Teenage Parenting Tips: The Best Expert Advice for Parenting Teens Without Losing Your Mind
This past summer, a Seattle writer with the handle @notchillgirl tweeted, “billie eilish is just one of thousands if not millions of 17 year olds I am afraid of.” This tweet got more than 217,000 likes. If remembering your teen years is scary, try reliving them through your kids. Here, the best professional advice for parenting teens and helping them thrive—because fear is not an option.
1. DON’T LET WORRIES CONSUME YOUSocial media overuse. Bullying. The unspeakable tragedy of school shootings. Sexual violence. The American teenage landscape feels life-or-death dangerous. And we’re not going to sugarcoat it: Those feelings are rooted in reality. The New York Times reports the rate of adolescent suicide has skyrocketed since 2007. How do you parent effectively amid so much anxiety? “We are inundated with terrifying data about what it’s like to be a teenager,” says Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., director of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center and host of the podcast Raising Good Humans. “There’s a lot to be worried about. But it’s really hard to be a levelheaded, connected parent if you operate from fear.” Pressman urges parents to educate themselves about the red flags signaling mental health issues and to be vigilant but not neurotic. She likens this outlook to being street smart in New York City: “I’m not walking around completely stressed out all the time, because I wouldn’t be able to live here if I constantly thought through the amount of danger there could be. We have to give teens the tools to make good choices and to protect themselves. And then we have to let them fly.”
2. DO ADJUST YOUR TIMELINE
Did you know adolescence starts as early as age 9? And that the average American child sees pornography for the first time at age 11? [Insert “the scream” emoji] According to adolescent psychologist Lisa Damour, Ph.D., girls reach their peak emotionality at 13. “Adolescence is earlier than we think,” says Pressman. Be prepared.
3. DON’T AVOID THE HARD STUFF
No taboo topic should be off-limits—not even suicide. “It’s not putting ideas in their heads to ask directly whether they’ve had thoughts of suicide or dying,” clinical psychologist John P. Ackerman, Ph.D., coordinator of suicide prevention at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told the Times. “That doesn’t increase their risk. Rather, it’s relieving. You actually reduce the risk if you help kids talk through these difficult feelings.” The hard truth is, if you don’t educate your kids, the internet will. “Communication is so important,” says family psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, Psy.D. “And that starts with parents. We do a lot of focusing on physical health. We do not do enough to focus on emotional health: teaching about emotions, examining how to express emotions, talking about traumas or negative experiences, being nonjudgmental, learning how to tolerate distress. All the research shows that the more emotionally settled we are, the better able we are to manage any negative experience.”
4. DO get real with your kidsThere is a continuum of undesirable behaviors. You may feel, for example, that consensual, loving premarital safe sex is not as worrisome as serious drug use. We all want to protect our kids. “But if you mislead adolescents by suggesting that everything is equally dangerous and terrifying—even though it feels that way for us—they’re going to realize that you were way too protective in certain areas,” says Pressman. “And they may come to believe you just don’t know better. Then how do they trust you on the stuff they really should be scared of or vigilant about? You want your kids to trust your voice.” Teens can smell inauthenticity a mile away, she adds. “Their sniffer is too good.”
5. DO have an exit strategy
Some kids and parents come up with a code word or text symbol so they can secretly ask for help getting out of uncomfortable or unsafe situations. But here’s the thing: You can’t develop systems like this, or the trust required to use them, if you are the “bad cop” who’s out to bust your kids.
6. DO update your parenting style
Our babies aren’t babies anymore. Old power dynamics and discipline methods no longer apply. And yet, “teens still need boundaries and support,” says Pressman. “We kind of need to be more like dogs during the early years and cats during adolescence.” Or more like coaches and less like drill sergeants. With teens, family counselor Alyson Schafer told Cat & Nat, “the relationship becomes king. Because you’re going to move out of control and into influence. And they will only accept your influence if the relationship is strong.”
7. DO hold on to family ritualsThe bedtime routine you began during infancy can evolve into a nightly hug and check-in. Aim for four family meals a week—that includes breakfast. “Without pressuring parents, it’s just about finding 15 minutes to sit and enjoy each other,” says Pressman. “It’s not about looking at what they’re eating or directing them. It’s a time to actually ask your kids their opinions, what they think of the world, their life, their friends, so they don’t feel like conversations are always all about your agenda.”
8. DO focus on their afternoons
According to Aha! Parenting, “The biggest danger zone for drug use and sex isn’t Saturday night; it’s between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays.” So what’s a working parent to do? “Don’t confuse your child’s ability to be independent with not needing supervision,” says Pressman. Trust your kids. Be mindful of overscheduling to the point of burnout. “But they shouldn’t be left bored and to their own devices.” Sports, theater, volunteering—in an ideal world, teens’ after-school activities would keep them healthy, active, engaged with their community and fostering a passion, while still leaving room for homework and family time.
9. DO expect drama
There will be epic meltdowns—and showdowns. Insults will be slung. Doors will be slammed. Hartstein sees parents making a common mistake in the face of this uncomfortable onslaught: “Parents don’t validate enough. They do not like to see their children in pain and often jump to problem solve when their teen just wants them to listen.” She uses advice from her own dad in her practice: “When I was a teen, he said, ‘Please let me know which ears I need to be listening with: problem solving or venting. If I know that upfront, I know how to respond.’ This bolsters communication in a seriously positive way.” Damour has even written a nine-step plan for how to manage a meltdown. Highlights include “Listen without interrupting.”
10. DON’T take it personally“I wish parents understood that much of the pushback their teens give is not personal,” says Hartstein. “It’s about learning to separate, individuate and mature. Many parents feel like negative behaviors are about them when it is really more about the teen learning to explore their world and understand it. Unfortunately, parents get caught in the crossfire because teens take it out on them.” Sarcasm, eye rolling, rudeness—it’s not easy to tolerate. But it is typical.
11. DON’T be afraid to mess up and start over
Sometimes parents make a decision and think there’s no going back, like that ship has sailed. “But when you’re raising teenagers, you can give them freedom, and then, if they can’t handle it, you can take that freedom back,” says Pressman. When giving teens a privilege like the car keys, a later curfew or access to social media, she advises laying out clear ground rules in a contract. Then, if kids violate that contract, take back the privilege. “It’s OK to start over. It’s OK to say, ‘It wasn’t the right time’ and try again later.” If you moved a toddler to a big-kid bed or tried potty training too early and it didn’t work out, you’d reverse course and then eventually revisit. It’s the same with teens. “That sense that it all has to be ‘right’ and ‘done’ is not very generous to ourselves as parents or to our teenagers.” Kids may need second, third or fourth chances. Figuring it out together is a “beautiful lesson” for kids, says Pressman. “Every time you fail, you show your kid that you are not perfect. And that you—and your relationship—can bounce back and be repaired.”
12. DON’T give up
“Be present,” says Hartstein. “You may think your teen isn’t listening or paying attention to you, but they are. Don’t give up, even when it feels like you should.” Teens need space and connection. They need guidance without being micromanaged. But above all, they still need you. “We can have a comfortable distance,” says Pressman, “but that doesn’t mean they’re done with us.”