Ep 90: What’s Your Teen Thinking?

Episode Summary

Tanith Carey, prolific author and journalist, joins us to talk about all the knowledge packed into her latest book, What’s My Teenager Thinking?. Tanith takes us behind “whatever” and “I’m bored” and even “You can’t make me” to discover what the heck is going through a teen’s brain when those classic one liners come out of their mouths!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Show Notes

Sometimes, talking to your teen feels like arguing with a brick wall. You want to help them, but they’re not listening, they’re angry  with you, and worse: they just shrugged and said, “whatever.”

And it’s hard not to feel disrespected in these tough situations. As the adult, you want to regain control and set them straight, but if every teen listened when their parents demanded respect, well: we certainly wouldn’t be here today!

These inevitable conflicts often arise from two equally strong forces: a teen’s desire to create their own identity, and their desperation for approval– yours and their peers’.  Whether it be obsessively fixating on social media, tagging along on a risky event due to FOMO (fear of missing out) or engaging with mature content, teens are trying to foster independence and belonging, even when it leaves us scratching our heads. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what their motives are, and it’d sure be a whole lot easier if we knew just what they were thinking.

But because we’ll probably never truly know, and spying doesn’t exactly foster a healthy parent/teen relationships, parents must remember that their job is not to be their teen’s life coach: it’s to empower them to healthily navigate their independence. And that means controlling our impulses, hosting neutral spaces for communication, and above all, trusting our teens: something journalist, author, and this week’s guest, Tanith Carey, champions in her book What’s My Teenager Thinking: Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents. Between bullying, vaping, lying, boredom, and more, Tanith covers strategies for managing and responding to these tough situations.

When I asked her about a parent’s role in alleged bullying, Tanith believes that parents are most helpful when they listen. In the flurry of emotion and bustle of just getting home, teens usually don’t want you to rattle off a litany of strategies for overcoming the conflict: they just want to be heard. And after they’ve been listened to and are ready for solutions moving forward, put the power back in their hands: guide them to consider solutions. While parents have great wisdom and advice worth sharing, your teen–more than anyone–will know how certain strategies will play out. So engage them in self-questioning: this sounds like: “What if I wasn’t afraid of them?” “In what ways are they stopping me from doing what I want?” “How can I best mediate this?” By engaging the teen in self-questioning, Tanith notes, your teen will most likely determine a viable solution sooner. And they’ll also feel less victimized too.

While alleged bullying is a lot trickier to navigate than a teen’s boredom, boredom is still a tough situation worth looking into. Tanith noted that this generation’s desire to be oversaturated with stimulation often leads them to craving productivity/engagement 24/7. And when that’s lost–even for a moment– teens feel bored. Sometimes this tendency can lead to problematic behavior such as premature or excessive drugs/alcohol, but oftentimes it creates unutilized space for you to connect with your teen. “There’s nothing wrong with being bored!” Tanith argues, and instead of pushing them to find something else to engage with, teach them to view these moments as useful pauses–not failures or shortcomings. Share the space with them: ask them questions and connect with them here. Not only will they no longer be bored, but they can feel closer to you.

These moments of connection can especially help when navigating the even tougher situations, like finding out that they’ve viewed mature content. And you want to scold them–who wouldn’t? Still, Tanith argued that scolding the teen here negates a pivotal opportunity to guide them.

In Tanith’s research, mature content can significantly affect a teen. The brain can be scarred, and content could linger in the teen’s mind for up to 6 months. Instead of coming unhinged and imposing consequences, try to foster an open dialogue: one where they feel at ease and not intently criticized. This is because Tanith believes that that’s the most defining part of a parent/teen relationship: the degree to which the teen feels criticized. Yes: you may wish they never stumbled upon/searched this content. And yes: the level of investment the teen made in this content may change your response. But regardless, it’s important to contain your impulses and help them reestablish trust because the urge to chastise them here will do more harm than good. At the end of the day, we can’t control what our teens see (and excessively trying to will not reap many benefits either).

