Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – the video

Ten Ways to Support Your Teenager

To celebrate publication of the NEW edition of Blame My Brain – The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed, I’m spending the month sharing my key useful info on supporting the adolescents you care about. Some of my posts have been about the deep understanding of what those brains are going through. Others have been offering practical advice to help you and them do better than survive this exciting stage. Thriving is also an option!

Previous articles this month:

  1. Introducing the new BMB – what’s new and what’s not
  2. Then two posts for Children’s Mental health Week – Feeling panicky/anxious and…
  3. Dealing with panic attacks
  4. A crucial, insightful post which will really deepen your understanding of adolescence – The WHOLE point of adolescence and the key to understanding it
  5. Five Things About the Amazing Teenage Brain


Ten Ways to Support Your Teenager

Today, ten ways you can support the adolescents you care about, whether you live with them, teach them or just care how well they do and how good they feel. (Feeling good will help them do well, by the way. Feeling good is not just a vague “nice to have”.)

1. Read Blame My Brain

Here it is, along with some of my other titles. I wrote it for them, not you, but you need to read it, too. It will not only inform and enlighten you; it will also reassure and empower you. (And yes, by the way, teenagers DO read it! The best way to encourage them to do so is forbid them!)

2. See conflict in context

Read this post to understand the entirely reasonable, natural and important reasons why conflict is fairly likely* between adolescents and their adults, and why conflict in itself is not a problem, even if it’s unpleasant. (*But not certain, because everyone’s different.)

3. Practise advanced empathy

When I took my Diploma in Counselling, the centre of what I was learning was “advanced empathy” and one of the stand-out messages was that the core “conditions” (in you, the Counsellor, not the person being counselled) are:

  • Genuineness – The genuine desire to hear and help the person you are counselling
  • Acceptance – Accepting that what they say they feel is what they feel. You may think it’s wrong or silly or pointless or harmful of them to feel like that but this is how they feel and this is the starting point of you helping them ultimately not feel like this. “I hear you”, “I recognise that you feel like this”, “You are feeling ….. – I can hear this”.
  • Understanding – Not blandly saying “I understand how you feel” (which might or not be true) but actually bringing to the table some deeper understanding of why some of these feelings might be happening; having some knowledge of what it is that humans often do with their experiences, thoughts and beliefs; having some wider contact than this one person’s experience, to be able to set theirs in context and to let them see how they share their state of mind, behaviour and belief with other humans.

Even though you are not officially a Counsellor for your teenager, these three things are really wonderful and powerful tools for being a good listener. And we can be good listeners for our children, friends, each other.

Advanced empathy is about listening properly. Listening properly involves spending time focusing on the person, not leaping in with a “fix”. Not everything can be fixed and fixing is not always the aim or the need. The aim is to hear, to understand, and to be there. To enter the place of darkness or pain and to be prepared to sit there with the person going through it.

Genuineness – You bring this automatically, because you care. Your only job here is to make sure the young person senses this.

Acceptance – Something we often need to practise. As adults, we may default to an authoritarian or rigid stance: “I know best because I’m an adult” or “If I were in this situation this is what I would feel so that’s the (only) reasonable thing to feel”. Acceptance can feel like condoning a negative mindset. But acceptance isn’t condoning: it’s just about recognising that this – this feeling, this experience – is the starting-point. When we know the starting-point we can move forward from it.

Understanding – Easy, because this comes from reading Blame My Brain!

4. Teach the truth: that negative emotions are not signs of illness – they are healthy and proper

When you are anxious, you are not ill: you are preparing to deal with or processing a worrying thing, something which your brilliant, farsighted human brain has told you requires your attention. You are supposed to be anxiousYes, you may need to scale down that anxiety (for example with relaxation strategies) so that you can function well, achieve, relax and sleep, but your anxiety is not illness and it need not beat you.

When you are scared, you are not ill: you are preparing to raise your strength and wisdom to keep yourself safe and achieve high ambitions. Yes, you may need to find courage to face the scary thing, but you can do that.

When you are sad about an upsetting event or a loss, you are not ill: you are being human, wonderful, caring, compassionate and sensitive. Yes, you may need to find a way to process and move on from that sadness, but all in good time.

When you are angry about an unjustice, you are not ill: you are raising your energy levels to defend yourself or someone you love against the injustice. Yes, you must manage that anger so that it doesn’t spill into something that will make things worse, but your anger is not illness.

Without your rightful, natural anxieties, fears, sadness and anger, you would be a lesser human than you are.

Do not seek to turn these normal human emotions into illnesses. Illnesses are different. Illnesses – such as anxiety disorder and depression – contain emotions but are not made of them.

If you do feel that your teenager (or you) are suffering more than natural, healthy negative emotions, seek medical help. And if you are told that there is no mental health disorder, be thankful that your negative emotions are a sign of good health and act to keep it that way with a balance of healthy activities.

