PARENT TOOLKIT: MANAGING UNCERTAINTY IN ADOLESCENTS
Adolescence is already a time of uncertainty, confusion, and change. Concerns around friends, bodies, identity and future expectations are common. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in additional disruptions to young people’s lives, leaving them to deal with further uncertainty around health, safety, well-being, relationships, and loss.
Some research suggests that adolescents may actually have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty than adults. However, without appropriate support, it can be difficult for them to tolerate the negative or intense emotions that can come with uncertainty. Because the adolescent brain is still developing, this can impact their ability to make decisions, solve complex problems, and manage intense emotions.
As your adolescent grows and explores their identity, there will likely be an increased desire for them to have control over decisions and to be independent of the family. The way they communicate may become more extreme, and their behaviours may be more impulsive, as they try to deal with new social, emotional, and developmental challenges. While all of these changes are normal, they can pose some challenges to parents and the family dynamics.
HOW TO BE THERE FOR YOUR ADOLESCENT DURING UNCERTAINTY
You may find the following tips useful to support your young person through uncertainty:
- Keep lines of communication open
Make yourself available for your young person. Show them that you are interested in what is going on in their lives and that they can approach you if they do have any issues. It’s important that you try to listen and empathise without comparison, criticism or problem-solving. It can be easy to make judgements, or you may feel a desire to rush in and fix things, but this can lead to them not feeling heard, respected, or safe to share.
Browse here for some suggestions on how to communicate with your adolescent and be the kind of parent your child chooses to talk with.
- Remain calm
Adolescents tend to communicate in extremes and can struggle to cope with intense emotions such as anger. For this reason, arguments can often escalate quite quickly with parents or other family members. Although it’s normal to feel angry in these situations, as an adult it is important that you try and implement some strategies to remain calm.
Being able to take a moment when things get heated is a valuable skill to learn, and sets a good example for your adolescent who is still learning how to regulate their emotions. Having some space to calm down and consider your response can do wonders for de-escalating the situation and maintaining a positive relationship.
- Schedule family time and plan activities
Scheduling fun activities and quality time with your young person is a great way to stay connected. While teenagers may be more interested in hanging out with friends or doing things independently, research suggests that spending time with parents can have many benefits for their self-esteem, social skills, behaviour, and relationships.
In order to keep them engaged consistently, you could give them a chance to pick activities that they are interested in or try to schedule a regular time for family activities. Having this consistency in their routine can be particularly useful in times of uncertainty.
If you’d like some ideas about what to do with your teenager, click here.
- Respect their independence
While quality time is important, it’s also important to respect your adolescent’s growing desire for independence, privacy, and control. Young people need time to explore their own interests, try new things, unwind and recharge, problem-solve, make their own decisions, and ultimately figure out who they want to be. While letting go of control can be difficult, achieving independence is an essential part of your child’s journey to becoming an adult.
- Give yourself a break
Parenting adolescents can be challenging, and it’s not uncommon for parents to feel stressed, overwhelmed, or burnt out. It can be easy to get caught up in self-critical thoughts about your parenting or your child’s behaviour. Try to remember – you are allowed to not have all the answers, you are allowed to make mistakes, and you are not alone.
UNCERTAINTY AND MENTAL HEALTH
Managing uncertainty can be difficult, and your adolescent’s responses to uncertainty will likely vary greatly. However, it is important to note that extreme intolerance of uncertainty has been linked to mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
Warning signs for anxiety
Some anxiety is normal, and in fact can be necessary, to overcome challenges and adapt to new circumstances. Anxiety can become a problem when it is paralysing for the individual and prevents them from doing what they want to do.
While everyone is different, there are some signs you can look out for that your adolescent may need extra support for anxiety. There may be an increase in frequency or intensity of:
- Aggression or emotional outbursts
- Excessively seeking reassurance
- Withdrawal from activities (e.g., social, hobbies)
- Avoidance of certain situations
- Seeming ‘on edge’
Follow this link for more information about the signs and symptoms of anxiety.
Warning signs for depression
Fluctuations in mood in response to uncertainty are also very normal. However, if you notice that your adolescent’s mood is noticeably lower, and that this change is sustained over time and across different environments, it may be a good idea to seek extra support.
Some other warning signs of depression may be:
- Low energy and motivation
- Lack of self-care and hygiene
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Reduced pleasure from previously enjoyed activities
- Social withdrawal
- Negativity and self-criticism
- Angry outbursts or getting in trouble more frequently
- Thoughts of death
Follow this link for more information about signs and symptoms of depression.
Talking to your adolescent about their mental health
Some tips for talking to your young person about their mental health:
- Choose a time when you are both calm.
- Consider how you are framing communication: “I have noticed…”
- Have a conversation with the goal of listening and fully understanding you’re their perspective.
- Instead of advice, ask what they would like to change.
- Problem solve together and offer solutions as ideas (not orders). Seeking therapy can be one of these ideas.
If you are worried about your child’s behaviour or well-being, consulting with a trusted professional can be a good place to start (e.g., GP, school counsellor). If you are unsure where to start, you can find more information about mental health services for youth and helpful contacts and websites.
OTHER RESOURCES YOU MAY FIND USEFUL
- Webinar for parents: Managing uncertainty (psychologist Brittany Keeler explores how to support your teen through uncertain times from 27:17 – 37:51 mins)
Workshops & Seminars: