Parenting Teens

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Child Development

Parenting Teens


This page is designed to offer parents help and information regarding their relationship with their teenager. There are both general and age specific information for you to peruse. If your teen is so inclined, you might suggest they look up the Especially for Teens page. It offers help for teens in their parent/teen relationships, peer pressure and despair. It also covers other topics on teen-life.

The Basics

It is difficult for parents to keep up with all of the changes our children are going through. By the time they reach puberty, teens are going through a vast array of changes at an accelerated rate. If parents are to be effective, they must attempt to keep up with the changes in several ways.

Be aware of the need to readjust old rules, to better fit maturing teens. Young teens are acutely aware of the inadequacies in their parent's rules. When your teen reaches puberty, it is a good time to sit down with them and discuss the changes they are going through. Together you can decide what their new rules (and the consequences to breaking those rules) should be. Enlisting the teen in making these decisions will ultimately lead to better cooperation by them in adhering to the rules and standards of the parent. Kids need to know exactly what the consequence for breaking the rule will be. This way when they choose to break a rule, they know that they also choose the consequence. This makes it much easier for the parent to enforce the consequence without argument. It is also extremely important that the parent enforce those consequences 100% of the time. If there is inconsistency, the rules become meaningless.

Reassess your expectations of the teen; old ones and new ones. Old expectations may be impractical and/or demeaning for the teen, while new expectations placed on growing teens may exceed their developmental level, and may result in frustration to both parent and teens. It may be too much to expect a 13 year old to be responsible for their younger siblings, the housework and homework everyday while the parent is at work. On the other hand, expecting that the young teen's only responsibility around the house is to keep his/her room clean may not be realistic either. When the expectations are equal to the teen's ability to achieve, the stage is set for developing self confidence and for taking pride in responsibility.

Begin allowing your teen to experience life according to his/her own dictates. This doesn't mean that you need to let them run around without boundaries or rules. It means that you begin to enable the teen to make decisions for themselves at a rate that is equal to his/her level of development. If we have taught our children how to govern themselves when they are small, they will be able to govern themselves as they grow to adulthood. That doesn't mean they will always choose to do things the way YOU hope they will. It does mean that they will be able to develop self confidence in their ability to choose their own path in life. For instance, upon entering high school I wanted my oldest son to take a typing class. I knew the class was no longer mandatory but I felt it was a very important skill for him to have. He did not want to take the class at all. After perusing his choices he decided to take a keyboarding class instead. He is now a computer engineer and typwriters are obsolete.

Sometimes teens will choose contrary to what we want them to do. Unless this involves something illegal, or something harmful to themselves or others, we need to allow them to make, and learn from, their own mistakes. Learning from mistakes provides opportunities they must have if they are to develop confidence in their ability to make right choices. If we set out to protect them from every mistake, we prevent them from learning how to depend on themselves. Each time they choose a path that ends in disaster, they have the opportunity to learn from their mistake, to learn how NOT to do things the next time. Perhaps they will even learn that you were right after all. Although they may not admit it until they are 30 or so.

Allow the child to separate from you, and begin to individuate. It is difficult for parents to accept that their child is no longer as affectionate or attentive as they once were. This separation is normal, and should be a respected phase in the teen's development. Be there for them. Don't condemn them for pulling away. And let them know that you respect their need for privacy. When they were little, they needed us for everything. We diapered them, fed them and nurtured them when they were sad. Now they are on their way to independent living as adults and we need to help them on that journey. Every time a parent seeks to get emotional comfort from a child, the parent is hindering the separation process and preventing the child from continuing on his/her journey towards a healthy adulthood. So give them a pat on the back instead of a bear hug once in a while.

Teen's need boundaries, especially young teens. This time of their life is emotionally, physically and environmentally unstable. Although they may tell us to "Back Off" and suspend the rules, they are actually in a state of mind that craves consistant and rational rules. They need to have something in their life that feels secure, that they can depend on while they go through the ups and downs of adolescence. After the two of you have decided on a set of boundaries and expectations, the parent's role is to be firm (but not robotically stiff) with them. The child needs to be assured that the parent will keep the boundaries in tact, but is also willing to consider "special circumstances" for an occasional exception. These exceptions need to be discussed and decided upon together so that the teen realizes that it is not an impulsive reaction of the parent. The parent needs to be seen as someone who is firm with the rules but not unwilling to bend. However, consequences need to be firm and delivered without exception.

