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Parenting teenagers can be a tough job! Parenting Coach Katie Malinski LCSW coaches a mother of five teenagers on the 3 keys to parenting teenagers successfully.



If you have ever smoked, dabbled in drugs, or drank beer or harder stuff you probably remember the first time you did any of those things and the reason you tried them. Most likely the reasons included wanting to go along with a peer who already used them and also simple curiosity.

Kids who “turn to drugs,” as the phrase goes,  don’t do it to be delinquent or even to experience the high or buzz. The first time is more social or experimental. And once kids are past the first time, the second time is easy. That’s why using is such a risky business.

You can see that your child’s reasons for trying risky behaviors are the same impulses you’ve encouraged throughout his childhood: appreciation of good friends and a lively interest in the world. So what can you do now that these prosocial impulses are tinged with danger?

First, avoid adding to the reasons:

And then, do what you can:

Kids outgrow this fixation on substances if they live to grow at all. It’s worth it to keep trying until that happens.

The Sorcerer’s Broom

Do you remember the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”? Mickey Mouse played the apprentice in Fantasia. In the story, a wizard’s serving boy succeeds in making a broom come to life, but then he can’t control it. He tries to chop it to bits but the bits just become more brooms and make more mischief. The poor apprentice can’t get ahead of the train of events that he set in motion.

Trying to get ahead of the danger-of-the-day is like that. By the time parents figure out what mischief teens are in to and take steps to warn them away, the kids are on to something new. Adults can never quite catch up.

So building a sense of responsibility and that elusive ability to foresee the outcome of one’s actions is the only certain way to safeguard kids against dangers you can’t even imagine. Long before your child will be tempted (which means long before she gets to middle school) give her chances to make small decisions. Let her see how things come out and evaluate her choices.

Doing this with small decisions over time during childhood will give your child the skills she needs to think things through later when risky temptations come her way.

One day every parent realizes not only that his child is capable of getting into real trouble but that Mom and Dad are powerless to stop it. We adults have excellent imaginations and can visualize every manner of catastrophe that a kid can get into. Never are our imaginative powers stronger than during our children’s teen years.

Many parents’ first instinct when a child reaches her teens is to clamp down on the rules. Suddenly, we want to run background checks on all her friends, accompany her on every trip to the mall, and listen in on her phone calls. But far from keeping a teen safe, turning up the Strict Meter only drives behavior underground. Stuff is still going on – you just no longer see it.

So what do you do? First, let’s take a reality check then look at some strategies for keeping the lines of communication open and your values front and center.

Reality Check
First, you do want your teen to grow up and make his own decisions. Every parent wants her child someday to become a self-sufficient adult and move out on his own.  So your teen’s growing independence is a good thing. The teen years are the time when kids gain the practice they need in making decisions and it’s the time when they develop a personal code of ethics. But this development has to come from the kid. It’s not development if it’s something you impose or insist on. So your teen’s eventual ability to stand on his own two feet and make solid choices is the outcome of some trial-and-error.  Mistakes will be made.

Second, remember that you haven’t exactly been just sitting on your hands as a parent all these years. You’ve been active in letting your child learn right from wrong, you’ve supported her good decisions in the past and you’ve helped her learn from her bad decisions. So there’s no need to panic. There’s just a need to not drop the ball now, when the stakes are suddenly higher.

You’re still the parent. Your child is still the kid. But your relationship is shifting and the way to have the kind of influence you want to have now and on into the future is to balance attention to values with your child’s increasing ability to fend for himself.

