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Parenting Teens (and Staying Sane): A Developmental Framework

Father yelling at teen daughter

“I hate you!”

“You’re the worst parent who ever existed!”

“I can’t wait to move out!”

If you have recently heard these words (usually screamed at full volume, followed by the loud slamming of a bedroom door), you may be the parent of a teenager.

Only those of us with halos and wings are consistently able to respond to such statements with perfect compassion and sweetness: “I love you, honey, and I’ll be right here for you whenever you need me!” Parents are human beings, and as such we have a limited set of emotional reserves and resources, which can quickly become taxed by a raging or withdrawn teen.

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In fact, although you love your child as much as ever, you may be struggling with feelings of intense hurt, anger, dislike, distrust, grief, anxiety, and loneliness. You may feel that although you love your teenager, you just don’t like him or her very much right now. It may feel at times that your teenager has his or her finger on every one of your buttons, and is pushing them … all at once!

What can you do when the very child you love and worry over appears to hate and reject you as a parent?

Teens are known for their emotional volatility. Unfortunately, when parents become as overwhelmed by negative emotions as their teens are, they are no longer in a strong position to be stable, loving, or helpful to the teen. In fact, the parents’ hurt and anger can easily add fuel to the fire and bring about a downward spiral that both parents and teens feel helpless to stop.

To say teenagers value their friends and social life is an obvious understatement.  However, to family members around that teenager, it can seem as if by “choosing” to value their friends, the teen is showing the family that they no longer matter. Indeed, as illustrated by the quotes above, the average teenager may even say as much in the midst of an angry, hormone-fueled argument.

The traditional task of adolescence is to move away from exclusive identification with family and to explore the greater world outside of the home. Separation of the child from the parents is absolutely necessary and healthy at this stage. However, that separation must be counterbalanced by the availability of the parent to continue to meet the adolescent’s needs. Therefore, this is an extremely frustrating time for many parents.  They feel as if the teen is pushing the parent away, only to pull the parent back whenever he or she “wants something from me.”

In order for the adolescent to explore the larger world in a healthy way, the home and family must be a sort of “home base.” This means the teenager needs to experience his or her family as stable, its identity as stable, its love and acceptance as unconditional, and its boundaries as safe and secure.

Understand that by focusing on his or her peers, your teenager is not rejecting you. Instead, the teenager is simply transitioning through an intense period of changes. The teen needs the family life to remain solid and secure, so that he or she can return to it for comfort and healing when the peer world becomes too intense or overwhelming.

Teenagers may often resemble adults physically, but socially as well as cognitively, they still resemble children much more than adults. We now know that the human brain does not fully mature until the mid- to late twenties. Executive functions such as prioritizing, consequential thinking, and evaluating options are still coming online. Furthermore, teenagers do not have the life experience, confidence, or savvy to navigate the complicated demands of life as adults do.

Because of these factors, it can be useful for parents to see past the bravado and the occasional glimpses of maturity that their adolescent displays; to understand that, inside, there still exists the child who has needs he or she does not have words to express, who cannot meet those needs independently of the parent.

The family itself is also moving through a transition period. They must move into a new life stage, with new roles for each family member. It can be difficult to feel entirely ready for these changes. Many parents of teenagers experience this time as a loss: the loss of the innocent and impressionable child they once knew and enjoyed; the loss of the role of all-knowing nurturer and protector.

Parents often report that they feel that “time is running out.” When your 5-year-old threw a temper tantrum, you knew as a parent that you still had “endless” years in which to heal relationships and correct behavior. When your child is 15, you understand that the years are not endless and that damage done to the relationship now may persist into your child’s adulthood.

Because the family is a “safe launching pad” for their forays into the larger world, teenagers move into and out of their family, and not always on the parents’ timeline. Your teen may refuse to join you for dinner, hiding out in his or her room; he or she may seem to eat, sleep, and shower with iPod headphones on. He or she may argue endlessly over attending important family functions such as weddings or funerals. And, just when you think the teen has disowned the family forever, there he or she is, curling up next to you to watch a movie or opening up from the passenger seat on a long drive.

Recognize your teenager’s attempts to reach out to you for what they are: The teen is looking for reassurance from you that he or she is still a part of the family; he or she wants to know that no matter what he or she screamed at you last week, you still love him or her. The teen needs to feel certain that if the “real world” becomes too scary, he or she still has a safe place to return. In order to practice being an adult, your teen needs to periodically return to being a child—and this will happen when you least expect.

Nobody said being the parent of a teenager is always easy, fun, or fair. As the adult in the relationship, it is you who holds the responsibility. It is you whose role, although different, is still most important in these last years of your child’s development. It is you who must keep the gates of the family open for your teen when he or she needs to reenter them.

Once you can view your teen’s behavior from this developmental context, you can depersonalize it. It is no longer about your teen’s rejection or manipulation; it’s an understandable and necessary stage in his or her journey to reaching his or her own, full potential as a young adult. It becomes easier and more natural to meet the ebbs and flows of your teen’s changing needs. Even when, sometimes, the need is for separation from the parent.