Teenage brains and risk, why risk is important5. Be a safety-net, not a helicopter

A helicopter parent is so scared of their child failing or being hurt that they hover and swoop down before the “bad thing” happens, scooping the child to safety and not letting them tackle the problem themselves.

There are two problems with this:

  1. The child doesn’t learn that they can do things themselves – they learn that some things are scary and that you will do the scary things for them. They don’t learn to manage failure or error. Failure and error are an inevitable part of a life lived fully and bravely.
  2. The child doesn’t get to own their success when they do succeed. You didn’t let them do it for themselves so you took away their success.

Instead we need to be a safety-net parent. A safety-net is not there to prevent failure or error but to allow it. The child can fall from a great height knowing that they will be able, perhaps with your help, to pick themselves up and see why the fall happened. Then they can climb back up and try again, having learnt something.

THEN it is their success, hard-won, well-deserved. You applaud them from the sidelines.

6. Zoom in and out

You know how sometimes we need to zoom in on a picture or a map and sometimes we see better when we zoom out? And sometimes better when we zoom in? It’s different depending on need and context and we instinctively know which we need. Sometimes we even need both, for different reasons.

It’s the same with life. Sometimes, we need to zoom out, reminding ourselves that this is just a moment in a much larger picture and that we need to look ahead, look outwardly, see the year/world rather than this moment in this place. At those times, we remind ourselves that “This, too, shall pass”. Everything changes. Life will have rubbish bits and fantastic bits.

At other times – and sometimes at the same time – it’s helpful and enlightening just to be here, now, feeling whatever it is we’re feeling. Pausing, breathing, noticing the sensation of breeze on skin, not looking ahead or back or faraway or anywhere else but here.

Which you do at any one time is up to each person but you should know – and teach your teenager – that they have a choice about which one to choose at any time. And that choice will change how they feel.

We each control the lens and can zoom in or out at will.

7. What went wrong?

When something goes wrong, after the initial pain – which we accept as normal and understandable – it can be tremendously useful and even reassuring to look at what contributed to the things going wrong and working out whether there are aspects of that that we could change next time.

I will talk about this more when I share my “3-step resilience first aid” model.

Looking at what went wrong is the second step and it’s about “metacognition” – thinking about thinking and learning, breaking things into steps and picking out the bits that could be in our control (and ignoring the rest).

8. Remember you – and they – don’t have to get everything right

In fact, you – and they – can’t. That’s just not how it works.

We can make mistakes, sometimes even big ones. We can make wrong decisions, take risks we regret, be tempted into unhealthy choices of food or lifestyle or behaviour. We can say or do cruel things, fail to support people we should support, get caught up with the wrong people and do things we shouldn’t have done.

I’m not condoning such actions or suggesting that they’re a good idea. But my point is that, being human, we can do such things and we can be forgiven and forgive ourselves. When we have made those mistakes, it’s OK as long as we learn from them and do our best not to repeat them.

The plasticity of the brain is a good model for this. Brain “plasticity” describes the brain’s enormous (though not infinite) ability to rewire, to adapt to what happens to it. Everything we do, mentally or physically, alters our brain, whether for better or worse or neither. So, making healthy food and activity choices one day has a positive effect; getting drunk or taking a mind-altering drug has a negative effect; having positive thoughts

9. Be the prefrontal cortex

(See Point 2 of this to remind yourself what the PFC does and why it isn’t as capable of doing it in adolescence as in adulthood or even, sometimes, as in the pre-teen years.)

Parents often ask if there’s anything they can do to speed up the PFC development and to an extent there is. Not in the sense that you can or should hothouse it with the aim of speeding up the process beyond what is within the normal range. You need all the parts of the brain to develop in their usual order.

But we develop all our skills by practice and imitation so it follows that if you want your teenager to develop the skills that the PFC is responsible for you can do two things:

  • Look for opportunities for them to practise them. So, if your teenager has a problem with anger management, when there’s an opportunity to practise the skills of controlling that anger, flag up the opportunity and make it explicit. “Sam, remember when you’re angry you need to relax your shoulders and jaw, pull your breathing down to your belly (whatever tricks Sam has been taught)  
  • Model that good PFC behaviour yourself. You can’t expect your teenagers to be all self-controlled if you’re running about like a panicked chicken. We learn partly by imitation.

10. Big small words

Say these any time you have the opportunity

  • Thank you – for anything you’re glad they did, big or small
  • Well done – for their effort, determination, grit, character strength
  • Sorry – for anything you wish was different, whether or not you could have changed it
  • I love you – every day, good days and bad days

I’m planning a webinar later in the year, on supporting your teenagers. Make sure you’re subscribing to my website/blog so you don’t miss out on the details when I have them. Also, coming soon, a beautiful gift you could buy to show a teenager how much you care and how much help there is for them.

Meanwhile, do order your copy of Blame My Brain and make sure you get the version with the green sticker about the new social media chapter! If in doubt, ask your retailer. The publication date should say 2022 or 2023.


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