Surviving the Teen Years When You’re the Parent

by Pam Minichiello, LMHC

The teen years are a time of accelerated physical, cognitive, and emotional development.  However, when you are the parent of one or more teens, you may experience your teen(s) as having a serious of unpredictable emotions and storms. And for some parents, the only predictability they can be sure of is the daily feeling of validation that you have no idea what you’re doing anymore!  If your teen is unfortunate enough to be struggling with an eating disorder, anxiety, depression or other mental health issue, the entire family may be feeling some level of ungrounding. 

During the process of adolescence, the family is being replaced as the primary social group for teens, as they begin to individuate and separate. And this isn’t usually a smooth process. They need you today and feel you are “just so annoying,” the next.   Even worse, what they need at any given time may seem to defy logic, leaving you frustrated and feeling helpless. But remember, you are not helpless. 

If there could only be one piece of advice, it would be this: validate the feelings your teen expresses, whatever they happen to be. This should be your mantra. For example, don’t argue that your teen shouldn’t be sad or angry and then follow that with all the reasons why. Even when you 100% believe it to be true. The time for cheerleading is when they are working and playing hard, not when they are feeling angry or scared. Don’t try to paint a pretty picture on something, even when it seems quite reasonable to you.  

Don’t tolerate disrespectful talk in your home. If arguments get hot, have a rule that you won’t continue the conversation if anyone becomes out of control. If this is an issue in your house, set a process ahead of time. For example: everyone involved will take a 30-minute break and then come back to discuss. Only cool heads are effective.

Tell them you love them. Especially after an argument.

While most teens will experiment with boundaries and give in to peer pressures, make sure your policy about drinking and substances is clear and understood.  

Be consistent. Don’t let guilt drive your good decisions.

Don’t bribe your kids.

Be consistent. Don’t let guilt drive your good decisions.

Model your values by your own words and actions.

Try not to overfill your teen’s schedule. Seems all teens are stressed these days. Know your teen’s limits.

Don’t reinforce perfectionism. Allow your teen to make mistakes – they are the best learning tool and are essential for building resilience.  Straight A’s and AP classes are not the road to happiness, especially if your teen struggles with anxiety and self-esteem.  Let them know they are valuable as they are and tell them often what you admire about them.  Focus praise on the process instead of external outcomes.  For example, focus on the hard work they put in, not just the grade or the teams’ win.  

Don’t do your teen’s projects or school work.  Be aware that as a habit, this will unintentionally tell your teen you don’t believe he/she has the capacity to do hard things. 

Teens notoriously struggle with their changing bodies. They are often barraged with perfectionistic messages via social and print media. So, you can be help by being a good model for positive body acceptance. Notice if you speak about your body in a critical manner and stop. CNC 360 does not advocate diets, especially for children and teens. Don’t place a moral value on certain foods your teen eats or does not eat. Try not to control your teen’s food intake, unless it’s part of a supervised treatment intervention.  

Since adolescence is a time of change and finding one’s identity, your teen may have some new interests and strong points of view. Try not to slam these, (unless of course they are dangerous), but try to respond positively to their new passion. A good debate lets them know it’s ok to disagree and conflict is normal.

If your family hasn’t already done so, designate a night at least once a month, as family time where you all get together to have fun.  It can be as simple as watching a movie or playing a game at home, dinner out, and doing something that’s mutually agreed upon by all.  Make it mandatory.  Some teens might not like the idea, but having family traditions helps keep the family feeling good together.  

And of course, safety issues should trump any guidance given above. Be explicit in letting your teen know that. 

Adolescence is happening to you as well as your teen. Your role as a parent is shifting, messy, and often disconcerting. Self-care for parents most always takes a back seat. Identify what has comforted and rejuvenated you in the past, and set some priority time for these necessities. Try to stay connected with friends and take up a hobby or interest that is just for you.  Find a parent support group in your community, if you need one. In those tough moments, pause for a minute and take a few slow and intentional breaths. Then express compassion towards yourself – being a parent is a difficult and exhausting job.  You and your teen can get through this. 

Here is a link to a video that I think summarizes all of what’s going on with the parent-teen relationship, putting the turmoil in perspective:

Other Resources:

Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment, 2012 by Daniel A.  Hughes and Jonathan Baylin

BRAINSTORM: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Dan Seigel, 2014 by Daniel J. Siegel, MD