How to Raise a Teenager without Ending up in the Loony Bin (Technical Term!)

There are few things that terrify parents more (other than bringing a brand new baby home from the hospital) than the thoughts of one day parenting a teenager. Teenagers strike fear in the hearts of parents everywhere. Winston Churchill once said, “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key.” He was talking about Russia during World War II, but it appropriately applies to teenagers as well.

Here are some suggestions about how to best survive the teen years with your sanity intact and your child still speaking to you:

  1. Develop freedom and trust gradually over time. You are going to have to be the lead on this. Teens cannot prove they are trustworthy until you give them a little room. Parents often default to the “trust is earned, not given” theory of parenting. This becomes impossible to satisfy. Give them some freedom and see how they do. If they behave responsibly, give them a little more. Their independence is directly related to how well they have managed in the past. If they are responsible, they earn more freedom. If they are inappropriate, they earn less. Have this conversation with your teen – better yet, start having this conversation when they are even younger. Discuss the importance of checking in. Most teens have phones at this point – establish the rules about when you would like to hear from them while they are out.
  2. Encourage open communication with your teen. This means you may hear things you do not like and/or do not want to hear. This may be uncomfortable, but it is OK. You can survive discomfort. You want your teen to have a sounding board that has more life experience than his or her friends. They may not always follow your advice, but you definitely want to be one of the voices they consider.
  3. Remember you are their parent first and foremost. You are not their friend. You should not be their friend. It is great if you and your teen enjoy spending time together and have similar interests or hobbies, but at the end of the day you are their parent. They need friends their own age. You need to maintain the parental hierarchy. You are the final word on what is acceptable and what is not. They need to know that someone has expectations for them and will hold them accountable for their behavior. They may rebel against you, but you are what makes them feel safe.
  4. Do not get into debates with your teen. Unless you are arguing the finer points of Team Peeta vs. Team Gale, once you enter the debate, you have already lost. How? They can keep up the argument forever! It is great to have a discussion with the sharing of ideas, but once you have made a decision you have to stick to it. You teen needs to learn that no means no – it doesn’t mean argue harder or louder. It is important for your teen to learn to respect you as an authority figure as they will have to respect future professors and employers.
  5. Encourage your teen to be involved in extracurricular activities. Ideally this activity will have some form of group dynamic (school play, sports team, band, etc) because this will help them learn to work with others toward a common goal. You will also have the comfort of knowing where your teen is after school each day – Yay! – which leaves less free time to be having sex, doing drugs and drinking. (They still could be engaging in all of the above, so be vigilant.)
  6. Know the kids in your teen’s life. Know their friends. You are NOT one of the crowd, but you want to know who they are and what they are into. Have good snacks at your house. Be open to them spending time at your home. You will learn so much about your child by watching them interact with their friends. Do not cross the line though – never be the parent who throws wild parties for their teen’s friends or buys drugs or alcohol. Remember you are not their friend, you are their parent.
  7. Be involved at school. There are rarely the opportunities to volunteer at the high school on the same way there were in elementary school, but you can know your teen’s teachers. Go to Back to School Night. Attend Parent-Teacher conferences. Keep an eye on your child’s grades and contact the teachers if there is a problem. Most schools have an online parent portal where you can keep track of things like grades, homework completion and classroom attendance – check it.
  8. Find ways for your teen to earn money. I understand – academics are tougher now than ever before and many teens cannot manage school, extracurricular activities and a job, but you can find ways to make money more meaningful for them. Have chores available to earn extra money. Encourage babysitting for neighbors. Have errands your driver can do on your behalf. This will allow two important things for your teen: an awareness that money has value and doesn’t “grow on trees” and some extra cash in their pockets for fun with friends.
  9. Give your teen a good once over every day. You want to notice any changes in how they look, how they act or how they are feeling. This can be your first warning sign a problem may be developing. Ask how they are doing and what is going on in their lives. Be interested.
  10. Choose your battles. There are an infinite number of things you can battle with your teen about on a daily basis. Don’t. You will be exhausted and so will they and you will only be driven further apart. Identify what matters most to you and your child and choose those battles that are central to those issues. You may decide loud music is tolerable while falling grades are not.
  11. Talk to your teen about the dangers of being a teen. Talk about drugs and alcohol. Talk about sex and relationships. Go one step further and help them problem solve possible solutions to situations in which they might find themselves. Brainstorm solutions they feel like they could live with (and still return to school on Monday).
  12. It is 100% OK for your kids to feel bad sometimes. If they have done something wrong and now have to face a consequence, do not feel you have to rescue them. If they have hurt someone’s feelings, let them sit with the guilt – it may prevent them from repeating the same mistake in the future. You can tell them you still love and respect them, but it is natural to feel guilty when you have done something wrong.
  13. Most importantly, remember, just like your teen, you are not perfect. You will make mistakes. Acknowledge them (if needed, apologize for them) and move on hoping to do better next time.
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