Some Strategies

  1. Talk with (not to) your teen.  Open a conversation about an issue that worries you. Ask her opinion. Don’t preach and don’t make her the focus of the conversation. Keep things general. Say, “I was reading the other day that it’s really easy to get pot at the high school. What do you think?”
  2. Listen to your teen. The more frequently and casually you talk together, the more comfortable you’ll feel and the more connected the two of you will be. But the key to talking with teens is to listen to them – without arguing, without contradicting them, and without offering unsolicited advice. Practice asking neutral questions that keep the conversation going: “What happened then?” “How did you feel about that?” “Tell me more.”
  3. When you have a concern, get right to the point. Don’t try to trap your child in a lie. Say, “I’m worried that you’ve been drinking. Tell me about that.” Notice that this requires a child, not to deny drinking, but to explain drinking. Your child may answer with a question: “What makes you think that?” but even so, you have a conversation going. Remember to listen. Remember not to preach.
  4. Make your expectations clear. If you want your child home by 11, say so, long before she leaves the house. If there are rules about using the car, take time to discuss these at a time when she’s not rushing out to a movie. Your child is not a mind-reader and important issues can’t be discussed reasonably at the last minute. Establish ground rules well in advance. (And keep in mind that your child may welcome your rules. “My mother would kill me!” is a great face-saving reason not to go along with the crowd when the child would rather not go along anyway.)
  5. Have the conversations you’ve been avoiding. Every parent knows you don’t talk about how to safely cross the street only once, after children are old enough to understand traffic. And talking with kids about sex shouldn’t wait for one, embarrassed conversation long after children have picked up the basics from their friends. The same goes for talking about drugs or whatever else that’s been in the back of your mind. If you’ve been putting something off, put it off no longer.

Take the Long View
There’s a lot of growing up that happens during the teen years and lots of opportunities for mistakes. But if kids are going to grow up, they need those opportunities. The wise parent is supportive of his children, is clear about his values, but understands that learning to find one’s own way is part of the process kids must go through.

If you’ve been strict in the past, if you’ve threatened draconian punishment in the future, you can bet you’ll be lied to. Expect it. If you want honesty, make honesty comfortable in your home. Accept your child as she is, right now. Keep the door open. Treat your child with respect. Be patient. Listen.

There’s a lot of living to share, long after the teen years are behind you both. The good relationship you forge now will be the good relationship you keep.

If you’re like me, you’re a parent who has little tolerance for a child who talks back. When my children say something disrespectful, I usually deal with it immediately. At the same time, my children haven’t yet hit the notorious teen years. When children reach the teen stage, it’s important for parents to understand that they must loosen the grip on certain rules so that they allow a certain level of independence in their children. Should teenagers be able to talk back to their parents? In short, it depends. Keep reading and I’ll explain what I mean.

Nastiness or abusive language is never okay

If your teenager curses at you or makes nasty comments to your face, you have to send a clear message that this behavior is not okay. Simply put, if you give a teenager an inch, they will take miles and miles. If your teen curses at you, do not overreact emotionally. That is the number one mistake parents make with kids of any age: getting emotional in their reaction. When a child sees you lose your cool, your child comes to believe that you are not strong enough to manage them. It helps if parents view the teen’s acting out behavior through a lens of empathy. Teens have a lot of adult-like social situations they must manage: school and sports demands, conflicts with friends, and budding or ending romantic relationships. Teens have little life experience, so they don’t know how to manage these situations smoothly. Because your teen is probably dealing with a lot of different issues, give them some slack.

State the specific rules and the consequences for breaking the rules

Discuss the rules about which behaviors are okay and not okay so that you and your child have no confusion. Tell your child, “It’s okay if you get angry, but there are rules about expressing anger. You can’t just say whatever crosses your mind, just like I can’t say whatever crosses mine.” Be clear about how to express anger in a healthy way. Say, “When you do get angry at me, the first rule is that it’s never okay to call me names, and I will give you that same respect, no matter how angry I am. Calling me curse words will result in the following punishment, and there is no negotiating that rule. [You decide the consequence that fits: turning off their phone for the week or grounding them for one day of the weekend, for example).