And then I asked about the infamous “whatever.” You tried to be reasonable and impose some sort of order and they hit you with this passive-aggressive exasperation. Tanith agrees that yes– this is disrespectful, but instead of firing back, get curious! Maybe not in the moment, though. After taking a step back, Tanith believes parents can better understand their teen’s “whatever” by reopening communication channels. This means helping them name the problem and troubleshooting from there. More than anything, Tanith urges parents to step away when they feel triggered. Because the more authoritarian they are, the more passive aggression they’ll be met with.

Another important topic we covered was the vaping craze. Many teens today see it as a fun, safe, rebellious activity that bridges social circles and helps build their independence. Tanith exposed the irony and humor in this: the same demographic teens often rebel against (us;  adults; authority) are the same ones marketing vape products to them! And yes: science tells us that vaping is quite damaging health-wise, and it’d be safer if teens simply said “no.” Still, Tanith cautioned against holding unrealistically high expectations for teens. Because the truth is, if you hold true to them, you’re going to be disappointed. What’s truly unrealistic is believing they’ll never engage in such risky behaviors.

One more interesting topic Tanith and I covered was the gap year: is it a cop out or not? Because Tanith is from the U.K., she noted that gap years are far more normalized there; teens who take it grow in maturity and confidence so by the time they do reach college, they are better adjusted. But in the U.S., though, many parents think it’s a reason to stall. What’s more normalized in the U.S. is getting a college education straight after college. Putting your teen into a box either way is quite damaging, though. Tanith believes parents should put their biases down and acknowledge either route, or an alternative all together.

In addition to handling these tough situations, Tanith and I cover:

  • Social media and why you shouldn’t request to follow your teen
  • Youth activism and constructively viewing media
  • Lying: is it the ultimate crime?
  • Why the stigma around gap years in the U.S. should be tossed out

Tanith Carey’s insights make facing these difficult times less stressful. Having a defiant teenager is more or less inevitable, but you have more control over the conflicts than you think. Excited to share this light-hearted podcast with our listeners!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Put pornographic images in context to soften the shock of seeing one:

“In the same way that action scenes in a movie are not real, graphic sex is not what sex is all about. You might see things that some people do sometimes, but it’s not really what sex or making love is.”

-Tanith Carey

2.  Clue your teen into most often people’s motivation for posting graphic content:

(Members Only)

3.  When your teen gives you a “Whatever” when you dole out a consequence:

(Members Only)

4.  Use your teen’s natural anti-authoritarian bent to address vaping companies:

(Members Only)

5.  No need to belittle a teen for having a crush, instead try a gentle reminder:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So, this is part of a series then. This one is What’s My Teenager Thinking? And you also have What’s My Child Thinking?

Tanith: Yeah. I don’t think parents have time to read massive volumes anymore. They just don’t, you know? And I do think when you’re in a row with a teenager, it’s really upsetting, and it’s actually really scary, and I just think you need to go like, “Okay, right. What is the evidence there? How can I calm myself down? How can I see that this is not the end of the world?” That’s the point of it.

Tanith: All the studies this is based on are put in a separate appendix, which is online so people can go and do some further research. But what we tried to do with this book is compress all of the best psychology in a way that parents can access it really quickly in the moment. Not based on my opinion, it’s based on evidence and science, and brought together in a way that parents can use really quickly.

Andy: And it’s super actionable, and each issue is one spread. So, it’s boiled down to the essence of the issue, and has just really, really practical advice on everything. How I guess did you decide on what all the topics were to cover in here?

Tanith: Well, what’s also different about this book is it just doesn’t lump in teenagers altogether.

Andy: Yeah. It divides them into three different phases.

Tanith: Absolutely. So, that gave us some framework. And then, I think as you say, it was a very big theme, so we collaboratively boiled down the most common scenarios that we were facing all together to try and make them as representative as possible. So yeah, there’s over 100 everyday situations you’ll face with your team there.

Andy: Okay. Talk to me about the three different stages of teenage development, and why you went ahead and actually further broke the teenage years down into these three subsections.

Tanith: Yeah, exactly. I’m really glad you appreciated that. Because there’s too often people just say teens, teenagers.

Andy: Or maybe they throw tweens in there as one differentiator.

