Parenting Teenagers Author Interview: John Coleman

John Coleman, author of Why Won't my Teenager Talk to Me?, has an international reputation for his work with parents and young people. He is a trained clinical psychologist and is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He is the Founder of a research centre studying adolescents and their families, and during his career he has also run a special school for troubled teenagers and worked as a policy advisor for government. In addition to running workshops for parents of teenagers, he has created two series for TV and written books and developed videos on the adolescent years. John’s pioneering work has been widely recognised and in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2001 he was awarded an OBE for services to young people. Listen to the insightful podcast with John Coleman.

What is the biggest challenge facing practitioners who are working with clients who want or need to make a lifestyle change?

Parents of teenagers can very easily get stuck in a negative rut with their teenage son or daughter. In this situation it is hard for parents to step outside the ongoing conflict and negative attitudes that each have towards the other. Bickering and rows can seem as if they go on interminably. It is essential that adults take a step back, think about what their son or daughter is coping with, and recognize the major changes and challenges that face young people. Parents have a key role to play, but they do need to put their own needs second just for a short while, and try and provide as much support to the young person as possible during this transitional period.

Why is it important to take time to work on self-improvement issues?

The teenage years can be a difficult time for parents. If things are not going well then poor relationships in the family can lead to all sorts of other problems, such as ill health, marital stresses and so on. For this reason it is especially important for parents of teenagers to learn more about adolescent development, and recognize that if they can support their teenager during this period, there will be huge benefits to all members of the family.

What is the most important thing practitioners treating clients trying to make changes should know?

That adolescence is a stage, and that the difficult or puzzling behavior is a reflection of the major changes being experienced by the young person. Since this is a stage, it means that there is rapid change, and the behaviours that are challenging will not last for ever. Just one example, we now know that the changes in the brain during the early years of adolescence are the most profound that occur any time in the life cycle apart from the first two years of life.

What is the most prevalent misconception about self-improvement and making lifestyle changes?.

In relation to adolescence, the most prevalent misconception is that the teenage years have to be difficult. Parents expect trouble, and that expectation leads to a negative attitude and unhelpful parenting behaviour. Of course it is not necessarily the case that things have to be difficult. With the right attitude, and some knowledge of adolescent development, the rocky periods can be managed without too much stress.

Is there anything in particular that you’d like to highlight about the topic or your book?

My book takes communication as its heart. In my view one of the major reasons for relationship breakdown is that communication during these years becomes so problematic. Parents think teenagers do not want to talk to them, and teenagers think that parents won’t listen, or only want to pump them for information. It is so important to recognize that teenagers do want to talk to their parents, but in a way that feels safe and in a way that respects the teenager’s privacy. What I want to highlight is that if adults can approach the relationship with a willingness to listen, rather than to lecture or interrogate, they will be amazed by how much relationships between the generations will improve.