Five greatest challenges facing parents of teens today

John Cowan gets some practical advice on bringing up kids in today’s complicated world from psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg. Dr Michael Carr-Gregg really is that rare combination of a top academic, a compassionate therapist and a superb communicator. It is always good hearing someone who knows what they’re talking about, even if they are scary and, when he speaks on the challenges facing parents, he is scary. What he says is all backed up with solid research and it should make us all think. Best of all, he doesn’t leave us scrambling in the dark – he has wise, practical advice on each of the challenges he mentions.

Michael Carr-Gregg wants parents to pick up the pace. He is very clear on the things he wants parents to get better at. “Become the world expert on your kids – know their temperament, and the real secret is looking for changes. One in four teens will have a depressive illness by age 18. Getting on to it, getting it diagnosed early and promptly treated will deal with it. A lot of their acting out behaviour is not just kids being wilfully bad – sometimes they have major psychological problems, and getting on to those problems – that’s a parent’s responsibility.”

He also wants parents to get some spine into their parenting, especially as so many parents want to be their child’s friend rather than being a parent. “It’s insanity. I don’t know any 15 year olds who want a 45-year-old friend. That’s bizarre. You get role confusion. The bottom line is your job as a parent is not to make them happy. If you haven’t upset your kids at least two or three times a week, you’re just not trying! You need to understand that your self-esteem shouldn’t be wrapped up in making them happy all the time. Parents need a developmental perspective. One of the things we know about young people is that their brains aren’t through growing yet. It comes as a huge surprise to some people to find out that girls’ brains are fully developed at about 23, and boys – on a good day with the wind behind them – don’t get there until about their late 20s. Part of being a parent is being in authority over this developing brain – setting limits and boundaries, and sometimes they are not going to like that. There are some things you cannot compromise on like alcohol, online safety and sleep. And it makes a huge difference. I say to parents, ‘Number one – you are the adult, and number two – you don’t always have to win.’ There is a real skill in selective deafness, in not responding to everything.”

1. Alcohol

There is good news for parents – in New Zealand and Australia, drug use among teens is dropping. But it is countered by a staggering amount of alcohol use. 40 per cent of teenage Australians drink to excess, and it is a major cause of death, disease and crime. It is clear that the younger a teenager starts drinking, the more likely they are to have problems. 47 percent of teens who first drink alcohol before the age of 14 go on to become alcohol dependent whereas only 9 percent develop problems if they wait until they are 21 before they drink. “Delay the onset of drinking – that’s the big thing. But 50 percent of our kids have had alcohol by age 10, and 40 percent of underage drinkers get their alcohol from parents.

Research shows that if a teen drinks 50 or more drinks a month, there is observable shrinkage of the hippocampus in their brain. It’s not clear what that causes, but it can’t be good. Combining that with consumption research, it means one in 20 Australian teenagers is literally brain-damaged by their drinking.” The official advice in Australia is now no alcohol for under 18s, but Carr-Gregg actually favours a slightly younger age, “Not because I disagree with that medical data, it’s just that in the years between 16 and 18, a parent can introduce and educate them on drinking. Otherwise, they start drinking at the legal age away from home, away from parental limits and guidance.”

2. Sleep

The next challenge Michael Carr-Gregg identified was sleep. “When I was growing up, that wasn’t even up for discussion with my parents – I had a bedtime. The kids growing up today are the most sleep-deprived in history. It’s impacting on their irritability and their capacity to learn – it’s a major problem. They are supposed to be getting 9.25 hours of sleep a night from the ages of 10 to 19, but research suggests a quarter of them are getting 6.5 hours. The average is 7.5 hours on a school night. They are building up these massive sleep debts, and it’s impacting their health and their psychology. We know that it’s Stage Five sleep, REM sleep, that really helps you consolidate what you’ve learned. The single most important study skill for a kid at school is getting a good night’s sleep.”

It also impacts their safety. A teenager with two hours less sleep than he needs is functioning at the same level as someone with a 0.05 blood alcohol level – like someone who has had two beers. “It actually has massive legal and moral implications. It could be that sleep deprivation is costing the country an amount similar to asthma or work accidents.” And Michael’s prescription, “Teenagers need a bedtime, because they don’t feel sleepy when they should. Melatonin secretion makes adults feel sleepy at about 10pm, but with under 20 year olds, that doesn’t kick in until about 1am. They need to be pushed – to bed at the same time and up at the same time.”

3. The net

Kids’ immersion in the net is huge. “My teenage clients reckon that 60 to 90 percent of their socialising is digital. They see their credibility with their friends being completely linked to being current.” Carr-Gregg asserts that 90 percent of Australian Grade 4s (10 year olds) have a Facebook account, even though it is illegal for them to do so and they don’t have the cognitive skills to handle it.

Kids seem very confident on the net but in actual fact they have woefully immature skills for handling it. “What looks like a friend is actually a predator,” says Carr-Gregg. “What looks like a bank is actually a fraud. What looks like a game is actually a marketing trap. They think they are in a private world, but if you want privacy, don’t go online.”

The technology and the illusion of privacy means they can be victims of mischief, but ‘Digital Dutch Courage’ makes them also very capable of making mischief as well. Parents know far less than they should about their child’s online life. “Children are early settlers of Cyberia. We wave them goodbye as they go off there. Parents have an obligation to limit screen time, but many of them are feeling quite powerless in the face of social networking sites like Facebook and the internet generally. Parents need to find their ‘digital spine’, to set limits and boundaries. It’s actually much easier than you think – you don’t need to take the router with you to the supermarket when you leave the house. There are simple programmes you can download for free, and put on your kids’ computer which will not only tell you what websites your kids have been visiting but can also limit their access to specific websites, and you can set time limits. If you only want your child online for an hour before tea or an hour after tea, we have the technology to do that and it costs you nothing. I think those limits can all be negotiated and compromised on with a kid, but you assert your parental authority.”

