20 Sep 2018

Skip the Drama: advice on parenting a teen girl from psychologist Sarah Hughes

From Nine To Noon, 11:15 am on 20 September 2018

Body image, anxiety, self-harm, social media, homework, partying, curfews, respect… It's not easy being a teenage girl and it's not easy parenting a teenage girl. Child psychologist Sarah Hughes shares some advice from her new book Skip the Drama.

Teenage girls are known for catastrophising and emotional meltdowns for a reason, says Hughes, who has worked with hundreds of teenage girls and their families.

As their hormones rage and their brains are still developing, girls are getting hit with a lot of stress they don't yet have the skills to cope with.

"They're being exposed to stressors before they've had the chance to build skills."

Social media has intensified pressure on teenage girls and contributed to the escalation of anxiety disorders, she says.

As a means of coping, an increasing number of girls experiment with self-harm – something many parents struggle to understand.

Try and provide your teen with other ways to cope so their anxiety doesn't develop into a lifelong issue, she says.

teenage girl on laptop

Photo: Steinar Engeland

So what's a parent to do?

blonde teenager selfie

Photo: Rubbertoe (Robert Batina) / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Many people struggle to find practical strategies for helping their teenage girls cope while keeping themselves sane, Hughes says.

Teens can seem very self-focused and unconcerned with those around them – especially their own family members.

Look at how you respond when they make what you might perceive as a "selfish request", she suggests.

Are you lecturing?

Teens will usually tune out from a stern long-winded lecture - so you're not going to get very far with that, Hughes says.

Are you actually caving?

"[A parent] might rant and rave and go into all the reasons why it's really inconvenient for them to give their teen a lift really last minute because she hasn't organised a ride in advance – but then when they take her anyway it actually reinforces that selfish demand.

"A lot of time parents are trying to teach their kids with their words that they're selfish but their actions reinforce behaviour."

teenage girl with backpack

Photo: Gabriel Lopez / Unsplash

Negotiation is key – learn the ways

Teenagers need to feel heard and that their concerns are taken seriously, so try and convey this when communicating with them, Hughes says.

Don't dictate to them what they need to do differently. Instead approach a conflict as you would with someone at work – put your own ideas on the table, listen to theirs and concede points.

"To have effective conversations, try and approach [your teen] like you do your other relationships.

"There still has to be boundaries and you are still the parent, but if you are able to show teens the respect of listening and show that you are able to take their ideas on board, it tends to smooth the way for a much stronger relationship – which really helps with compliance in other areas."

teenage girl selfie

Photo: Rubbertoe (Robert Batina) / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It takes two to argue, so if your teenager is being dramatic, try and stay as neutral as possible and give minimal attention to their dramatic behaviour.

It's easier said than done, but responding with logic tends to only inflame the situation, Hughes says.

Parties are usually the first situations where teens are making their own calls outside of their parent's control – but some parents try to hang on to control of what their teen does while they're out.

This won't help them develop skills to manage themselves, Hughes says.

Instead, educate them about the risks of drugs and alcohol and drink-spiking, and empower them to make their own – informed – decisions.

What are the signs there's a serious problem?

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Hughes tells parents that it can be irrelevant whether their teenage daughter meets the diagnostic criteria for a disorder – the fact that she's not coping can be more important.

"If [a teenage girl] is struggling with something, if it's impacting her life, then it's really worthwhile intervening now to try and help her develop skills so it doesn't develop into a disorder."

Stereotypical teen angst can look similar to depression, but keep an eye out for "clusters of symptoms" and symptoms going on over time.

"If the [low] mood doesn't shift and you see other changes like problems with sleep, concentration, withdrawing from activities then consider getting a diagnosis … When things start to co-occur that usually indicates an issue.

"If they're a bit moody at home but still engaging in their normal activities, still spending time with friends, their sleep and appetite [is fine], and they're still performing okay at school, that is something we would put more down to teenage angst."

Dr Sarah Hughes holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in child and adolescent anxiety disorder.

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