Balance Between Helping and Interfering

Teenagers resent unsolicited advice or attention. They need to be left alone to a greater degree than before, to find their own way in life. And they need to feel capable of finding their own way without parental intervention. Although the teen's personal boundaries need to be respected, learning to do so often places the parent in a difficult position. The parent needs to be sensitive to each situation so that they KNOW when to offer help, affection, or advice. They also need to respect the teens "cues" suggesting that they don't want the parent to offer these things. Then back off.

On the other hand, teenagers DO appreciate their parent's opinions and counsel - when it is solicited. The trick is learning how to know when and when not, to offer advice. This requires listening skills. Learning how to listen to teenagers can make the difference between helping and preaching. We need to be able to determine what the teenager is actually asking for and how to deliver our opinions without inviting defensive attitudes. Learning "I" messages and learning to listen for the teens underlying feelings, rather than listening to their words, can save an uncomfortable conversation.

A recent study that was designed to learn how much time teems spend at certain activities, indicated that teens spend 40% of their leisure time with peers, and only 10% of their time with parents and family members. The study also showed that when teens are with peers, they more often discuss life events, likes and dislikes and they vent frustrations. When they have problems that present moral or ethical dilemmas, they still turn to their parents for advice rather than their peers. Although these findings may not be surprising, it is interesting to note that although our teens may not spend as much time with us, and they may not verbally share with us, they DO want us to help them with the critical issues in their life.


The fact is that teenagers need to separate from their parents if they are going to figure out how they can live independently as adults. Because they are unskilled at going through this process, they often choose a path that is diametrically oppositional to their parent's most coveted values. If going to church is one of the most important values in your life, then it is highly likely that your teen will choose that arena to rebel against. Not because they no longer adhere to the beliefs they have learned since childhood, but because this is an obvious way they can see, to start becoming independent of the parent.

This rebellion needs to be tolerated (within safe parameters) if the teen is to be successful at developing a strong sense of self. In the end, if you have taught them well as children, they will level out and develop a value system they feel is right for them. Eventually they will no longer feel the need to rebel because they will feel a strong sense of individuality, separate of the parent. Of course the grater the level of respect that has been fostered between parent and child, the less the teen will feel the need to rebel. I know of one girl whose parents were always firm, but loving and fair. When she got to the rebellious age, she decided to make everything in her room pink. Her mother hated pink, but tolerated her daughter's self expression. The girl didn't feel the need to rebel in a destructive way because of the positive and respectful relationship that had been developed long before.

Teenagers need to find a way to feel independent from those on whom they have felt entirely dependent as children. Rebellion can come in many forms. The teen may decide to die his hair orange, or to pierce her tongue, or to combine size 36 jeans with a size 6 shirt.

It is difficult for parents to stand back and watch our lovely, talented children grow into bizarre looking people with whom we no longer have anything in common. Or so it would seem. It is also common for parents to get to a point where they just can't take it any more. This is when they decide to stand up on their parental soapbox and begin to make clear their dislike of the teenager's recent behaviors.

What often pursues is a battle of wills, a contest to see who will maintain the greatest degree of control. Ultimately one of two things happens.

  • The teen caves in to parental domination, becomes withdrawn, depressed or passive aggressive. They loose their ability to feel any sense of personal power and may loose previously gained self-esteem. Their "will" becomes the "parent's will" and they give up on their ability to choose independent living. OR...
  • The teen intensifies their power in the power struggle until the parent is no longer able to contend. The parent is frustrated, the teen looses his sense of guidance and boundaries with the parent and he learns that aggression is a good way to get what he wants from the parent. Often the parent feels overwhelmed and gives up on the child.
In either scenario, no one wins; each one is ultimately a loose-loose situation. The parent may gain immediate control and succeed in stopping the teen's behavior temporarily; but the teen looses his sense of independence and the relationship with the parent is tarnished. Or the teen is temporarily successful at getting his way, but looses respect for the parent and ultimately the relationship has suffered serious damage.