Tanith: That’s true. But once they get to 13 or 14, people just say teenagers. So, I really wanted to look up how they evolve. The difference between how a 13 year old would react to a situation compared to an 18 year old is night and day.

Tanith: And also, what I found in the research was that 14 is probably the most challenging time. And then after that, there’s a little bit more perspective taking. Things are seen as a little bit less black and white. So, I think that I also wanted to show that there’s the momentum that builds, and then gradually if your relationship is going well that can just calm a little bit. So by the time kids are 18, they usually have a little bit more life experience, a little bit more perspective, they’re a little bit less [inaudible 00:02:43] pressure. They’re more their own person. So, I wanted to show this curve.

Andy: It’s funny because it is, and as you read through it you can totally get a feel for each period, and how it’s distinctive, and there is evidence that the need for autonomy peaks at age 14, and of age 13 and 14 phase is really different than the 17, 18 year olds.

Andy: We had this chat box on our website for awhile where parents could pop in and just ask us questions, and it was really illuminating to see. But what we really found is that the parents who came in and were just like, “Oh my gosh, red alert! My teenager’s just totally gone off the deep end, and I can’t get them under control.” When we said, “Well, how old is your kid?” It was always 13 or 14. Always. Without fail. And it could have been a boy, could have been a girl, but always was in that age group. So, I thought that was really interesting.

Tanith: We could give some perspective that, okay, it is going to get better, that would also help.

Andy: Right. This is a phase that’s natural. It’s only two years long. It’s not the entire teenage years. It’s like this is actually a sub phase that I’m going through. Yeah, yeah. It’s going to be different in one year even. Because things are changing so fast during this period of life.

Andy: People talk about teen dating, but really that’s a broad term that really, really changes depending on the exact age of the teenager. So, I thought that was cool that you pointed out the idea of a crush, and how this is the first phase. In that 12, 13, 14 year old phase, dating, romance shows up in the form of this crush.

Tanith: Yeah. They’re almost practicing those romantic feelings. They very much idealize those kinds of relationships. And then, the next phase is that they will start to be friends, and then but they’ll tell you they’re just friends even when they’re dating because they don’t want to come out publicly.

Andy: No, no, we’re just talking. We’re just friends.

Tanith: Yeah, exactly.

Andy: Right. Yeah, yeah.

Tanith: …for three months, and your kid will still be saying, “Oh yeah, we’re just friends.” Because they don’t want to put [inaudible 00:04:58] out there yet with you because they know that is a big transition for you as well. Because you see them as a child, and they know that that’s a big shift for you to deal with. So, they’re also trying to respect your need to get used to stuff as well.

Andy: I thought this was really interesting what you were talking about in the crutch section here was giving your teen some context, and thinking about the other person that you’re having the crush on being a full human being. Not just an object to be lusted over, but I think in the teenage years you get so caught up in this idealized version of this person in your head. So, what can you do to help them see beyond that, or to develop some context?

Tanith: Yeah, yeah. No, exactly. I think that we do have to take these relationships quite seriously because they feel intensely real to your teenager at the time. So, I think the tendency is that when we get married, and have kids, and we’re older, we remember the intense feelings, but we tend not to think they’re very important.

Andy: Right. “Oh yeah, you’ll get over it. It’s not that big of deal.”

Tanith: Yeah, exactly. So, I think the main thing is just to be listening, and not dismissive, not make fun, not go, “Oh, there he is. Was your boyfriend there?” That kind of stuff I think. To really listen, and let them process, and let those logical part of the brain also kick in when they talk about it. Access both parts.

Tanith: And let it run its course. The whole point about this book is we’re very conscious of the development of babies and toddlers, but we’ve become less so the developmental stages of the teenage years. So, just see this as an important developmental step. It’s almost a practicing of strong emotions. It would be too much for a young teenager to have those emotions back, so they almost have to practice it in one way form. Do you know what I mean? Before they’re ready for the real thing. So, this is just a step in the right direction.

