Teenagers. One of the scariest words in the English dictionary.
When I was doing middle-school counseling and serving as the youth leader for 7th-12th graders at my local church, this is the sentiment I picked up from most people I spoke with.
As soon as I told them the age group I worked with, they would respond with something like, “Wow, I could never do that” or “Teenagers terrify me.”
And yet, if you are a parent, you will at some point work with teenagers (and maybe you already are now). The fact that they are your OWN teenagers can be the most intimidating thing of all.
But in all my years of working with teenagers, I realized something. They are not that different from us. They’re not impossible to understand. And a few simple keys can unlock the perceived complexity of these tumultuous years and pave the way for a healthy, life-giving relationship with your teenager. Click below to listen to the podcast episode or scroll down to read it!
Check out these 7 Simple Tips for Success in Parenting Teenagers:
1. Understand the Developmental Stage They’re In.
-Identity is their biggest task.
According to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development, from ages 12-18, your teenager is working to establish a strong sense of self. This stage is called “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” Your teen may come across as confused, emotional, insecure, jealous, and even angry. But don’t give up on them. They’re doing the best they can to manage this difficult task of figuring out who they are and what makes them valuable. Social interaction is one of the most important ways your teen develops his or her sense of self. Exploring different aspects of their personality, fashion choices, and friendships all contribute to this task. But ultimately, the foundation you provide as their family will play the biggest role.
-Friends are really important to them.
Social interaction is a key part of identity development at this age. That’s why your teenager’s friends become some of the most important voices to them during this phase. Instead of trying to compete for time and attention, recognize that this is normal and help your teenager connect with the kind of friends you want them hanging out with.
When my husband was a teenager, his mom was intentional to always have food on hand that he and his friends could eat. This helped their home become the hangout place on many occasions.
Consider making your house a safe place for your teen and their friends to hang out so you can monitor them in a healthy way. Express an interest in your teenager’s friends. When in doubt, serve lots of food and they will flock to you.
-Decision-making skills are…still in process.
Your teenager’s frontal lobe (the part of the brain where decision-making happens) is not fully formed and won’t be until well into their 20’s. That’s why it’s important for you to stay connected and involved in important choices in your teenager’s life. They are learning how to think for themselves and make decisions, but it will be a while until they’re ready to do this completely on their own. Your guidance and input are still essential, so don’t back off too much. Stay in touch with their social media, texts, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, extracurriculars, etc. There are SO many dangers in our tech-driven world and it’s vital that parents stay involved and provide monitoring and protection.
The important thing with monitoring your teenager is honesty. You are building trust with them during this phase, just as they are building trust with you. The more they feel they can trust you, the more trustworthy they will be as well.
Instead of sneaking around to see who they’re texting or what they may be hiding, make your expectations very clear from the beginning. Tell them that, because you love them and are so important to them, that you will occasionally be checking in on their text messages and social media. Give them an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings surrounding this and work out a system that helps both of you feel trusted.
-Hormones & emotions can run wild.
As your child’s body transitions into the body of an adult, their hormones can be all over the place. And with that, their emotions are often running amok as well. They may be prone to higher highs and lower lows, from excitement to anxiety to depression to anger. Give them grace. Seek to understand them. Ask how they’re doing. Help them practice self-care. Don’t assume they’re okay. If you suspect that your child is struggling with depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, get help for them immediately. [For more info on recognizing and helping your teen with depression/suicidal thoughts, check out this resource.]
2. Focus on Relational Connection.
Ron Luce, a man who dedicated two decades of his life to discipling teenagers, said something that has always stuck with me. When a parent asked Ron how to handle a complex behavioral issue with their teen, he responded with a question: “What do they like to do for fun?”
The parent was taken aback. “Why does that matter? This is a very serious situation.” Luce, also a father himself, said something to the effect of, “Don’t focus on the behavioral issue. Focus on your relationship with your teenager and the behavioral issue will get sorted out.” He proceeded to explain how, whenever one of the teenagers that he led was having a difficult time or struggling with behavioral issues, he would find out what made them come alive and connect with them there.
Do they like to hike? Take them hiking. Do they enjoy video games? Play a few rounds with them. Do they like music? Take them to hear their favorite band. Behavioral issues are not the root of the problem. They are a symptom. The only way to truly get to the root of the issue is to build trust and strengthen your relational connection with your teen.
What’s the Goal?
The most important goal for your relationship with your teen should be a relational connection. That does NOT mean that you need to be their “friend” instead of their parent. But it does mean you should value and pursue connection with them on a daily basis. The more relational equity you have in the relationship, the more effective your boundaries and guidelines will be as well. If your teen doesn’t feel connected to you relationally, their motivation to follow the rules you set will be limited. But when they feel your support and genuine interest in their lives, they will be more likely to want to keep their end of the relationship strong as well.
- Connect with them in things they love (even if you don’t love those things).
- Keep your ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions at a 5 to 1 ratio or better.
3. Listen More Than You Talk.
I’ll never forget what one of my counseling professors said. She gave us a formula for the amount of listening vs. speaking we should use with our clients that definitely applies to interacting with teenagers too.
It went like this: Listen, Listen, Listen. Speak. Listen, Listen. Speak, Speak.
The point is…never start with lecturing. It will only drive your teenager away and make them feel like you don’t understand or care about their perspective. More than anything, they need to feel truly heard and understood. The more you genuinely listen to them, the more they’ll talk.
As hard as it is for us, as parents, to sit back and watch our child make choices we don’t agree with, this is the developmental stage they are in. How we connect with them through this phase can empower them to make better choices or it can cause disconnection in our relationship and push them away.
Do they need your wisdom? Absolutely. Will they truly receive it in the form of a lecture? Nope.
Instead of teaching or lecturing your teenager, start a conversation with them. Ask them questions. Hear them out. Validate their emotions. Look at things from their point of view. Be willing to share vulnerably about your own journey and struggles. They will be much more likely to listen when you speak if you have genuinely listened to them first. Asking open-ended questions is one of the best ways to connect (e.g., questions that don’t have a yes or no answer). I created a great list of 25 open-ended questions to get your teen talking.
4. Set Firm Boundaries AND Be Nurturing.
This is called authoritative parenting. It is a balanced approach that involves providing loving support and also holding your child to high standards. Previously, the teen years have been viewed as a time for parents to step back and let their kids explore on their own. But increasing research is actually suggesting that a more hands-on approach is much more effective.
Over and over again, this authoritative style of parenting has been shown to have the best outcome for children around the world. It’s associated with a lower risk of drugs, alcohol, and depression and a higher correlation with kindness, happiness, and academic success.
Diane Baumrind identified three primary parenting styles that have helped guide research over the past half-century.
A nurturing, yet more hands-off approach to parenting as it comes to setting boundaries. While love and support is present, the parent is hesitant to express expectations or set strict guidelines for the child. Instead, the child is left to learn how to self-regulate on his or her own.
A strong, obedience-focused approach to parenting. The parent sets firm boundaries and holds the child to a high set of standards, but is not as warm or nurturing. The focus is on the child’s obedience, not as much on the quality of the relationship or building intrinsic values in one’s child.
-Authoritative Parenting – HINT: Use this one!
A more balanced approach that provides a strong, nurturing relationship for the child, while still setting boundaries and holding your child to high expectations. The focus is more on helping your child to shape a set of intrinsic values that will help him or her make good decisions.
A study of 188 adolescents done by the University of Melbourne demonstrated that teenagers who experienced positive parenting (more of an authoritative style) in their early teen years (ages 11-13) had higher positive outcomes and more resilience against negative outcomes (such as anxiety, sadness, etc.) than those who didn’t.
According to Dr. Beth Stormshak, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, “Keeping lines of communication open, monitoring and knowing your children’s peers, and staying engaged and connected as a parent are the key ways to reduce risk.”
Your teenager NEEDS boundaries. But they also need to know that you love them despite their choices and will walk with them through it all. When you can provide both, you are setting your teenager up for the highest success in life.
5. Don’t Take it Personally.
In the crazy swirl of hormones, emotions, decisions, and stress that your teenager is going through, there’s a good chance they will get mad at you, say hurtful things to you, and push you away. This is normal.
Don’t take it personally.
They are trying to manage the huge transition from childhood to adulthood and it’s going to be messy for both of you.
No matter how loving and patient and wise and strategic you are, there will be explosions and misunderstandings and hurt feelings (yours and theirs). It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent or that your teenager doesn’t love you.
Keep pursuing them. Connect with them. Love them. The investment will be worth it.
6. Don’t Just Tell Them No, Tell Them Why.
One of the biggest things that is happening as your teenager explores independence is that he or she is deciding what they believe and why they believe it for themselves. As a child, it was easier for them to embrace the belief system you demonstrated, whether religious, academic, or relational.
But now, they are starting to question all of that. That’s a good thing! The more they can find the “why” for what they believe, the more likely it is to become a foundational truth in their life. As you set boundaries for your teenager, it is crucial for them to understand the WHY behind the rules, guidelines, and values that are in place.
Instead of simply setting rules and enforcing them, invite your teen into the conversation. Talk about values and why certain things are important to your family, to their health and safety, etc. Let them have input and ask questions. You can even let them be involved in setting the consequences of violating these boundaries. You may just be surprised at how much value they have to add.
As difficult as it is to release your teenager to the world, the ultimate goal is not to have them obey your rules…it’s to help them think for themselves and make good choices in life overall. Start that process together. Not sure what your family values should be? Grab your free copy of Shape Your Family Values: A Simple Guide!
7. Don’t Overcomplicate It
Yes, your teenager is walking through a particularly difficult season of life. Your child is transitioning to adulthood and that is a scary thing. But, as complex as this stage may seem, their basic needs haven’t changed.
What they need MOST from you is the same thing they have always needed: love. They crave your unconditional love. Your teenager needs you to listen to them and seek to understand. They want to know that you’re there for them, through good times and bad. Your teen needs you to set boundaries for them and hold them accountable, but more than anything, to love them through this stage.
If you’re not sure what to do, love them. If you’re not sure what to say, love them. When you get angry and frustrated, love them.
Your intentional love and pursuit of connection during this phase of their life will lay a strong foundation for your adult relationship with them. That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect or that it won’t be really, really hard some days. But you are investing your love in a way that you will see the return on later.
Parenting teenagers is no joke. But remember that, just like every other phase in your child’s life, you have to take it one day at a time and learn as you go. Every teenager is different, so there is no one “right way” to do things. As long as you focus on connection through the process and aren’t afraid to ask for help when you need it, you can make it through and build a strong relationship through the process.
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