Ten tips to help parents understand and support their teen

​Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller​​
​As a clinical psychologist, Andrew Fuller works with many schools and communities in Australia and internationally, specialising in the wellbeing of young people and their families. He is a Fellow of the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Learning and Educational Development at the University of Melbourne.

Andrew has also authored several books including Tricky Kids, Guerrilla, and Help Your Child Succeed at School. Here, he gives parents of young adolescents some advice on how they can best support their child. 


Let’s face it, adolescence is an awkward time and it is no more troublesome than for the poor adults trying to guide these often gangly and anxious youths towards maturity. Despite this, most adolescents get along quite well with their parents and teachers, most of the time. Most succeed in school, have positive relationships with peers, do not become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and become productive and healthy adults.

The adolescent brain is in transition and differs neuro-chemically and anatomically from adults. During these years, the brain starts to slow down. An eight or nine year olds brain runs at about twice the speed than that of an adult and between the ages of eight and 18 it slows down to its adult running rate. It’s important for parents to understand these differences, as we help our teens move from being fast and impulsive to slow and smart. 

1. Mindset

Research shows us that teens’ mindsets directly influence their results. By changing teens’ mindsets from fixed (I can’t do any better), to growth (I can improve) can raise their achievement scores. It has also been shown that a young person with a growth mindset will outperform their ‘fixed’ peers because they believe in putting in effort and are resilient in the face of setbacks. 

As parents, we can help teens to develop to their full potential by praising effort more than intelligence and improvement over accomplishment.

2. Planning

Lots of teenagers have trouble planning. This is because their prefrontal cortex (responsible for memory and moral reasoning) is being refined during these years. 

Obviously it is important to help young people to become as self-reliant as possible, however adolescents sometimes need more help with planning and organising themselves than you would believe. 

This is also a time of great opportunity when thinking, problem solving and creativity can surge, if nourished. Once these pathways are wired, they are harder to change in later life. 

Key things we can do to boost the performance of the adolescent brain include:
  • structuring learning so that most of the initial organisation is done for them; they will absorb the structures later
  • providing opportunities for mastery learning
  • giving activities that develop the frontal lobes, such as prediction games, anticipation of consequences, mazes, and discussions about the long-term effects of social issues.

3. Emotional Processing

Adolescents like intensity, excitement, and stimulation. They are drawn to music videos that shock and bombard the senses, and flock to horror and slasher movies. At this time, hormones become more powerful. An adolescent’s brain shows more activity in the emotional parts of the brain (known as the limbic system) than in the planning and impulse control parts of the brain (known as the frontal lobes and the pre-frontal cortex). This means that adolescents are more engaged when there is emotion involved.

4. Stress

Between late childhood and early adolescence there is a ‘fall from grace’ with the number of reports of feeling ‘very happy’ dropping by 50% (Larson and Richards, 1994). They experience increased negative feelings, depressed mood and wider mood ranges, compared to younger and older people.

When emotional, adolescents also have lower activity in their frontal lobes and more activity in the amygdala—the security watchdog centre of the brain—than adults. If it becomes over-activated, it moves into survival mode and not much learning occurs. This means that teens are less likely to engage or learn in environments that are threatening, sarcastic, and/or shaming. 

Research also shows that adolescents display considerably poorer cognitive performance under circumstances involving everyday stresses and time-limited situations, compared to working under optimal conditions. 

5. Expectations for themselves

While we want to praise effort more than ability, we also want to make sure our students know that we think they are capable and clever. Numerous teenagers are sapped of motivation by the fear of failure. Shame is toxic to learning. Build a culture at home where having a go is expected and mistakes aren’t viewed as failure, but as steps towards a correct answer.

6. Tuned into the peer group

Teenagers are highly tuned into the opinions of those around them, especially their peers. During an average week, adolescents have been reported to spend close to one-third of their awake-time talking with peers and only 8% talking with adults (Csikszentimihalyi, Larson and Prescott, 1977). 

They tend to be preoccupied with what others think and will sacrifice success for social acceptance. This means we need to manage the peer culture by giving all students ways to be helpful, have a go at new activities and succeed. We should try and emulate computer game designers—nothing overcomes reluctance and low motivation faster than challenges and a whiff of success. 

7. Multi-tasking

It doesn’t work.

8. Memory

Memory is increased by repetition but is also increased when the new information is used to perform some tasks. Describing the new information in different forms and organising the new information so it is meaningful also increases retention. Parents can help by providing frequent, well-structured opportunities to practice. 

9. Sleep patterns

Most teenagers need more sleep than they did as children and function optimally on 9.25 hours, yet the amount of sleep teens get declines as they get older. From an average of 8.3 hours in Year 8, to 7.5 hours in Year 10 and down to 7 hours in Year 12. 

Adolescents who only get 5-6 hours of sleep lose out on the last two REM cycles, which reduces the amount of time the brain has to consolidate information into long-term storage. They also are more likely to suffer with weight gain, moodiness, poorer attention, and increased use of caffeinated stimulant drinks to become alert. They can help re-align their body clock by avoiding bright light in the evening and opening blinds or turning on lights as soon as their morning alarm sounds, and limiting their weekend sleep in to no more than three hours. 

10. Passion Projects

As children get older their attitude to school deteriorates. One way to increase teens’ motivation is to engage them in projects that are meaningful and relevant to them. Students completing projects of interest to them have amazing leaps in learning and parents should consider ways to shed some of the ‘busy’ work to free up time for their teens to develop passion projects.

(Written by Andrew Fuller, based on a series of articles available on his website)