Parenting Teenagers

What is a parent’s role during the teen years?

– by Marcus Moore, MFT –

Some of the most common questions parents raise in therapy (besides “How can I get him to do his homework?!”) have to do with the role of parents during their child’s teen years. By the time parents are ready to seek counseling for their teenagers, most have learned the hard way that the rules have changed.

“He doesn’t respect authority.”

“She just does whatever she wants to, and she doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of her choices.”

“He never listens anymore. Even when I yell—especially when I yell.

Parenting during the teen years involves a major shift in the parent-child relationship. Parents find themselves trying to manage the behavior of teens who, like it or not, now have greater freedom than any previous generation. Teens figure out quickly that they have a large degree of control, which can be exasperating for their parents. The good news is that most teens can navigate their adolescence without making life-altering mistakes, but when problems do arise, there are still things parents can do to help guide and influence their teens’ lives.

Perhaps the most difficult change parents are faced with during their child’s teen years is gradually making the move from “boss” to “consultant” when it comes to discipline and behavior management. Most parents know that this transition needs to happen at some point, and few parents hope their kids will remain childlike and dependent forever (although I have met a few). But when your teen starts to flap her wings to fly, the initial, floundering attempts can be painful to watch. Some teens’ grades slip, they experiment with drugs or alcohol, and they may start hanging out with kids you would rather they steer clear of. Clear communication and setting strong limits with safety issues is important, and parents’ responses should certainly differ according to the severity of the problem, but one fact remains constant: you cannot completely control your child’s behavior. This is the most stressful stage of parenting for most of the parents I meet.

When a teen starts to misbehave, many parents respond by doing what comes most easily to them- clamping down. They take away privileges, ground their teen, or subject them to long, judgmental lectures. While these tactics may be somewhat effective in the short term, the stage is now set for a major power struggle that you, the parent, are sure to lose.

Unless he is dangerously out of control, what your teen probably needs during his adolescent years is parents who act as examples and advisors while allowing him to learn his own lessons. Rather then telling him what he should do, guiding him through a decision-making process helps him exercise his ability to connect cause and effect. Allowing him to suffer some of the consequences of his mistakes, rather than shielding him from them, helps him to learn from experience. And allowing him to work for things he wants rather than giving him large rewards for minimal effort will give him a sense of empowerment and accomplishment.

Each of these concepts deserves much more discussion than I have room for here, but if you want a head start, here are a couple of books that I recommend frequently to parents of teens:

  • How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk – by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

  • Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life – by Marshall B. Rosenberg

  • Positive Discipline for Teenagers – by Jane Nelsen Ed.D. and Lynn Lott

These books both offer a good overall guide to effective communication and parenting during the teen years. They emphasize respectful communication, moving away from punishment or punitive reactions, and helping your child learn responsibility by setting an example for her while letting her figure some things out on her own.