears/etc (delete as appropriate). My current problem is how not to react to her 'boot face', which is becoming an increasingly familiar reaction when she doesn't like what I'm saying. It drives me mad!
If I have said "no" to a request that is unreasonable and explained why, then how do I cope with the inevitable sulks that will ensure, without getting wound up at her behaviour? My husband tells me not to take it all so personally, but the problem is that I do! I want my lovely girl back!
A. Charlie: You won't get your lovely girl back, but you will get, out of the blue, a lovely adult in a year or two. You are right to ignore the strops, whenever you react to her behaviour, you are making the it more likely to happen again. The same goes for the boot face, though I know how annoying it is, part of the reason she is doing it is because it is a passive-aggressive way of getting back at you for daring to say "no" and she knows it annoys you. Dare I say it on Mumsnet - I think your husband is right!?! Praise her when she is doing the right thing and ignore the boot.
Q. Musicopsy: My eldest, who is 14, despite being quite difficult when she was little, seems to be generally sailing through the teenage years with only the odd strop. We have a very close bond and get on well together. My youngest, 11, has up until now been the easiest child to raise you could imagine. But recently, she's stroppy and difficult. Virtually everything I ask her to do is met with, "What are you going to do about it if I don't?" It doesn't matter how reasonable the request.
It's not just with me, either. For example, she was told recently to take her feet off of the seat at the theatre. She knows she shouldn't have had her feet there in the first place, but she just said "why should I?" to the lady. It's like she has to challenge everything. I worry that I am getting closer to my eldest because she is easier. I don't want the bond with my youngest to slip away. But spending more time with my youngest just seems to give her more opportunity to be stroppy with me.
A. Charlie: Parents often find this difference between children very frustrating. Your youngest is pushing the boundaries and is really asking you to take a bit more control. Try to spend more quality time together doing something you both enjoy, even if it's only a few minutes a week. Do lots of praising when she is doing the right thing and try to ignore the strops. The ideas in my answer to Castille, above, should help with the manners.
Q. Stayingdavidtennantsgirl: My 13-year-old son has little or no empathy with others and has real difficulty controlling his temper at home - he has sworn at me, and the only effective sanction seems to be removal of his iPod. He can be so cold and nasty - and yet other times he is loving and cuddly.
Even the dog is scared of him - he says he hates her and wants nothing to do with her, and in the past, when he called her to go for a walk with him (after the stress of getting him to accept that it was his turn to walk her), she has run away and hidden under the desk.
I am looking into dyslexia as a possible cause for this defiant behaviour. Can you suggest anything that might help? I am literally at the end of my tether. I suffer from depression, and feel like a total failure as a mother.
A. Charlie: The teenage brain is growing and rewiring, the electrical connections are reforming and the result is just the sort of moodiness you describe. On top of that he is beginning push you away a bit as part of the gradual cutting of the apron strings. He is more confident in your love than anyone else's, so he can try being like this with you because he knows you won't turn your back on him. For the same reason he is probably lovely with his friends.
I think this is a more likely answer than any thing to do with dyslexia. Be firm with him and if necessary do take his iPod for a bit if he pushes it. An hour is as effective as a day or a week so you don't need to go over the top. Remember you are the adult, and teenagers like rules. (They just pretend they don't.)
Q. Maryz: What do you do if your child doesn't respond positively to giving them control and responsibility, for instance, if you let them out, they consistently break curfew, and if you stop checking homework, they stop doing it. You can't punish them all day every day.
I am trying to deal with my 12-year-old son, who is already beginning to pull away, especially iwth the knowledge that his older brother was a truanting drug user at the age of 13. I was told I was too strict with him, but every time I gave him freedom he abused it.
A. Charlie: Where possible try to get the teenagers involved in setting their own rules and then negotiate something you can both live with. Ask your child what he/she thinks is a fair response to missing a curfew. If this conversation can be had when you are both feeling relatively calm, then parents are often surprised by how thoughtful their teenager's response can be.
Don't beat yourself up about putting rules in place and sticking to them. Teenagers like to know where they stand, by doing this you are showing them that you care and making them feel emotionally contained. They will test you out, but you have given them a set of values that they will draw on as they get older. Ride out the storm, it is heavy, but it will pass.