Andy: Another one that I liked in here was on bullying, and on if your teen is the victim of bullying. But actually, I just really zeroed in on something that you had on here just as one of the suggestions, which I thought was really cool. And you wrote on page 63 to encourage self questioning. Questions such as, “What would I say if I wasn’t afraid?” And, “How is this teasing holding me back in sports?” can prompt him to act. And I thought that was just such a cool suggestion, and I wonder where that came from. And if you could expand at all on self-questioning, and any other ways that parents could use that.

Tanith: Yeah. I’ve also written a book on friendship called The Friendship Maze, which looks at, really examines what bullying is. I talk about how that I think as parents and educators we’re very keen to call bullying very quickly, but actually there’s a certain amount of social conflict which is going to be inevitable. So, rather than ratchet up the tension levels by throwing accusations around, it’s much better to try and empower your child to deal with it, and to assert themselves in the face of it.

Tanith: I think the problem with many teens have with bullying is they feel that they are, because the peer group is so important to them, they feel very marked out like there’s something wrong with them, they’ll never be accepted. So, this is a whole load of other emotion, which is on top of it. I try and deconstruct this in the book, and just say that, well, bullying is really only bullying if it’s one commonly powerful peer against a much socially weaker peer, and it’s deliberately meant to cause harm so that we can put it in context.

Tanith: In order to assert yourself, I think teenagers have to dig deep. There’s no point telling your child, “Oh, you have to go and tell him to back off.” They have to see how this social behavior is affecting them, and whether or not it’s getting in the way of what they need to do.

Tanith: In all my books, I talk about how it’s not just enough for parents to tell teenagers or children things they have to work it out for themselves. So, a lot of this book is about encouraging that kind of self-questioning so that they can come up with these ideas for themselves. Because teenagers know what will work in a social situation, and what won’t work. As an adult, you don’t know that. So, that’s why it’s really important to brainstorm with them tactics that might work.

Tanith: The whole book is about talking with teens in an open way, and getting those conversations and that timing right. If your child has come home and is really upset that they’ve been bullied, that’s not the right time to talk about tactics. It’s more the time to listen. There’s a time at a neutral time when they’re open to suggestions, and that they feel secure and safe with you, then that’s the time to talk about what they could do to address the situation, or claim back their power I suppose.

Tanith: One thing I learned from The Friendship Maze is that, and I think probably it’s more accepted in America than in England, but children form themselves into social hierarchies quite early. And a lot of this tension is about battles to rise up those social hierarchies, and feeling alone at the bottom of those social hierarchies.

Tanith: I draw a lot on the work of Rosalind Wiseman, for example, who I know you’ve spoken to, just so that they can understand. And if they can name their place within these social circles, and understand how the dynamics and the web works, they feel more in control and less victimized by it.

Andy: Yeah. Because also, just the environment we throw them into in middle school and high school is such social dynamics on steroids, you know? And we put so many of them together in this one place where it’s just of course strong hierarchies are going to form. Human beings in general, but especially teenagers. So, it’s kind of like the perfect storm to really create a system of winners and losers.

Tanith: And the trouble is because when teenagers are forming their sense of identity. So, if they get stuck at the bottom-

Andy: You get this sense that you’re a loser or that you’re just not cool, but that’s just happened to be this artificial situation that we threw you into. And then you get out of that, and that still is part of your self perception of who you are, even though it’s not really relevant to the situations you’re going to find yourselves in later.

Tanith: I agree. And that’s why I think out of school friendships are so important because I think the microcosm of school is quite false. It’s not a natural place to be in many ways. So, I think that when kids have friends out of school that are in that hierarchy, that that can shore up their self worth and their feelings. Are they all likable outside of that rather intense system?

Andy: So, this was me as a teenager, “This is so boring.” You have a whole page on this issue, teenagers feeling bored. And I noticed actually it’s kind of a theme that emerges in some of the other situations as well, this brain chemistry phase of the dopamine addicts really craving that dopamine hit. And so, really feeling like normal, everyday situations are lame.

Andy: And then on top of that, this concept that when it’s some sort of activity that you put together or you sanctioned, they feel like it’s their way to show independence by being bored by it, or by being too cool for it, or being over it a little bit. I thought that was cool.