Give your teen a sense of control by asking for their opinion

I am by no means an amazing parent; I think I’m a decent parent and I take pride in the fact that I am always trying harder to become a better parent and to think more about my child’s – and not my own – feelings. One positive behavior that I practice with my kids that I am proud of is that I try to have at least one family meeting per month, and I ask for their opinion when we are dealing with an issue. You may do this already, but if not, this practice works well with teens who are at a stage in life where they need to feel heard and they need to feel as if they have some control over their own life. If your teen does something problematic, sit down with them and ask, “If you were the parent, what would you do?” Your teen may come up with a terrific answer, suggesting that they would understand and blow it off. Take this opportunity to focus on the future. Say, “I could blow it off now, but what kind of parent would I be if I signed off on that behavior? The purpose of parenting is to teach kids how to be when their adults, when they have to make all their own decisions. If you did something like this at your job when you’re an adult, you would be disciplined or could even lose your job. That is what I need you to understand better: I am teaching you rules that you need to be successful in life.”

Overall, parenting teens can be frustrating but it doesn’t have to be constantly upsetting or frustrating. Keep the rules clear and focus your feedback on guidance rather than lectures or punishment. Finally, always remember to try to keep an alliance – and not a foe vs. foe dynamic – that will keep you bonded in a good way for years to come.

Conventional wisdom suggests that teens are difficult and that parents must suffer through these parenting years. Many people think of teens as self-absorbed and entitled, emotionally volatile and defiant.

Many parents find their teenage children to be challenging. Think about your teen and ask yourself which behavior you want to change or reinforce in your teen. Consider the following options: studying harder or getting better grades; honoring their weekend curfew; not talking back or being disrespectful; and reducing the amount of time spent playing video games or using the computer or phone. Because teens are working so hard during this period to assert their independence, they don’t want to follow parents’ orders or suggestions. Try using any of the incentives below to get your teen to do what you want them to do.

Your kid gets to choose the next vacation spot for the family. Obviously there needs to be parameters on this one. You get final approval and you specify the number of days of the trip and all the traveling details. The good news is that you’d be surprised how motivated your teen can be if you let him or her choose the next vacation destination. Say to your teen, “If you [insert the behavior you want to see in your teen], you will get to choose the next vacation spot. The vacation could be as simple as a day trip or as long as a week because you get to make those decisions.

Your kid gets a gift card for the store of his or choice. For some teens, it will be clothes; for others, it may be video games. The amount of the gift card is up to you. Gift cards are powerful motivators, period.

Your kid gets to host a dinner for friends at his or her favorite spot, and you will simply show up at the end to pay the bill. Deep down, all kids really want is to feel like grownups. This incentive can be a very powerful motivator.

If your kid is driving age, do not suggest that he or she has regular access to a car. From the beginning, make it more of a weekly contract. For good behavior, you renew the contract for a week; for bad behavior, you don’t provide access to the car for the next week. It really is that simple.

If your kid is driving age, you pay for the gas when you see get the behavior you want from your child. Kids don’t have a lot of money, so rewarding them financially goes a long way, especially with teenagers.

Let your kid do something special or unique with their hair. First, I don’t believe that parents should dictate how their child wears their hair. Why? It’s not their hair! Kids aren’t possessions and neither is their hair. Pay for your kid to get their hair cut the way they’ve always wanted; let your daughter get a special blowout; or let them get a high-fashion hairstyle from a fancy salon in town. My son, for example, is 8 years old and he begs me to let him use gel to style his hair in a Mohawk. I told him he can start using gel when he is ten years old. Simply put, he is a kid that would be highly motivated to change a behavior if it meant that he could get a cooler haircut.

Pay for your kid to take a cool extracurricular class in the community. Examples: karate, art, cosmetology, and so on.

The takeaway

Teens aren’t the only ones who need a little motivation to do the right thing. As adults, we make deals with ourselves all the time: If I do this, I will get myself that. Use the same logic with your teens. The most important thing in dealing with teens is to give them a sense that they have some control in the situation, so be creative and make them feel that they have choices!