I'm sorry you are having such a difficult time with your older son. At this stage try to stay in contact. Use email or text and let him/her know you still love him and you are there when he needs you.
Q. Nottirednow: Is there a British equivalent of boot camp anywhere for when things have gone terribly wrong? I'm thinking of a teen who was thrown out of home, then stole from someone who took them in and tried to help them. They were then set up in a flat but failed to claim housing benefit. For that and for noise/disruption they were evicted. Any suggestions on how to help them? Any good sources of advice for friends trying to help? Everything seems to be geared to advising parents.
A. Charlie: There isn't a boot camp-type provision in the UK. They were tried in the 1970s and the outcome was fitter criminals! Sometimes you just have to let them make their own mistakes and suffer the consequences, though for any parent that is far easier said than done. Try to keep some lines of communication open and keep texting loving messages to show you are still there when needed. Make any financial contributions from you linked to good behaviour.
Q. Squonk: I have a 16-year-old daughter, and then I had a gap of ten years, before having my six-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. Sometimes they get on really well and at other times they fight and squabble like normal siblings, but how can I get my eldest daughter to realise that the level of violence that she sometimes inflicts on her younger siblings is absolutely not appropriate. If they were similar in age/size/weight, etc, it would be normal, but she is so much bigger that she is in danger of doing them some real damage. And then when I tell her off for hurting them she feels that I've taken their side in whatever argument they've been having.
I have tried explaining that I'm not taking their side, but she cannot behave that way and get away with it, but she still feels quite put out that I prefer them to her, which is not true of course.
A. Charlie: Play fighting is all good healthy stuff, but your daughter is going too far. Get your children together tell them to work out a code word or gesture, such as a tap that they can give when they feel scared or are getting hurt. This gives your daughter a clear message when she has overstepped the mark and must pull back. Teenagers often don't know their own strength because they are growing so fast.
Q. Mollyroger: Is it 'normal' for kids to start fibbing and exaggerating massively at around age 12/13? My son has to embellish everything or put a spin on stuff to the point where I just don't know when (or if) to believe a thing he says.
A. Charlie: Yes, they often do fib a lot. Teenagers suffer from FOMO – fear of missing out - they start to think everyone else is having more fun than they are, so they often make stuff up to make them feel they are have as interesting time as their friends.
Q. Nottirednow: What is your attitude to "respecting their privacy" when things seem to be going wrong, for example, naked internet photos or suspected drug use?
A. Charlie: When teenagers are breaking the law, I believe you have to take action. Boys like looking at porn on the internet and a bit of nudity won't do any harm, but I am very concerned about some of the very hard core stuff that is available at the click of a mouse. Put parental controls on the computer and remove it from his room if he is accessing these sorts of sites. Otherwise try to give as much privacy as you can.
Q. Scurryfunge: Why do teens seem to accept a squalid lifestyle? The things I fall out about with my 15-year-old son are tidiness and cleanliness. I am a constant nag when it comes to him keeping his bedroom tidy. He is quite happy to have rotting food, smelly socks on the floor and every available surface covered with games and DVDs. He is getting better at showering but seems incapable of hanging up towels, putting toiletries away and the bath mat appears to be for decoration only.
A. Charlie: Yuck! But at least he's washing. Decide on what you can let go and what are your red line issues and tell him. I would be less worried about how he treats his room - his space after all, rather than how he leaves the bathroom - shared family space. Link keeping the bathroom tidy to some of his pocket money and he will play ball. Try to keep calm and praise him when he gets it right.
Q. Supersalstrawberry: How do I get my 16-year-old son to do things like his washing, emptying the dishwasher and taking out the rubbish - he gets paid an allowance to do these things -without having to ask a gazillion times, ending in an argument?
What happened to the lovely little boy who always used to turn and wave to me when he was walking off to school in the morning? He's been replaced by this grumpy, moody, sulky person, who doesn't seem to like me very much and thinks I'm mean and unreasonable. I get occasional glimpses of this funny, lovely bloke, but they are rare and when he's talking to his friends he's a totally different person than who he is with me.