Andy: And then another point, which is relevant today which is that if teens are using their phones all the time normally to entertain themselves whenever they get bored, then they haven’t had to develop that muscle of entertaining themselves, or of dealing with that boredom in a productive way. So, when they’re saying, “Mom, so bored,” that’s a symptom and a cue that they probably need to work on that skill a little bit. And so for you as a parent, instead of being angered by that, to be interested, or to be curious, and to say, “Ah, so my teen is board, so that probably means one of these other things is maybe going on.”

Tanith: Yeah. I think they’re also very uncomfortable being bored, and I don’t think they know what to do with those feelings of discomfort. What I say throughout the book is obviously with the lockdown and kids being at home a lot, they’ve been on video games and phones a lot more. But what I like to do I think as a family is frame the tech-free time as a treat. You know what I mean? Not a deprivation, not a punishment. This is a time where we all put our phones away.

Tanith: And actually, I think if you are forging a good relationship with your teenager, they actually don’t mind that. If you can actually show that you do want to engage with them, you are interested in what they want to do, you’re not trying to direct them to any kind of improvement activity, you just want to be with them on their terms. Actually, we tend to think that they do find us boring, but actually they don’t if we really engage with them. I don’t think we’ve had a time where we’ve needed to understand them more and we needed to connect with them more.

Tanith: What’s incredibly important about this book is that we also do what you might be thinking so that any biases, or prejudices, or panic, or anxiety that we are feeling, we don’t bring that to the table. We can see our teams as they are. Not through the prism of our anxiety, or our concern. I just think as a parental group, this generation is very, very wound up, very worried, and that makes us more triggered about things. And then, we’re more triggered, then our teens are more anxious. So, we’ve got to, as you said, the perfect storm also. Which is winding each other up.

Andy: Sure. You make a good point in here that if you’re seeing a lot of it’s boredom from your teenager, it’s also maybe a symptom that this same thing that’s happening in their brains, this need for sensation seeking, is also a risk for experimenting with drugs and alcohol in order to create excitement and stimulation. So, instead of deflecting your teenager or shutting them down when they come to you, complaining about being bored, it’s actually maybe a really important thing to look for and tune in for because it’s a precursor. If you can catch them when they’re just bored before they start experimenting with all the drugs, and redirect them back then, that’s maybe a good time to do it. So, I thought that was really savvy.

Tanith: Yeah. No, absolutely. And then also, just not say there’s nothing wrong with being bored. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them. It’s a time that they can have real downtime. A chance to think in less pressured ways. They feel those feelings. Say, well, it’s boredom, but it might be also a state of deep relaxation. It’s a time when your mind can go blank. This is when you’re going to have ideas, and thoughts, and you can do things in there that you wouldn’t otherwise be doing. So, I think the boredom has a very negative connotation, and I think we need to reclaim that for ourselves and for our teenagers.

Tanith: I think as adults, we tend to panic at the idea of boredom because we think we have to be constantly busy, and that’s partly why we are all so stressed. And I also think we think our teens have to be constantly busy, but we would just like them to be busy at the things that we think are good for them. Do you know what I mean?

Andy: Yeah, right.

Tanith: So, I think a little bit of a pause. Just think of boredom as a useful pause for creative thought rather than a failing as a parent, or a failing as a teenager.

Andy: So of course, one of the issues of modern parenting is you can’t control what your kids are seeing and being exposed to. And that’s definitely a theme in this book that I see emerge in a number of these things. When you talk about pornography, you also just have a page called, “I saw this picture,” which is about the very real possibility of seeing something really disturbing and distressing that you’re not expecting and that you’re not ready for. And as a young mind, it can be really, really, really impactful. You write in here that some of these images are so shocking that it could take six months for the image to leave your teen’s mind.

Tanith: Absolutely. Yeah.

Andy: What kind of images are we talking about, and how does this occur, and what do you do?

Tanith: Well, there’s so much on the internet, isn’t there? That they could come across. I’m also talking about things like animal cruelty, as well as there’s pornography. Throughout my parenting books, I’ve written 12 now, I’ve written a lot about pornography and the affect on young minds. And every time I look at it and I’m a 53 year old mom, I’m trying to imagine what it’s like to be seeing that through the eyes of a young person who’s never had sex and never had a relationship. And that’s why I think we need to talk in age appropriate ways about what they might come across so it’s not just that massive shock to the system that they will get otherwise. There’s research that says it actually scars the brain. That sounds hyperbolic, but the shock of seeing something like that, and all the wiring that involves means that it can be quite profound.

