Tracy Robinson: Parenting resourceful adolescents

Dr Tracy Robinson is a senior research fellow at the Monash Centre for Health Research & Implementation. As a registered nurse and a doctor of psychology, she has extensive experience working in the field of mental health and supporting the wellbeing of young people. We’re most grateful to her for providing this article for this term’s newsletter.

Dear parents and friends,

I want to introduce myself to you all as I hope to be contributing to your newsletter on several occasions over the year. First and foremost, I want to introduce myself as a parent of two children – now both aged over 21. I am also a nurse and have worked in the field of mental health for three decades! For the past 20 years I have worked as an academic at several universities, but it is my work with children and adolescents that I wish to share with you all.

Back in the 1990s we became aware that Australian adolescents had among the highest rates of death by suicide in the world. This spurred the government into action and, from 2000 onwards, we saw significant investment in child and adolescent mental health services and early intervention programs.

I was part of that early wave and began to work in the field of prevention and promotion. This included working with teachers in high schools to develop and implement mental health programs and resources across NSW. In particular, we implemented what we call universal programs (for all young people) and selected programs (for those young people at risk). We could not have done this without the support and commitment from principals, teachers and school counsellors, who I continue to admire because they are required to take an increasing role in providing not only education but also pastoral care.

One of the programs we implemented was the Resourceful Adolescent program (RAP), a universal program designed to promote the emotional wellbeing of young people. The RAP program is strengths-based rather than problem-focused, which means we start by helping young people identify their strengths and resources and continue to add to this as we progress through the program.

In western cultures, adolescence can be a very challenging time for young people because it is when they develop their identity and their independence. Identity formation is all about self-esteem and being independent is all about finding one’s own way while also remaining connected.

In fact, teenagers need both attachment and independence at the same time. These are the two main developmental tasks of adolescence - feeling good about one’s self and being independent while also remaining connected with others. No wonder parents sometimes struggle to understand what their teenagers need!

We do know, however, that parents have a really important role in building their teenager’s self-esteem and in helping them achieve independence with attachment. Seeing that ‘proud glint’ in a parent’s eyes is one of the most powerful ways we can validate and increase our young people’s self-esteem.

Giving them more independence a little at a time and negotiating rules and arrangements together are important strategies for supporting independence with attachment. It is important to negotiate curfews, staying in contact, supervision arrangements and transport. It is also important to discuss the increased responsibilities that come with independence (which is not the same thing as giving free rein).

If we understand the developmental tasks that teenagers have to navigate and if we acknowledge the important role we have as parents in promoting their self-esteem, things can be a little clearer. Seeing that ‘proud gleam’ in a parent’s eyes is a real booster (even for adults).

But we also need to be aware of available support services, because sometimes young people need to talk with people outside their families. It is comforting to consider that we don’t need to be perfect parents (few of us would have had that ourselves) and remember to make a mental note of our own strengths and positive qualities on a regular basis.