Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Your questions answered – grandparents, mental illness risks, screens, alcohol and homework

I recently did an online talk on supporting teenagers for Rail Wellbeing Live, aimed at parents, carers and teachers. Some of you asked questions, which I answered live but I also said I’d answer in writing. Here I am! Thank you for your questions and for so many lovely comments you sent me afterwards.

At the bottom of this article, there’s a link where you can download the free resources I provided, including the Powerpoint slides.

“Do you consider the role of a grandparent to be an extension of the parent or a contrasting role?”

This is a really interesting one. I am a parent of 30-35yo girls and grandparent to three 0-3yo boys. Obviously those boys are some way from being teenagers but I certainly identify with the question.

The relationship between child and grandparent can be a truly privileged one. There is love without some of the tension, responsibility and the irritation that too much contact can bring. You get to hand each other back! The grandparent has the pleasure of being the one who can give treats and have fun without having to insist on homework or chores – it’s a holiday role. But there can be problems and tensions between the grandparents and the parents. After all, the grandparents are parents of the parents and there’s the added complication of the in-law – whether that’s parent-in-law or son/daughter-in-law. The in-law relationship can, of course, be wonderful, but it often isn’t.

Back to the question, I think the role is both ‘extension’ and ‘contrasting’ and yet in a sense not quite either. I think grandparents and parents need a different role but a mutually enhancing one. They are both strongly emotionally connected to the children but the grandparent needs to be a little in the background, there for support, advice, respite and fun. The parents are in charge and grandparents should not go against the principles that the parents set, UNLESS the grandparents genuinely believe that the parents have got things wrong – in which case they need to find a tactful and respectful way to say so.

Grandparents can be a bit more lenient and indulgent than parents, but must not cross boundaries of respect and must not undermine. Grandparents can be a really important support both for the parents and the child. Both should feel that we will listen and speak with love and wisdom and support.

Grandparents can be a great sounding board for parents, but only if they will listen properly.

It’s very important for grandparents to stay informed about life in modern families and not do that “in my day” thing. Life is very different from how it was when I brought up my own daughters – social media was not a big problem in those days but now it is usually a huge issue and it’s just no good us saying how we think it should be while failing to recognise how it simply is.

“Are some children or young people more likely to experience mental health problems than others?”

There are some risk factors, yes. But it’s important to realise that causes and effects are not certain or clear. You can have all the risk factors and yet not suffer problems or you can have no obvious risk factors and yet suffer mental illness. It is useful to know the risk factors for two main reasons: 1. You can take steps to be even more supportive and proactive when you know there are risk factors. 2. Explanations are helpful because they lessen the sense of blame or guilt.

The main risk factors are:

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – when children have experienced very negative events in early childhood they are at higher risk of later mental health problems
  • Lack of resilient role models in family – we can learn resilience by copying others and a child without resilient adults to learn from may find it harder to develop habits of resilience
  • A stressful environment or difficult events – a child in a household under strain may have more mental health challenges. The strains could be poverty, parental strife, parental illness, bereavement or any of the situations that also come under ACE headings. Experiences that drag our mood down or raise anxieties build up in effect.
  • Genetic or family predisposition – we don’t know enough about the genetic links within mental illness (and each illness is likely to have different genetic pressures) but either genes or living with adults who suffer particular mental illnesses and/or who behave in specific ways could affect a child’s risk of developing the same conditions

But remember that the causal links are neither clear nor certain. Interventions and good support can go a very long way to mitigating any risk. Children growing up in difficult circumstances can become as resilient as anyone, given the right support from either outside or inside the home.

“What are appropriate daily screen time durations for teenagers – my children use laptops for their homework as well as for gaming + watching television + their phones?”

There are no sensible or logical appropriate daily screen-time durations, partly for the reason that you suggest: screens are used for such a variety of activities, including work, communication, knowledge and entertainment. Any time you read such guidance with actual time limits, understand that there is no science behind this – the person giving the advice is simply responding to the requests for the guidance. Ignore it.

