How to Parent a Teenager and Keep Your Sanity

Updated on February 3, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

Contrary to what others have experienced, I found parenting teenagers to be fascinating, relatively easy, and quite enjoyable.

  • Are you sick and tired of your teenager's negative attitude and never ending complaints?
  • Are you concerned that your teen is self-absorbed and lacks empathy?
  • Does it frustrate you to no end that your teenager is tight-lipped and won't talk about their school day with you?
  • Are you going out of your mind because your teen seems to only focus on the moment and isn't planning for the future?

If shaking "yes" to these questions, you're causing yourself a lot of unnecessary grief. Being negative, self-centered, uncommunicative, and living in the here-and-now are all common characteristics of teenagers. There's no concern for alarm when your teen goes through these normal developmental stages as they transition from childhood to adulthood. If you know what to expect, you can put it in perspective, relax, and enjoy your teenager!

Parents who know what to expect during the teen years and maintain a good sense of humor can take it all in stride.
Parents who know what to expect during the teen years and maintain a good sense of humor can take it all in stride. | Source

Parenting Teens Is Often a Battle of Light Versus Dark

Parenting teenagers is a challenge because we're often at cross purposes. As we grow older, most of us parents strive to keep a positive outlook, eschewing negative forces that drain us of our dwindling energy. We avoid anything or anyone who spoils our spirit or messes with our mojo. Our teens, conversely, are entering a new stage in their development when negativity has great allure. They invite it into their lives and so it enters ours as well. Because of this tug-of-war between light and dark, parenting teenagers is often stressful and wearying. But with a healthy perspective, a good sense of humor, and an understanding that these changes during adolescence are normal, we'll see that parenting teenagers is not so bad after all and can even be fun!

Their Negativity Is Just Temporary, Not a Permanent Personality Trait

It's easy for us parents to become drained by our teenager's steady flow of whining and complaining, even seeing it as a personal attack on us as parents. For too many evenings, I let my son's unfavorable dinner reviews overpower my good mood as he railed about the meal being too spicy, too dry, too chewy, too bland, or downright inedible. In addition to issuing him a lifetime ban from watching Food Network, I became resolved to stay calm and unaffected, not taking it personally. I knew if I reacted to his comments I'd only be encouraging the behavior. Besides, I was confident that my dinners were not disgusting (I'm a darn good cook), but just a convenient target for his pent-up frustration from a long day at middle school. After all, who in a teenager's life is an easier mark than dear old sweet lovable mom?

Sometimes Teens Just Need to Bitch

It's helpful for us parents to keep in mind that negativity is a normal stage of development and our teenagers won't stay like this forever. They're no longer sweet little kids—thrilled about losing a tooth, eager about Saturday's soccer game, and enthralled with their school. They've reached a point where being negative is cool. To hang out with buddies and gripe about their parents, teachers, and classmates is what teens like to do and it comes with benefits. When teens gather for a bitch fest, they're connecting with one another over common experiences. It helps them feel less alone. Plus, it gives us parents a break from the emotionally exhausting experience of listening to all their complaints!

Teenagers bond with one another when they get together and gripe
Teenagers bond with one another when they get together and gripe | Source

Teens Need Us to Listen, Not Intervene

Teenagers are especially negative at home because it's a safe place to show the worst part of themselves. Debbie Pincus, a counselor for more than 25 years, says teenagers sound off to parents as a way to cope with stress. Mom and dads, she cautions, should listen but not offer solutions, try to fix the problem, or be judgmental. Pincus states: “Negativity and complaining are actually ways to manage anxiety. When your child complains, she feels better because she's expressing herself and venting her worries and fears. If you don't react to it from your own anxiety, your child will move on.”

Teens Are Self-Centered But Won't Stay That Way

When I was a rookie kindergarten teacher, I remember gathering my young students for our morning meeting and telling them I had a headache. I enlisted their help—to share toys, get along with one another, and speak softly—and they all enthusiastically agreed. Yet, within minutes, the room was noisy and chaotic and any concern they had shown for my well-being was forgotten. I realize now how ignorant I was about child development back then, thinking these kids were rotten, spoiled, runny-nosed bastards. I now know—wiser and more experienced—they were just being typical self-centered 5-year-olds.

Being egocentric is also a characteristic of our teenagers. An important part of their brains that controls judgment, insight, impulse control, and emotion—the frontal lobe—is not fully developed in teens. Therefore, they struggle with evaluating the consequences of their actions and how those actions impact others. They live in the moment and focus on themselves.

Be Patient With Them

Once again there's no need for us parents to worry that this self-absorption will last forever. Parents, however, should plan to be patient. New research shows that a teenager's brain may not reach its full development until his mid twenties or possibly even his thirties!

