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Parenting through the teen years

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Generally, as parents, when we talk about our experiences raising teenagers we use a lot of eye-rolling, expletives, and sighs. When we talk to other parents of teens, we feel that we are bonded in our pain; in some instances, we feel that we are survivors. It is fair to say that teen-hood is a time of great angst and parental distress. Most of us hope these years go by quickly and we come out with little scarring (metaphorically speaking of course). So why is teen-hood notoriously a negative experience for parents?

The answer is both easy and complicated.

It is safe to say that each phase of parenting has its challenges and rewards. Personally, these challenges and rewards were amplified as I am a mother of twins. When the girls were born till about 4 years of age my parental responsibilities included (but were not limited to) changing nappies – then toilet training, feeding, settling, entertaining, bathing, sleep routines etc. The challenge was time and routines; the reward was bonding with my babies and being a mum.

The next phase, as I see it, was from 4 to 8 years of age. This stage included school, netball, swimming, gymnastics, parties, socialising, discipline, boundaries etc. The challenge was again time, patience, and routines. The reward was fun, togetherness (we were the three musketeers), and connection.

Then came the semi-tween era from 9 – 12 years of age. This was generally the same as the previous phase but there was a subtle (almost unnoticeable at first) step towards independence. This was the time of sleepovers, makeup, autonomy (no longer was I entertaining them), a bit of attitude, exploration, and the complexities of friendships and friendship groups. For me, the challenge was noise (lol) as the house was generally filled with positive noise, and lots of other children and friends laughing. The reward was having more adult-like people around me as well as space.

Then came the night I tucked these people into bed, and they woke up as 13-year-old teens. I laugh but it really did feel like they woke up one day totally different people. As quick as lightning there were dark shadows, grunts, attitude, pushing away, independence, angst, and mental health concerns. The challenge was to not be caught in the angst story, challenge my own triggers, and manage emotional overloads. It took me a long time to get what was happening. Up until now, the girls were dependent on me, they became my story and who I was, I was always with them. As the girls entered their teenhood I no longer stood as the navigator and coordinator of their lives, I was an outcast and no longer needed in my current role. It felt bare and naked to me. What I realised is I no longer controlled this story, what had been a finely orchestrated ‘our’ story. For a very long time, I saw no reward in this era of parenting but if I were to name something it would be gaining my own life and independence (although this was a struggle for me).

Younger children are receptive, open, and needy of us as captains in their lives. They are fun and normally are happy to do whatever you are doing. They are also controllable. Fast forward to the tween years and things start to change. They start to push back and push against their dependence on us and start to challenge our parental power and control. They become independent and this isn’t a comfortable place for most parents. As I see it, parents try too hard to assert their power and control which rarely works. Or they become victims who are trapped in their own drama, trying desperately to shock teens out of being emotional (yep that is ironic) and back into receptive children.

Over the course of my parental experience and that of Counsellor to other parents, the journey through these years does not have to be so emotionally fuelled. We can change the scene, but it takes a concerted effort and willingness for parents to change and challenge their own worldviews. In a nutshell, I see the following points as the main issues for parents in managing the teen years.

1. Control is an illusion– check it at the door and leave it there. You have influence but no control. If you keep trying to have control you will live in drama and emotional turmoil.

2. Limit your expectations. They are your expectations, and they are usually grounded in what others, society, or your family think should happen. Expecting your teen to do the dishes when you ask, is like expecting an elephant to peel a grape. Expecting your teen to come out of their rooms and be happy and delightful – well that isn’t ever going to happen. What happens when you expect something, and it doesn’t happen? You get angry, emotional, upset, sad, etc. Have a think about it and you will see how expectations are real roadblocks in your life.

3. The negative contribution of advice. You do you. What works for you as a parent isn’t what works for anyone else. Advice from others can be harsh and can be the opposite of who you are as a person. Someone might suggest being hard with your teens, you try that, and it isn’t you – that’s when things get messy. See point 6 for more on this.

4. Disconnection: Find moments of connection. There are always moments when you can reconnect and check in with your teen.

5. Going at it alone. Seek Counselling when you need it, or your teen needs it. We are here for you and having someone to talk to and someone who listens is sometimes all you need.

6. Be a safe place to fall. You and you alone can create a space for your teen. Be the safe place for them to fall, the safe place they can tell you anything. This is your superpower. Do not judge, put in your own opinion, just be there and listen when you have that opportunity. This place must be safe and not just physically of course. This place must be a place of listening, acceptance, non-judgment, peace and calmness. This place is not one of you trying to fix problems, unless of course you are asked to do that, it is a place of quiet and love.

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