3 Secrets Every Parent Should Know About Teenagers

86534359My oldest child Aidan turned 15 recently.  When he was approaching the teen years some of my friends scared me.  Ah hah! Just wait! Now you’re in for trouble! was the general message.  For those of you with kids approaching the teen years, take courage.  I’ve found that the friction and hostility between parents and teens is not inevitable and it’s certainly not what God has in mind for our families.  I explored this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their Catholic radio program More2Life on Thursday, September 12th.  You can listen to the entire radio program here.

The truth is, we can continue to enjoy a thriving, healthy, loving relationship with our teenagers if we are willing to parent with our eyes and hearts open.  Philip and I certainly made our mistakes in parenting Aidan over the years.  After all he was our first and we are but imperfect human parents not robots, but he is honestly just as sweet and kind as he was ten years ago, only now he can beat me at an arm wrestling match! He’s beginning to find his way in the world, defining his path, envisioning his future.  He is learning how to articulate his opinions and views but he is never hostile or rude.  This is because he knows we value his thoughts and opinions, and that we will extend respect to him even if we disagree with him.  We haven’t made it necessary for him to hate us or reject us. 

On the radio show, I shared 3 secrets I think every parent should know about teenagers:

1.  Teenagers actually want a close relationship with us.

God created human beings from communion and connection; teens are no exception.   A teenager does need to individuate – to define herself – who she is & what she is about (her identity), and how she’ll spend her life (her personal mission).  But this individuation process does not require rudeness, contempt, or rejection from teenagers.  In fact, its critical to our teenager’s mental health that he feels safe and secure in his relationship with us.  So how do we protect our relationship with our teen while encouraging his individuation?

Maintain rapport:  It can take a lot of creativity and soul searching to maintain rapport with some teenagers, but the fact is rapport is necessary in our relationship with our teen if we want to have any kind of influence or impact on their lives.  Rapport is built through 1) respectful communication 2) a playful relationship and 3) clear expectations and boundaries.

Help her find her path:  Be the go-to person for your child as she finds her direction in life.  Be open as she searches for The Thing that matters to her, The Cause that arrests her attention.  With kindness, openness, and understanding help her define what she wants her life to be about.  Make it safe for her to share her dreams with you.

Let her make mistakes within reason:  I am not suggesting here that we let our teens go out and get drunk!  But we do need to let our teens test their sea legs before they set sail.  Teenagers have their own ideas about how things should be done – how the dishwasher should be loaded, how a geometry problem should be solved, how a conflict with a friend should be resolved.  When we are too eager to press our “perfect answer” on our teen without helping her explore her own problem solving abilities, we are depriving her of the opportunities revealed through trial and error, through honest mistakes.

2.  It is not healthy (or normal) for a teen to spend more time with peers than family

If your teenager is more attached to her peers than you, you have a giant problem.  Many parents assume that their teen’s obsession with being in constant contact with friends through email and instant messaging is normal and healthy but it is not.  While it might be natural for teenagers to be interested in friendship and deepening social bonds, we parents must still be the primary role models for our children as they seek to define their values.  This is the way it worked down through history until recent decades.  Sadly, we are parenting in a time that is unique in history:  children are looking to each other for signals about what is valuable, about what deserves their attention and respect.  They are turning to each other in times of distress or trial instead of their parents.  Basically, kids are raising kids.  Big mistake.

Your child must be more identified with your values than those of her peers, but attachments can become skewed and destructive, so that your child doesn’t give a hoot about your opinions.  When this happens, your child would rather lose your respect and trust than do anything to threaten the fragile connection she has with her peers.  We have no control over or influence on our child in these situations.

Attachment is important in the infant and early childhood years, but it’s equally important in teen years.  We have to maintain our connection and rapport with our teenager so that our family life and our parental love remain the center of influence in his life.  Make it a priority in your home to spend time together as a family playing, laughing, connecting – whatever that means to you.  Let your teenager have a say in how you spend your family time, too.

3.  A teenager’s body looks grown-up but his brain is unfinished

Neuro-imaging is shedding light on how the teenage brains works.  The brain’s pre-frontal lobe — which is involved in planning, strategizing, and organizing, in philosophizing and pondering our existence – this part of the brain is unfinished in the teen years.  This is why teenagers are prone to becoming distracted easily.  Knowing this can give us empathy for a giant teenager when he forgets to take out the garbage.  The immature teen brain also explains their tendency to be impulsive without regard for safety or consequences.  Parents often lament some of the poor choices their teens make, especially when with friends.  They do things parents can’t imagine them doing.  Teens need our firm and loving guidance in how to balance their obligations and to plan their commitments wisely.  They need our continued mentorship in the virtues as they are confronted with difficult moral choices.  They still need our intentional, loving parenting.

For further reading on raising your teenager with compassion and respect, check out these resources:

Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld.  This is a must read for parents of older kids and teens.  Warns against common lifestyle practices that result in the transferring of attachments from parents to peers in the teen years.  Powerful.

Positive Discipline for Teenagers by Jane Nelson

Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel Siegel.  This book is set for release on December 26.  I rarely recommend a book that I haven’t yet read myself, but I’ve read several of Siegel’s other books and I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the release of this one!  It promises to demystify some of the brain science that explains teen behavior so that we can turn it into something positive.

Image credit:  Jupiter Images (photos.com)


  1. Great article! While I’m not even close to having a teenager yet, much of what you said resonated with me. It brought me back to my years as a teacher in the high school English classroom and my time as a catechist for high schoolers who’d not yet made Confirmation. I love working with teenagers – love it! (I typically get a crazy look from people when I say that.)

    From my humble, admittedly not-yet-maternal relationship with teens, everything you said is so, so true. As a teacher, I talked with many kids who so desperately wanted good relationships with their parents, but it was the parents who had no time or respect for their kids; I saw such devastation and hurt in these kids’ eyes. And #3? That was the first lesson my teaching mentor gave me: she said, “Remember: you’re working with kids disguised as adults. Don’t forget that.”

    I could go on and on with lots of kudos for this article! I wish I could have sent it home to my students’ parents when I was teaching!

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