I suppose it could be worse, he doesn't smoke, drink, there is no girlfriend on the scene (although sometimes I think if he had a girlfriend he might be happier) and he loves college, and is very focused on the course he is doing and wants to do well so he can go to university. I tell him I love him and he responds, but I find myself really missing my little boy at times.
A. Charlie: That funny, lovely bloke will return as he becomes an adult in the next few years, I promise. Leave a note out for him reminding him about chores on his bedroom door or some other place he will notice, saying something simple like "Chores = Money". This means you won't have to nag and he can't moan back at you. If he doesn't do the chore, don't remind him and don't give him the cash. You may have to tough out a few strops, but he will get the point.
Having said that, you've got a non-smoking, non-drinking teenager who still tells his mother he loves her. Pretty damn good I call that!
Q. Claricebean: How do you ask them to do things without sounding like a naggy fishwife? Obviously, asking once does not work, and then what? Ask again and my head is bitten off. Also, how do you get them to take responsibility for their actions/inactions. It is not my fault you leave your bus money at home. It is not the teacher's fault you did not have the right books. Why is it never, ever, ever, ever a teenager's fault when things go wrong (when it quite clearly is).
A. Charlie: Leave notes around the place with reminders, rather than nagging. This helps to avoid confrontations. It's never their fault because they are still children and it's much easier to blame someone else. As they grow up they will take more responsibility. Try taking the wind out of your teen's sail by saying, "Wow, that's so annoying of that teacher not to set homework, you are going to have to go to the trouble of finding what it is now!"
Q. Jeezypeeps: My son, who is 13, is becoming more and more withdrawn from 'normal' life, wants to play video games constantly, and is apparently demonstrating a 'bad attitude' at school. He has always been very helpful, but is becoming less and less so, and is very stubborn about anything he doesn't want to do (both at home and school). He has an older sister who has not struggled with school the way he has, and I think this affects how he feels.
A. Charlie: Ration the video games as too much is not good for him. An hour or two a day is plenty. Make him get up and do tiring stuff outside. He will moan like mad and will never admit it, but teenagers actually quite like climbing mountains in the pouring rain. The more activities he can do the better. If he won't put the video game down, then confiscate it.
Q. BasildonBond: What do you suggest to get teenagers to do things when they refuse, like homework and going to bed at a reasonable time? And what's the best way to respond to them saying things like "leave me alone" when asked? What can you use as an incentive, when the withdrawal of privileges and pocket money is met with a shrug?
A. Charlie: Very frustrating! In the end you can't make them do things, they have to make that decision with your guidance. Try and focus on one thing you want to change – say bedtimes - and concentrate on that for a couple of weeks. Decide on an appropriate time ideally agreed between the two of you and stick to it. Say you will be making half the week's pocket money dependent on going to bed on time and knock a proportion off each time they don't manage. Add another incentive such as being able to stay up later at the weekend or watch a film, but keep the reward simple. Give out lots of praise when they do it right. Try not to react to the strops and don't give in to them.
When bedtime has got better you can move onto something else. Keep the routine very tight so there is no wriggle room and at this stage don't be flexible.
Q. Bonsoir: How do you deal with a 15-year-old stepson, of whom quite different standards of behaviour are expected in his two homes? His mother sees him very little and does everything he wishes when she is with him and gives him the run of the apartment (with his younger brother), and makes zero demands.
When he is with us there are five rather than two or three people in a smaller apartment and he has a lot of homework etc to do (because it doesn't get done at his mother's) and we don't spend every evening out in restaurants and all weekend shopping.
He is currently seeing everything in black and white: his father is super demanding (actually, he isn't) and his mother is perfect in every way. He is wildly unhappy and thinks it grossly unfair that we don't give him the lifestyle his mother does. She will never change. What do we do?
A. Charlie: Very frustrating for you. Remember though, however he fusses, children like to have boundaries - it helps them to feel safe and contained. Teenagers are very good at adapting to different environments, witness how different they can be at school compared to home.
Can you make a deal with his mother that he does at least a bit of his homework at her house, it would help to share the load? If not, then it is going to fall to you. Stick to your guns, you are the adult, he will appreciates what you are doing even though he will never tell you. (Well, not for 30 years anyway!) Many of the teenagers I work with are desperate to have a parent who takes some control.
