Parenting Adolescents

By Megan McQueen

I love the playfulness and innocence of young children. I’ve spent my career working with early childhood age kids and was fearful of parenting teens. As I find myself parenting an adolescent (defined as ages 11-18) I am surprisingly loving it. Watching my oldest child navigate new-found independence and thrive is a great source of pride. I have my fears to temper as she grows, of course. But I enjoy becoming more of a coach for her and, to be honest, I also appreciate some freedom in my schedule as she becomes less dependent on me. 

If you watch most TV shows or movies, teenagers are rude troublemakers. They push around their families and then demand keys to the car. A school counselor shared that adolescence is one of the most exciting times in a person’s life because there is such rapid brain development. It can be stressful to be a teen (and to parent one) because everything seems to be changing so quickly. We sometimes wonder which personality we will see when we greet our child. Knowing that this is a developmental stage helps me stay patient and keep a sense of humor. Even if our children are pushing us away with eye rolls, we still have great influence over their lives and choices. Talking with our kids about situations they can expect to face (themselves or as a friend) will help better prepare them. Let’s look at some common anxieties families have about the teen years and make a plan.

Peer Pressure: Many teens spend more and more time with friends than they did when they were younger. This is an important milestone that helps a teen learn to build their own network of support as they work toward becoming independent adults. As teens spend more time with their friends, they have more opportunities to define their own values. They will, with practice, learn the art of saying no to someone while remaining friends. Your kids may not be interested in practicing this with you, but you can use examples from movies or stories that you hear about and ask your child, “What would you do in this situation?” This may be a low-stakes manner to build their “saying no” muscle. Some families have found success with giving their children permission to blame their parents. Families tell their kids, “Just blame it on me! Tell your friends that we will flip out if you drink/smoke pot.” This may work well in middle and high school. We also want our children to have tools they can use when they are away from us. Even as young adults, our children will face peer pressure and need to firmly say no and remove themselves from an uncomfortable or dangerous situation. Helping our children understand how their choices may impact their lives will help them make a better decision. Remember, that peer pressure can be positive, too! Friends may influence one another to try healthy habits, like joining a club or team, or help one another develop compassion. 

Driving: There are many things we can do to prepare our kids as a driver and passenger. We can start by talking through what we do as a safe driver and model safe habits. When it is time for your child to sit in the driver’s seat, start with low traffic areas and progress to more challenging conditions gently. Find a time when you both are calm. Even after your child has a license, find a class for them to join or give them driving lessons yourself every few months. Proactively building their driving skills will help your anxiety and give your child much needed coaching and practice. Consider signing your child up for a defensive driving course when they are more comfortable behind the wheel. Have specific conversations around driving safety as a passenger. Help your teen prepare for unsafe situations, such as a friend driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a driver texting while driving, and other dangerous distractions. Give them a way to have an “out” and to stand firm to their safety beliefs. 

Mental health: Our mental health is as important as our physical health. A mental health struggle may be biological or in response to an event. Signs of an imbalance may appear suddenly, especially around a big change; or gradually impact someone’s life. These days, many educators are trained in looking for warning signs of suicide. We should all be on the lookout for signs of depression, anxiety, and warning signs related to suicide. (Call 1-800-273-8255 for immediate help.) Find support for your child when you notice things such as complaints of physical pain, increased irritability, avoiding or numbing feelings, and social isolation. Encourage your child to talk with others – family members, friends, and school counselors. Reach out to a school counselor and pediatrician to determine what counseling resources are available for your child or what path of therapy is best for your child. Talk with your child about reaching out to an adult if they hear about a friend’s mental health needs. Remind them that there is no shame in the struggle and we help each other through these times, just as when someone is physically ill. Model how to care for your own emotional health. Work together as a family to make healthy choices, including making healthy food choices and maintaining regular sleep schedules. Model how to talk about feelings – positive and negative – letting your child know that all of their feelings are okay. Take breaks when you need them; connect with family and friends to build relationships; participate in family activities, games, and hobbies; seek out counseling, therapy, or medication if necessary; and feed what brings you joy.

Eating disorders: If you suspect your teen is dealing with an eating disorder, seek out help from an experienced therapist and talk with your pediatrician about connecting with a dietician. Eating disorders have a variety of causes, but there are some things you can do to possibly prevent them. Help your teen develop a positive body image. Model this by accepting your own body. Speak positively of your body and others’. Instead of focusing on looks, comment on what your body can do or about the person’s actions. You may say something such as, “Loren is such a fast skater!” or “What a thoughtful note Cora wrote to you!” instead of a comment about their looks. Encourage your child to make a list or picture collage of things they love about themselves. Consider examining the role of media in your house. Look at the magazines, TV shows, and movies that surround your family. Do they embrace all kinds of bodies? Are there certain body types that are deemed “better”?  Look through your and their social media feed and unfollow accounts that make you feel less worthy. Also, try not to attach food to rewards. We all love to celebrate birthdays and other moments with a special treat, but consider other ways to celebrate an accomplishment. Can you visit a favorite beach or city together instead? It is not a family’s fault if a child develops an eating disorder. Our children are raised in a society that values a body ideal that is not always healthy. Again, seek out medical attention if you are concerned about your teen or their friends.

Sex education: Instead of having “The Talk,” try multiple conversations about puberty, sex, and birth control and start these conversations early in childhood when you are comfortable doing so. This will help your teens know you are approachable and that these topics are normal to talk about with trusted people. As we know by now, most teenagers don’t like to be told what to do or not do. Another approach is to offer your child information, including values and consequences, and about options they will face. Talk about the many different ways of engaging in sexual behavior. Sometimes, teens think that their choices (consent, expectations, protection, enjoyment) are different for intercourse than for other types of behavior. Prepare for various scenarios they might encounter. Offer helpful books and websites that your kids can refer to later. We want our kids to have access to accurate information instead of relying on friends and (a possibly shocking) internet search. Teens say that their parents have the greatest influence over their sexual decisions, including how to have positive romantic relationships, so be brave and start a conversation.

Websites for adults:

Websites for teens:

Books for Adults:

Books for teens: 

For a downloadable tip sheet, see this blog post.

Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, importing a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and pup.

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