Tanith: And if you ask people in later life, most of them can remember the first very hardcore pornographic image they saw. So, I think it’s really important. I’ve got two girls, age 15 and 18, and that from a young age I’ve always said that this might be something that they stumble across. Because obviously originally, children don’t go looking for this stuff. Basically, they click on the wrong link, or they’re shown it by a peer.

Tanith: And just to really put those images in context, and just say, “Well, these in the same way that action scenes are not real in a movie, pornographic sex is not what sex is all about. You will see things that some people do sometimes, but it’s not really what sex and making love is all about.” So, just verbally to explain that to them. And unfortunately, it is inevitable that they will come across it, so just get them in a state of readiness for that.

Tanith: And also, if they have seen something, I talk in the book, that’s disturbing, as I say it can take up to six months. So, what you have to do is also to try and help them replace those images, which are recurring in their minds with more positive images so that they can move on from that. And obviously, don’t scold them having seen it, or for having opened a link. Because obviously, they won’t come back to you next time if they come across that kind of material.

Andy: Yeah. That seems like a theme in a lot of this stuff is that you just when they come to you with it, whatever it is, you have to be just really cool about it, really make them feel at ease. And one of the first tip that you have for a lot of these about how you should respond is by listening, and really tuning into how they’re feeling, and what they’re going through.

Tanith: I think as a parent of a child or a teenager, it’s actually more important not what you say, but what you don’t say. I think when we hear our teenagers tell us stuff, we want to jump in out of a place of worry and say, “No, do this,” or, “That’s not the case,” or, “No, no.” I think we just do have to just listen and let them download without criticism and without judgment.

Tanith: And also, I think criticism I talk a lot about in the book. [inaudible 00:19:59] what defines your relationship. If your teenager feels criticized, that’s when they start to turn away in order to protect themselves from the pain of disappointing you. So, we tend to generalize a lot about teenagers, and moan a lot about them, talk about how they’re a group to be dreaded and feared. But actually, I think if we keep an eye on their development and see.

Tanith: It’s like when they were toddlers, or when they were babies, when they started to walk we can see that they’re making steps. But because it’s not that clear when a teenager is making this, but if you look out for it, if you look out for them when they suddenly start to react to a situation, not by shouting and swearing at you, but with a more reasonable attitude, or if they are more self motivated, if they start to do their biology homework without being nagged, these are all steps in the right direction. These are the ones that need acknowledgement.

Tanith: But I think that in our panic as parents, we worry about them so much, we think we have to be there life coach. Yeah. You know? And they forget that we’re saying this out of a place of love, but they just feel deeply criticized. And when they feel criticized and labeled, it’s very much harder to get through to them because they move away. So, I think a lot of this book is about trying to contain our own impulses to do that, and really listen. And have more trust because they really want our trust, but we don’t really give that to them. I don’t know. They just feel that they’re never going to be good enough for us, so it’s not worth trying, and I think that’s increasingly the case in the times we’re living in.

About Tanith Carey

Tanith Carey is an author who takes the latest research to offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges for today’s parents. Her 10+ books have been translated into 25 languages and include: What’s My Teenager Thinking?, What’s My Child Thinking?, The Friendship Maze, Taming the Tiger Parent, and Girls Uninterrupted.

As an award-winning journalist, Tanith also writes on psychology, social trends, childhood, adolescence and family relationships for a wide range of newspapers and magazines around the world including The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, and Daily Mail. In 2017, she was shortlisted for Feature Writer of the Year (popular press) UK Press Awards held by the Society of Editors.

Tanith is also a regular presence on TV and radio programs, which have included the NBC Today Show in the US, Radio Four Woman’s Hour and You and Yours, This Morning, and Good Morning Britain. Her speaking engagements have included the Cheltenham Science Festival and the Girls’ School Association Conference.

Tanith lives in the U.K. with her husband and two teen sons.

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