So what's a parent to do?

First, before you make your move, take an objective look at the situation at hand to determine how important it is for the teen to behave or look the way YOU want him to. Remember, hair will grow out, clothes are generally a temporary fad and piercing and tattooing is a life decision that the teen will have to live with the rest of his/her life. If they make the decision, they should have to take responsibility for it. It used to be that you were there to protect them from imminent pain or accident. Now however, is the time to let them make a few of their own decisions even if you don't agree with them. As for piercing or tattooing, if the teen is 18 or older they will do what they will do. If they are younger and you are morally opposed to it, you need to treat it as you would any other unacceptable behavior - with wisdom and consequences.

Of course there needs to be some boundaries in this arrangement. For instance, if the teen is insisting on having sex in your home or smoking pot at parties, and that is something you are opposed to, then you need to stand up for your right to have the rules in your home observed.

Be prepared however, to allow the teen to suffer the consequences if he is not willing to respect those rules. The consequences may be that s/he looses driving privileges or looses material possessions in their room such as stereo, T.V., clothes etc. Or if the teen exhibits destructive behavior and is not capable of tolerating the consequences set in your home, it may be necessary that s/he moves out altogether. Either way, it is imperative that you are firm about basic rules, made in accordance with your value system. In the long run, your teen will grow to be more able to make his/her own life decisions and at the same time your relationship will be preserved, regardless of whether or not s/he chooses to live life the way you wanted him/her to.

Being firm and consistent sometimes means making very hard decisions to follow through with consequences. Doing less that this creates an unhealthy and unhappy situation in the home. Teens learn that the rules are meaningless and the parent, in effect, is enabling the teen's bad behavior. When teens begin to imagine themselves as adults, they go through a phase where they want the rights and privileges of adulthood, without the responsibility of adulthood. If you are going to successfully prepare your teen for life, you need to point out and require that with higher levels of privilege comes higher levels of responsibility. You need to refuse to give them the perks unless they have properly taken care of their responsibilities.

When teens become 18 it is not uncommon for them to believe that they no longer have any rules. You need to help them understand that in fact the opposite is true. As long as they are dependant on you in any way, they need to respect the rules of your home. They also need to understand that, as an adult, they need to pull their weight around the house just as much as any other adult living in your home. If the teen refuses, you need to be prepared to stand firm and be willing to allow them to suffer the consequences of their choices, even though that includes asking them to leave. Don't give in because you know they don't have the means to support themselves. When pressed to choose the rules or homelessness, they are likely to choose rules. If not, then you have to let them live with their choice, regardless of how they might struggle. Doing less will result in your rules and your peace of mind being trampled on.

Loving unconditionally means that you teach them, help them on their way, and love them in spite of their choices. As parents, we can love the child, without loving their lifestyle. We can accept the child, without expectations of changing them. And we can be there for the child without intervening.


Parents often are heard complaining that their teens don't give them enough respect. What they often have failed to understand is that respect begets respect. When our children were small they needed us. We had to be there for them in an invasive or intimate way. We checked on them while they slept. We helped them in the rest room and we selected their clothes for them at the department store. Teenagers however, no longer need us in these ways. They are in fact, only a few years (or less) from journeying into the adult world as independent individuals. They do need this time to feel free to express themselves, and to take responsibility for themselves and their choices, in nearly all they aspects of their life.

We can only demand as much respect as we give. You wouldn't think of going next door and walking into your neighbor's bedroom without permission, so why would you do this to your young adult child? You wouldn't consider telling a coworker to stop dying their hair that color because it is offensive to you; so why would you say something like that to your teen? Respecting your teen is no different that showing respect to any other human being. The problem is often with the parent. Erma Bombeck once wrote about treating our friends like family and our family like friends. I'm not sure that treating your teen like a friend is best, but it is important to remember that they diserve a certain amount of privacy and respect. Become an example of how you would like your teen to live.

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