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Getting through tough times with our teens

21 Oct 2021

Getting through tough times with our teens 1

(Illustration by Kalaimathi Mahendran)

How do you help your teenagers to build their resilience while still padding their falls sufficiently? Three parents – Mr Richard Ching, father of two, Ms Yusnizan Bte Mohd Taib, mother of two, and Ms Delphine Ang, mother of four – share the lessons they learnt through navigating difficult situations together with their teenagers. 

By Neo Wen Tong

Parenting teenagers can be a delicate dance. They are at the age where they are learning to exert their independence and individuality, but that is not to say that the guidance that parents give is no longer valuable.

Step in, or step back?

Mr Richard Ching, a father of two, was mindful about giving his children space when they entered their teens, by allowing them to make some decisions on their own and offering help only when sought. 

His approach was put to the test when his son Jerome, 16, applied for the Polytechnic Early Admission Exercise (Poly EAE) earlier this year. The aptitude-based admission exercise allows students to apply for admission to polytechnics before they receive their O-Level results, and Jerome had applied for life science courses that he was particularly keen on. 

“He consulted teachers and seniors, and prepared his portfolio and write-up on his own. But he wasn’t given a chance to present his portfolio; he didn’t get news from the two polytechnics he applied to,” shares Mr Ching.

Instead of stepping in immediately to offer alternatives to Jerome, Mr Ching chose to hang back. “I could tell that he’s disappointed, though he didn’t say much. But because he’s a thinker, he probably has a plan A, B and C. I know he can figure it out.” 

Getting through tough times with our teens 2
(Illustration by Kalaimathi Mahendran)

Jerome eventually did ask for his father’s help. “He asked me to call the schools to check if they had received his applications, and I did that for him,” Mr Ching says. “Given his reserved character, this was very hard for him to do himself. So, when he asked me to help, I did. It’s a show of support.”

Lead them, or let go?

Mother of two, Ms Yusnizan Bte Mohd Taib, agrees that helping children build resilience does not amount to leaving them entirely to their own devices. She had worked through multiple disappointments with Lina, her 17-year-old daughter, last year, after she failed her O-Level Elementary Maths. 

“It was a low point in her life,” Ms Yusnizan shares. “She really tried hard and was quite confident before the exam. She thought she would at least pass, so she was very disappointed when she did not. After she got her results, she stared into space for two days.”

To help her move forward, Ms Yusnizan and her husband worked together with Lina to discuss and work out what were the 12 most feasible Polytechnic course options to fill in for the Joint Admission Exercise or JAE. (The JAE is an annual exercise by MOE for O-Level holders to apply for courses offered by polytechnics, Junior Colleges, Millennia Institute, and the Institute of Technical Education.)

“We were strategic in the application, in terms of balancing her results with her interests, but when she received a text saying, ‘You were not successful in the JAE’, it was another heart-breaking moment for Lina. As none of the courses she applied for accepted her, it felt like she is even further from her goal of furthering her studies in a polytechnic.”

But this round, Lina was quicker to bounce back. “We decided to appeal. Together with Lina, we visited the website of each polytechnic to find out the deadline and appeal process. We got her to submit her appeals on her own, and unfortunately, she missed the deadline of one of the polytechnics. It was another lesson learnt – to be more careful!”

The appeals did not result in Lina getting a place in polytechnic, but there was no giving up. By this point, Ms Yusnizan had handed over the reins to her daughter, who now had her eye on courses offered by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts. “We let her take charge of looking up her options, finding out application details and even paying for the registration fees so she feels ownership. All we asked for was for her to tell us what she was applying for, and for her to explain to us what the process required, so she was clear.”

After a roller-coaster few months, Lina eventually secured a place in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ Diploma in Illustration Design with Animation course.

“Building resilience doesn’t mean pushing our children to their breaking point. It’s supporting them so they can bounce back after each disappointment,” Ms Yusnizan says. “Supporting them also doesn’t mean they don’t become resilient. The idea of it is for them to learn to fly on their own.”

Opal from Steven Universe by Lina
‘Opal from Steven Universe’, one of Lina’s digital artworks. She is furthering her interest in art through her diploma programme in illustration design with animation.

Show it, don’t just say it

Besides the tango parents do to help their teens grow wings, they also face resistance when modelling values. Most parents would agree that showing them the “right thing to do” was much easier when they were little. 