We all want the best for our children. Most of us parents think that, actually, we are the best things that ever happened to our kids. The very idea that someone else could take our place in our child’s affections is just… so wrong!

And, of course, without all that stardust and hormonal interference, we can see through the smokescreen our child’s boyfriend or girlfriend has thrown in front of our child’s eyes and we can discern just how shallow, delinquent, shiftless, ugly, and unkind to dogs our child’s significant other really is. Our child could do so much better!

What to do?

First, recognize that your child’s choice of friends and romantic partners is unlikely to match your own choice. You are not your child. You are old (if you have a teenager, you are old) and you have an old-person’s taste in fashion, music, piercings, tattoos and lifestyle. Expecting your child to match your requirements in a significant other is like asking him or her to date your spouse. Not what you had in mind!

Second, recognize that your child believes he or she is fully capable of making personal decisions without you, thanks a lot, and will resist to the point of moving out of the house any attempt on your part to undermine this capability. The quickest way to cement an unfortunate relationship is to talk smack about it – you will force your child to defend the relationship and deny anything bad.  You cannot win a rational argument about the friend’s personal characteristics because this will not be a rational argument. You not only lose but you make proving you wrong your child’s main objective.

So… again… what to do?  Your options depend on the age of your child. Let’s start with teens under the age of 18.

You set the rules in your house, so you can set them high and enforce them consistently. If you’re really serious about this, you can set up rules as stringent as you like: you can create a curfew, driving rules, rules about friends’ GPAs, and rules about the cleanliness of their hair – whatever bothers you. The problem is that you must apply these rules across the board – to all friends, not just the ones you don’t approve of – and this will limit your child’s social life severely.  Your child may be lonely, unhappy, and living in your spare room until you finally move to Sun City.

A better tack is to be super-nice to your child’s friends, even the ones you dislike. Chat them up when you see them, offer them snacks, make them feel welcome. Get to know them a bit. This pretty much guarantees that these friends will treat your child better and, in fact, these friends might actually become better… or you might see that they are better than you thought. At the very least, you now have some ammunition you can (casually, carefully) ask your child about: “Clive had a funny smell last night… did you notice it?” The more you know about your child’s friends and romantic entanglements the better, but you need information from actual experience, not rumor or gossip.

And when your child and a significant-other-you-detest break up, act surprised and supportive. Never gloat. Never say, “I knew that would happen.”  Remember that your child doesn’t want your opinion and won’t accept your advice just because you said it. Treat your teen like an grown-up friend and you’ll get further.

And speaking of grown-up friends, your over-18 children are just that. Trying to manipulate the rules doesn’t work for your older kids but being nice to their romantic partners does. Make certain, though, that you maintain some boundaries: cordial and welcoming are fine, trying to be best buddies is not fine. This is your child’s relationship, not yours.

It may happen that your child and a person you  detest become a twosome: they move in together, get married, or have a child (not necessarily all of those and not necessarily in that order). If this is so, just keep on keeping on. Stay cordial, stay supportive, stay out of the way. If things fall apart – as you probably imagine they will – your child will need your shoulder to lean on. You don’t want to have driven him or her away by your prior disapproval.

And you might be wrong. Things might work out wonderfully, or at least tolerably. I know it’s hard to watch a child move from being dependent on you to being independent of you.  This signals a change not only in your relationship with your kid but a change in your own role.  Now, more than ever before, you are in the backseat. That’s your new position. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to sit there.

I have had the great good fortune of landing two wonderful daughters-in-law. I’ll confess I had my doubts about both of them. I was wrong. I wish you and your children and their partners the same lovely experience.

At age four or five your child talks your ear off. But then, when she hits the teen years, she clams up. How can you keep your kid talking to you? Here are nine tricks to try.