© Copyright 2013 by Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC, therapist in Lake Bluff, Illinois. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • fred February 25th, 2013 at 9:51 AM #1

    Oh, boy this is a tough age, isn’t it? When my girls were teenagers, I thought my wife and I had made the biggest mistake ever having children. Those were the snarkiest kids ever put on the planet. But, parents, take heart! It really doesn’t last forever. Now, we have three grown daughters who are awesome people and important contributors to society. So, they really do grow up…but I certainly understand the urge to choke them just a little! :0)

  • Heidi February 25th, 2013 at 9:53 AM #2

    I feel like I am living with a Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde. One minute, we are cruising right along and then BAM! That mood changes and it hits like a ton of bricks. I’ll be glad when this is over-can’t come soon enough for me!

  • Georgie February 25th, 2013 at 9:55 AM #3

    It seems like kids have a rough entry and exit from being at home. The first years are so exhausting and time consuming on a physical level while the last years are exhausting and time consuming on a mental level. It seems such a shame that those last few years you get to have your kids at home are so often filled with so much pain for both the child and the parent.

  • India February 25th, 2013 at 9:57 AM #4

    I know this bad, but sometimes I am relieved when my daughter says she doesn’t want to go on a family outing because I know the tension will not be there. If she doesn’t want to go, I don’t make her.

  • Karin February 25th, 2013 at 10:08 AM #5

    Teens definitely need reassurance from their parents. I am only 20 years old so I’ve just been through it. Sure, there were a lot of screaming matches. But, I needed to know that my mom and dad were always going to be there for me, making me do the right thing. If they hadn’t, it would have been really bad and there’s no telling where I’d be today.

  • cat February 25th, 2013 at 10:43 AM #6

    This article could not have come at a better time for me! I am living with a teenage she-demon right now who wants things her way and only her way and to you know where with anyone who gets in her way! i did not realize that parenting a teen would be like this because I honestly never had too much of this kind of angst between me and my own parents, we always got along and never had these kinds of crises that seem to always be confronting us with our daughter. I don’t want to give up because I remember what a sweet kid she used to be but we are seriously struggling right now and I am afraid that if we don’t start to work through some of this pretty soon that I could lose her for good.

  • allen February 25th, 2013 at 7:32 PM #7

    I used to be a problem teen.. always having arguments and run ins with my parents.. but I out grew all that.. now I’m 23 and my parents say they are lucky to have me as their son. does bring a smile on my face :)

    parents-hang in there. it is jut a stage and will be over before you know it!

  • brock d February 26th, 2013 at 3:59 AM #8

    I’m sorry- is it even possible to come out the other side of being the parent of a teen with any sanity left at all?

  • Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC February 26th, 2013 at 7:22 PM #9

    I’m very glad to know that the article has come at the right time for some of you. For others, it’s great to hear you encouraging parents to stay positive and hopeful. There really is a light at the end of this tunnel (and it’s not a train!). To hear from a few young people that they can see themselves in this article, yet have moved through the stage into a more successful young adulthood – is wonderful as well. Thanks for reading!

  • rupert February 26th, 2013 at 11:39 PM #10

    any situations goes out of hand only when people on both sides lose temper. all the aggression and disaster would be averted if even 1 side remains calm n thinks mature. same is the case with parent nod teen conflict.

    unfair to expect the teen to act mature, the parent needs to. if the parent cant show the right way then all hell breaks lose and hence all the conflict.

  • missy February 28th, 2013 at 7:54 PM #11

    It sounds like you and I have the same daughter! Lol

  • Addie February 28th, 2013 at 11:54 PM #12

    Parents need to be responsible and understand their teenage children – I agree.

    parents need to do everything right without reciprocation and without an iota of work from teenage children – I disagree.

    The difference between these two is vast and yet most often parents are criticized for acting out too harshly even though the teens are being unreasonable.

  • Emma November 15th, 2013 at 10:33 PM #13

    Really interesting and thoughtful post on parenting teenagers and the struggles you experience throughout the journey. Thank you for sharing.

  • M Bender May 8th, 2014 at 2:18 PM #14

    Where is the line between oppositional teen behavior which is a normal part of this developmental stage of a youngster and outright oppositional defiance disorder? My son does exactly what he wants to do and only what he wants to do, depending on hi mood. He also oes not refrain from doing anything he wants to do – regardless of who it hurts, the consequence, past or present He steals, lies, and acts impulsively, eating, sleeping, taking whatever he wants as the impulse hits him. He has been in therapy for years, and is now just came back five week after five months in a wilderness program. Since his return, he got kicked out of school after only three weeks, for taking someone else’s backpack. I think he need residential placement but those schools which can deal with his stuff are full of non-middle-class kids, or those with substance abuse issues, and/or those who have been through the court system. We have a wonderful therapist, but my son cannot keep his word or be consistent about anything. Reqarding reward and punishment, or working for something (delayed gratification, or using executive function or planning, – these are not part of his emotional repertoire now. If we don’t have absolute structure, ongoing supervision and engaging activies, he is at a loss. et he will not accept any structure and/or schedule. No planning is his plan. IF I don’t let him go where he wants to go when he wants to go, he climbs out the window and goes out the fire escape. HELP!

  • M Bender May 8th, 2014 at 2:20 PM #15

    PS He’s sixteen – almost seventeen.

  • Keith June 17th, 2014 at 4:40 AM #16

    Thank you for sharing this article. Sometimes parents do take their teen’s behavior personally but they need to realize that this is just a phase their child is going through!! Parents need to stand by them and support them during these troubled years…
    Parenting tips: uforums.com/index.php/board,1524.0.html

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