Q. Suda: How do you deal/cope with all this teenage/young adult stuff when they are not your own? If you have the safety net of unconditional love it can still be tough, but what if you don't? I have a stepson and things in our household tend to get really out of hand resulting in smugness and re-doubled bad behaviour, ending in accusations by his Dad of a vendetta against the stepson!
A. Charlie: Arghhhh! Indeed, a very difficult scenario with you stuck in the middle. I think you need a meeting with Dad over a glass of something, without interruption, in which you work out what you think is a reasonable set of rules and how you are going to support each other to stick to them. Also, you could try factoring in some quality time with your stepson so that you are not always the big bad wolf.
Have a campaign of praising him when he is doing the right thing – I find that this kind of 'lovebombing' can help to redress the balance. It is probably the last thing you feel like doing because you are feeling fed up and resentful, but this is the best way to get out of your vicious cycle.
Q. PixieOnaLeaf: How do I deal with an (almost) teenager who is finding it very difficult to deal with chronic illness? She finds it difficult to talk to anyone about how it makes her feel, but it very angry, frustrated and sad about it. I am at a loss about how to approach her, how to help her to open up and talk about it and how to let her have the life of a normal teenager.
A. Charlie: Many teenagers find it hard to talk about feelings stuff at the best of times. You know it will do her good, but you can't force her. Help her by naming the feelings you know she must be having - "You must be feeling so frustrated, angry..." - this can be emotionally very containing and can help to begin a conversation. Let her know that you're available if she wants to talk, or you will find someone else if she would like. If you back off a bit then you may find she will come to you in her own time.
Q. Madmn52: How common is it for all these teenager traits to spill over into early to mid-20s? Without wishing to move the light at end of tunnel away from parents hanging on in there till the morn of their beloved teenager's 20th birthday, this is all like reading about my 22-year-old stepson. He is becoming more of a grumpy teenager, if anything, and has certainly not shed any of the above traits, and I have been his stepmum for six years.
A. Charlie: It's taking longer in your stepson's case, but it has been a more complicated process. In his unconscious you came along and took the attention away from him (not you're fault). The FOMO (fear of missing out) he is showing you and your partner is a way of trying to fit in. If possible the more you do things as a family – all of you snuggling up on the sofa for a movie etc - the better. He may not want to take you up on the offer and actually join in, but the invitation will help to reduce his FOMO anxiety. He sounds like he is driving you mad at the moment and this advice is the last thing you feel like following, but the best way to help is to reach out to him.
Q. Lovemygirls: How much should I tell my 11 year old about sex? Up to now I have answered questions as briefly as I can, but she still thinks people only ever have sex when trying to get pregnant. But surely in time she will realise this is wrong, so should I hide it for her, or tell her?
A. Charlie: I think little and often is better than one embarrassing lecture. Bring it up when it comes up naturally in conversation and try to be matter of fact. What you must avoid is the idea that it is some sort of terrible forbidden fruit, that merely encourages teenagers to give it a go.
Q. KatnKankles: My daughter is 12 and has recently become incredibly clingy and teary. She cries pretty much every day and sometimes rings me from school to say she misses me. She often says she doesn't know why she's crying. It got to the point where she was supposed to go away for a weekend with her Dad, but couldn't because she couldn't bear to be away from me. She follows me around constantly and I have to give her cuddles ALL the time.
I don't really mind, but I have a four-month old baby plus a six-year-old to take care of, too. I just hug her when she sobs, often I don't even ask questions, because I know all she wants is a hug until she calms down.
Am I doing the right thing? I reassured her it's hormones, as she hasn't started her periods yet but she has boobs so I don't think she'll be long. It might sound like a trivial problem but she has always been so independent and outgoing, it's quite upsetting for her to feel this way.
A. Charlie: I think the secret is the new baby. During that insecure time when she is about to reach teens and is one of youngest in the school, she is inevitably feeling displaced by the new arrival and probably feels jealous. She is seeing you cuddling and cosseting the baby and she want a bit of the action.
You are right to give her what she wants at the moment - never ration cuddles. I predict that over time things will quieten down as she realises that just because you've had a baby it doesn't affect the way you feel about her. Hormones and brain development (see above) will also no doubt be paying their part, but I'm sure the baby is the key.