Recent software and operating systems like Windows 7 provide excellent protection tools, but Microsoft research in 2010 showed that 65 percent took no precautions. Xbox 360 has parental controls built in, but 80 percent of parents didn’t even know that they were there. “Free software called K9 is better than the Net Watch system the Australian government spent $84 million developing.” He also recommended ‘Togetherville’ for younger children, which he described as being like social networking with training wheels, because parents and children do it together.

As regards the internet and homework, Carr-Gregg is very clear. “75 percent of kids reckoned having the internet on while they did homework didn’t affect them at all, but when they surveyed the actual study being done, non-users did 88 percent more!” Carr-Gregg advises parents not to allow internet-connected computers in bedrooms. “Negotiate content. Use a filter. Monitor and supervise. Know your kid’s password. And talk to them about what they do on the net. It’s a huge part of their world.”

4. Early sexualisation

Australian and New Zealand statistics both point to distressingly large number of young people getting involved in sex many years before they have the emotional and intellectual skills to handle it. “20 years ago, 5 percent of 13 year olds had been sexually involved. Now it’s 24 percent.” Carr-Gregg talked about the ‘pornofication’ of society, and especially how that affects girls. “Girls face huge issues. According to a Mission Australia survey last year, the number one concern for girls is body image. The majority are dissatisfied with how they look. The pressure to look like a supermodel is just phenomenal. And those who do look like supermodels are probably less than one percent of the population and yet they are being put up as ‘normal’, and the rest of us, with more average bodies, are made to feel imperfect and inadequate. It is a really tough gig for these young women. I think it was Dr Phil who said, ‘There are thousands of voices in the ears of our children and our challenge, as parents, is to make sure that ours is the loudest’. That is increasingly difficult when there is this cacophony of messages to which children are subjected every day.”

5. Resilience

The fifth challenge for parents today is to give our kids resilience. “One thing that we can guarantee our young people, sadly, is that bad things will happen to good people. We can’t tell them that life is fair – it isn’t. We have to acknowledge that randomness and chaos happen in the universe. The most important gifts we can give our kids are the skills, the knowledge and the strategies to deal with it when it happens.”

He concedes that it is harder to do that with young people today. “It’s vastly different. We didn’t have the levels of family breakdown that we have now. There were more of what I call psychological moorings – the church, the community and so on. But now children grow up in emotional silos. They don’t have that level of social connectedness that they had in the past. A hundred years ago we sat around fires and told kids stories – and there’s huge power in the narrative – and I think we have stopped telling kids stories. This is how they learned, this is how parents passed on their values to children, and I don’t think we are doing that anymore.”

Can we not just assume young people will learn these skills for themselves? “It’s very hard. If you take your average 14-year-old boy, he has just had an 800 percent increase in testosterone. They have the attention span of a Border Collie. They fundamentally believe they have this cloak of immortality draped around them and nothing will ever happen to them.”

When challenged that many problems facing younger people could be fixed with harsher laws and stricter discipline at home, Carr-Gregg replies cautiously, “If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘Nonsense!’, but in fact I do think we have a bit of a problem now, where parents are hesitant to set limits and boundaries, they are hesitant to use moral language, and the overwhelming trend is to create a culture of entitlement and indulgence. I don’t think that works well for kids. I think we have to have a ‘behaviour economy’ at home and that is, consequential learning. If you know what the rules are and you stuff up, then 100 percent of the time, there has to be a consequence! With respect to the harshness of the sanctions, what we know is that the more you belt kids the more dysfunctional they become, so that doesn’t work. But if a kid makes a mistake and you let it go through to the wicket keeper every single time, the message we give to that kid is that that is okay. So I am into consistent and reasonable parenting.”

A tricky part of parenting is adjusting the limits as they get older. “It is very difficult, because age doesn’t define maturity. That’s why you need to be that world expert I talked about – an expert about your kids, to know their temperament. The most common question I get asked is, ‘At what age should you let a child have a mobile phone?’ You’ve got to ask yourself three questions. Does your child have a track record of making good choices and keeping themselves safe? Second, do they hang out with people who do the same thing? And thirdly, what sort of temperament do they have – are they risk-takers? The answers to those questions should determine how much responsibility you give your child, because the greatest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.”

Getting specifically to the topic of resilience, Carr-Gregg sees five characteristics, and just one of them may be enough to make all the difference in the world.

  1. A charismatic adult that they can draw strength from
  2. Social and emotional competence that they have learnt from adults modelling it to them, especially how to handle conflict and other peoples’ emotion
  3. A spiritual dimension – something that gives them meaning, purpose and belonging, a connectedness to something transcendent
  4. Positive self-talk, as opposed to automatically thinking negatively and self-critically
  5. ‘Islands of confidence’ – usually discovered with pro-social peers through healthy risk taking


About Author

John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

1 Comment

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    Very interesting article! Glad that Dr Carr-Gregg touches on the brain development element in the process.
    In my work on temporal distortion I have found that, when both parents and teens share a realistic time framework (that life is really,really long), there is much less conflict and struggle for control. When both sides understand that life is a process and where each is in that process, surviving the learning curve to adulthood becomes more of a team effort rather than an a combat zone where every one loses.