Mother of four Delphine Ang and daughter Adabelle, 17, relates how they were shopping at Ikea last year, and Ms Ang realised she had left her wallet at home and could not pay for some items at the checkout.

Not wanting to return home without the items, she approached a stranger to pay in cash on her behalf, and she would pay the stranger electronically via PayNow. 

“Adabelle probably felt that my actions were embarrassing, and distanced herself from me. She said, ‘Who does this kind of thing?!’” Ms Ang shares. “I flipped the situation around for her. I asked her if someone asked her for help, would she help them? She said, ‘Of course!’ So, the lesson there was, if you allow yourself to help others, why not allow yourself to ask for help?”

A few months later, Adabelle went to purchase some weights at Decathlon, and found out that the store only took cashless payments. “She asked a customer to help by charging the purchase to her card, while Adabelle paid that customer back in cash,” Ms Ang says, sounding pleased. “I asked her whether experiencing that episode with me at Ikea helped her when she was alone at Decathlon, and she said yes.”

It was a breakthrough moment for Ms Ang. “Adabelle can be very hard on herself when she thinks she made a mistake,” she says. “There are so many times where we tell our children something, and we are not sure whether they internalise it. This time, I could see that she opened her mind, didn’t blame herself for the ‘error’, and found a solution instead of coming home empty-handed. I was just so happy.”

Modelling the ideal behaviour was also key in how Ms Yusnizan supported her daughter through the period after Lina received her ‘O’ Level results. She says that as the parent, she was in the position to show her daughter the way forward. 

“Personally, when Lina got her ‘O’ Level results, I was angry. I was even thinking in my head, ‘I told you so’, and that she should have worked harder. But I realised that all of us were disappointed – not just me – and there is a bigger lesson to be learnt. Instead of simply telling Lina how disappointed we are, my husband and I guided her to look at options and explore what she could do.”

Getting through tough times with our teens 1
(Illustration by Kalaimathi Mahendran)

Know your child, to know what works

Mr Ching, Ms Yusnizan and Ms Ang make clear that there is no magic bullet when it comes to parenting teens. It is important for parents to know their children and what works for them. 

And to know your child well, having a positive relationship is key.

“You have to build up the relationship and connection over the years, from primary school and even before,” says Mr Ching, about how he has been sowing into his bonds with his two children since they were young. “You can’t just make an appearance when they are teens in secondary school.”

Positive relationships also take maintenance. Ms Yusnizan learnt this the hard way. When Lina entered secondary school, she thought that she could be more hands off. “One of the mistakes I made was that I didn’t communicate enough with Lina from Secondary 1 to 2. I was focused only on her homework and results… just don’t give me trouble, you know? I was also in a toxic work environment then, and subconsciously projected my negative state on mind on Lina, making her feel like she was not good enough.”

Fortunately, Ms Yusnizan realised that something had to change. She switched jobs, got herself into a better space mentally, and started paying more attention to the little things that matter. “I apologised to Lina for my behaviour as well. It healed our relationship. Only then was I able to get to know her well enough to support her when she faced problems.”

For others, the problems arose from using the wrong parenting approach.

Ms Ang learned this with her eldest daughter Andrea, now 19. When she was a younger teen, minor incidents could trigger Andrea’s temper and cause her to say hurtful things. “Respect and filial piety are so important because of the way I was brought up. So, as a parent, I would use my authority to try to control and tame her. But I realised that her will was so strong, that if I tried to top her anger, she would top mine and we would both end up angry and exhausted.”

Ms Ang then changed tack – she decided to handle Andrea’s outbursts by first being the one to calm down. “I needed to be the thermostat, not the thermometer. Instead of mirroring her energy levels, I set the tone for her instead.”

If Andrea needs physical space, Ms Ang sends her text messages instead. “I ask if she’s alright and let her know that I’m concerned; messages that soothe instead of scold. She prefers to communicate via written words. It gives her an outlet to express all of what she is feeling inside.”

“Very often we look up to experts and gurus and we think that if we follow what they say, things will work out. But each of us is so different,” says Ms Ang. “We have to tweak it and make (the parenting process) our own.”

“Instead of looking at others as experts, if you quieten down and think, you will know deep down that you are the expert on your own children. You know the nature of your children and what works for them best.”