  1. Ask questions that can’t be answered with a single word or just by “yes” or “no.”  Instead of asking “How was your day?” (and get “fine” or just a shrug),  say, “Tell me about your day.”
  2. Ask her opinion about something (and don’t argue about  what she tells you). Ask, “How do you think I should vote on the plastic bag tax?” or “What color should we paint the family room?”
  3. Ask for help in solving a problem.  This can be a simple decision, “Should we call out for pizza or have Chinese tonight?” or it could be something more engaging: “Can you hold this end while I measure this? The measuring tape keeps falling off…”
  4. If you get no answer, answer your own question, as if talking to yourself, and leave a space for your child to chime in. “Tell me about your day” (no answer). “Let’s see, it’s Tuesday so that means you had English. Are you still reading The Old Man and The Sea?” (no answer). I remember reading that… I had trouble getting into it…” (by now you should have got some response, but if not, try again later).
  5. Avoid asking personal questions or personal questions about her friends. Teens count as personal questions anything about which parents are too old and too out-of-touch to be qualified to discuss. So don’t try to demonstrate your knowledge of popular culture. Just keep it neutral.
  6. Try striking up a conversation when you’re both in the car or doing something together. Talking in the car is great because your child can’t get away, the conversation has a natural end-point when you get to your destination, and neither of you can strangle the other. But keep it casual. Avoid trapping your kid in the car for a serious heart-to-heart.
  7. Don’t shout or rush things. Use short sentences and leave spaces so your kid can also talk. And listen. Please listen.
  8. Avoid saying anything about her refusal to talk or your frustration with this or how hard you’re trying. If you don’t get a response when you talk, let it go and try again another time.
  9. Smile. Be pleasant and supportive no matter what.

Eventually, your child will want to talk with you, maybe about something important to you both. Knowing you are ready and eager to listen will encourage her. So keep the door open, avoid argument and hassle, and treat her with respect. Your little chatterbox is a bit more reserved these days, but together you can find things to say.

Parenting teenagers can be one of the toughest jobs in the world. But if you keep these 5 important concepts in mind, you’ll find they help you with challenges both big and small.

1. The relationship is the most important thing. Parenting requires many different kinds of interactions with our kids. We provide for them, feed them, share our morals and values, inspire them, teach them about the world—and sometimes protect them from it, and love them. Many of these elements of parenting can be gotten from more than one source, but the one that is completely unique to you… is you. Your child needs a life-long, strong, healthy, communicative relationship with his parents! In all interactions with your teenager, remind yourself that the overall priority is to keep the lines of communication open, and the relationship as positive as it can be.

2. It’s our job as parents to help prepare our kids for the real world. Parents typically want to protect our kids from the evils and heartbreaks that exist out there. That’s normal and healthy and generally encouraged. But. Our other very important job is to help our children acquire the skills, habits, resources, and strength to be able to handle the problems of the world on their own. We can’t protect them forever, so we’d better equip them. Start now.

3. Let go a little bit every day. At some point, our children will be on their own: their own house, their own money… managing their own lives. The best way to help them get ready for this inevitability is to give them a little bit of responsibility, power, control, and experience every day. Parents need to share their power with their teenagers. Give them a greater and greater role in making their own decisions.

4. Parents are experts on long-range success, but teens generally are the experts on short-range success. This is almost always true socially, and is often also true with short-term academic success. In other words, yes, you probably do know best how to dress for a job interview and what quality level of work will be required in college. But your teen often knows the intricacies of their English teacher’s makeup work policy, and certainly what kinds of clothes will help them to blend in with their friends and make sure they have a place to sit at lunch. Both are important. Remember to give your teen credit (and some freedom) to manage their short-term success.

5. The single best way to get your kid to change is to let them see you changing. The power of role modeling cannot be overstated! There is a lot of power in acknowledging that—even though we’re the parent!—we’re still not perfect. It also sends the message that in your home—everyone is committed to growing. Such a powerful and positive message!