Instead think of two guidelines only:

  1. Everyone (all ages) need to have sufficient time for the various other very important, healthy and necessary elements of life: work/learning (which might be on screen); physical activity, including outdoors; face-to-face social time including family time and meals; offline hobbies such as reading or making things or whatever; personal hygiene and care; and sleep. If your screen-time is preventing these activities, it might be too much screen-time. If you’re still spending appropriate amounts of time on those other things, you’re probably fine.
  2. Does some of your screen-time make you feel anxious, sad, co-erced, uncomfortable, inadequate, angry or afraid? If so, would you feel better doing less of it or doing it differently?

There’s nothing wrong with screens. In fact, they make our lives better in countless ways. But sometimes they don’t make our lives better. The answer is to have honest and open conversations about how your time on screen makes you feel and affects you.

And “you” applies to anyone – adult, child, teenager. The younger the person, the more guidance they need but it still comes down to learning to make choices that work well for us.

“What do you recommend with things like alcohol – how should you introduce it so they don’t be secretive about it and they treat it sensibly?”

Here’s what I recommend you think about:

  1. Honesty – people drink alcohol because they like the feeling. They have to learn how to do that safely and healthily. That comes from learning the risks, including the power of peer pressure and pleasure.
  2. Knowledge – alcohol (and other drugs) affect young brains more strongly and dangerously  than adults’ brains. That’s why it’s appropriate to have different rules. Teenagers need to know the dangers. Get them to investigate the science for themselves.
  3. Set a good example – don’t get drunk in front of young people and don’t treat alcohol as a joking matter. Be careful of your language – eg “I’m dying for drink” is not a good message. But at the same time don’t drink secretly. It’s entirely appropriate for you to have a glass of wine with a family meal if you want to. And when you feel your son or daughter is old enough you can, if you wish, let them have a small amount of low-alcohol wine or beer with food and with family.
  4. You can, of course, choose not to let your teenagers drink at all. But be aware that they are quite likely to do so with their friends – and they might be more likely to if you ban it entirely at home. (Though they might not.)
  5. Be very careful not to be so very disapproving that they daren’t discuss it with you or own up to having had some drinks. You need to be able to communicate about it.

It’s a balance, really. You’ll be lucky if you have teenagers who never try alcohol. And we only learn the effects from experiencing them. You just have to do your best to teach them to make good decisions as often as possible. Beyond that, reassure yourself that fewer young people drink alcohol now than a generation ago. Many teenagers are too into their health to abuse or use alcohol.

The thing is, your teenagers are breaking away from your protection and control so that they can start to be independent and make their own decisions. They’re going to keep some secrets, make some mistakes, do things you wish they didn’t. Your mission is to be the steady presence they look to for guidance, example, forgiveness and understanding.

NEWS FLASH: There’s a brand new edition of the best-selling Blame My Brain coming in February 2023!

mother warn her daughter for bad behavior, isolated on white

“How can I get my 14-year-old daughter to do her homework? We’ve set rules about this, but she still doesn’t do it at home.”

Now, I can’t be sure what’s going on here but there are three things I’d like you to consider. Choose the one that fits your situation. Or all!

  1. Why is she reluctant to do it? This might seem a stupid question but it’s not! Either she’s being utterly normal and reasonable and just would rather not do it because it’s obviously more fun not doing it. OR she’s not doing it because she finds it really hard and is genuinely anxious about it (or doesn’t know what is expected of her). If it’s the first thing, go to the next point. But if it’s the second thing, you need to investigate a bit further and possibly help her or access the right support. Once you’ve done that, she will also be helped by this next point.
  2. Can you make it easier for everyone in the household to get their work done? For example, set times when you’re all working, the right  music/ furniture/ lighting/ food/ incentives/TV off/phones away. If everyone knows what they have to do and you’re doing it all together that can be really helpful. Having a rule that no one uses phone /social media is a good idea. You might consider a subscription to a work tool such as Freedom so that you’re all off social media and emails for a time. Family members could take it in turns to be in charge of the work session for a day. Discuss this as a family – what ideas does everyone have?
  3. In the end, this is her responsibility and she will be the one to suffer when she doesn’t do it. Once you’ve thought through the previous points and given her any support necessary, including communicating with teachers if necessary, it’s down to her. Try it! You can’t do her homework for her – you can support her and understand her but not do the work.

I hope that helps! Feel free to ask me any other questions and I’ll do my best to answer them. Or get your school or organisation to invite me to do an online talk.


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