Furthermore, new research suggests that teenagers are not yet fully capable of reading another person's emotions. This makes them seem even more egocentric and less empathetic. Their ability to accurately interpret non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions as well as verbal cues such as tone of voice may not kick in until the last stage of their brain's development.

Teens Need to Talk About Themselves and Figure Out Who They Are

We parents often become frustrated with our teens, not appreciating how different their brains are from ours. We want our kids to look at the future—thinking about college and careers—and ponder the past to learn from their mistakes. Yet, the teenage brain is not yet ready to do this.

Once again parents need to stay calm and understand that being self-absorbed is a normal part of development. There's no need to start thinking your kid has narcissistic personality disorder. Just remember it won't last forever and, in the meantime, talk to your child about his favorite topic—himself!

Your Teen Is a Work in Progress and Their Brains Are in Development

When We Speak With Teens Is as Important as What We Say

When my son arrives home from middle school, there are only two things on his mind: getting something to eat and spending some time alone. After all, he has been surrounded by hundreds of other teens for seven long hours. He needs to decompress and who can blame him! The last thing he wants is for me to ask him a litany of questions about his day.

As a parent, I've come to realize that when we speak with our teenagers is just as important as what we say. Conversation flows better when we talk with our teens on their schedules, not ours. Just because it's convenient for us to listen on the drive home from school, doesn't mean that's the ideal time for them to open up and get chatty. In fact, it might be the worst time!

Teens Benefit Greatly From Eating Dinner With the Family

Eating dinner together provides the perfect opportunity to talk and listen with your teen—no television, no cell phones, no i-pads. According to Joseph Califano Jr., president of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “one of the simplest and most effective ways for parents to be engaged in their teens' lives is by having frequent family dinners.” In fact, eating dinner as a family has been proven beneficial to kids in many ways. It helps them get better grades, keep a proper weight, and deal with stress. It also helps them stay away from cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana.

There are many benefits to eating dinner together. It's a good time for teens to relax, de-stress, open up, and share their thoughts.
There are many benefits to eating dinner together. It's a good time for teens to relax, de-stress, open up, and share their thoughts. | Source

The Teen Years Should Be Celebrated and Enjoyed

When we're ready to have a family, we begin to feel that ache and proclaim: “I want a baby!” We imagine playing peek-a-boo, buying cute little onesies, and pushing him through the park in a stroller. It's a rare person who skips ahead to the teen years and announces: “ I can't wait to have one of those!"

Yet, the teen years have their own unique rewards for us parents. I'm no longer planning my son's life—signing him up for soccer, buying his wardrobe, setting up play dates. I'm now standing back and watching him design his own life. He has discovered a real passion for acting and theater geeks have become his new tribe. Who knew this would be his path with two such introverted parents? Yes, he's negative and self-absorbed, but that just tells me he's developing as he should. In my opinion, teens get a bad rap. They really are fascinating beings, and they never need a diaper change!

This Book Will Help You Understand Your Role as the Parent of Teenagers

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk
How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk

When my sons became teenagers, I wanted to teach them all the lessons I had learned about school, friends, jobs, and dating. I had that maternal urge to protect them from any hurt or harm. This book helped me understand that wasn't my role. My role was to listen, accept their feelings, and let them find solutions to their problems. I highly recommend this book to moms and dads who are confused about what their jobs are when parenting teens.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

  • My own parents really checked out when I was a teenager. How can I avoid doing the same with my teenagers?

    Communicating with teens is so critical, but it's not unusual for parents to check out during these crucial years. Some moms and dads wrongly believe they're no longer needed in the day-to-day lives of their kids. They turn their attention to their careers, hobbies, and personal lives, thinking their adolescents want to be left alone. Teenagers, though, need to know they have mom and dad's unconditional love, support, and acceptance during this awkward and scary time as they transition from children into young adults. They need to know they matter in their families as the rest of their world becomes bigger and more indifferent.

    Communicating with teens means you must be present because adolescents will open up on their schedule, not yours. If you're too busy and stressed out, you won't be available when your teen comes to you and wants to share her thoughts and feelings. You may react with judgment, exasperation, and frustration, and she'll make a mental note to self: Mom and Dad are not the ones I can turn to in my time of need. That's why, even in the teen years, it's extremely important to eat a relaxing dinner together as a family. This is the time set aside each day to touch basis with one another with no cell phones, no i-pads, no television, and no headphones.

    Communicating with teens means letting them know they matter. Don't fall into the routine of being the all-knowing adult: dispensing advice, giving lectures, and nagging. These behaviors make teens feel inferior and incompetent. Instead, ask them for advice about technology (what parent doesn't have questions from time-to-time about apps, blogs, emojis, etc.). Let them be the experts and teach you a thing or two.

    When communicating with teens today, it's also essential for parents to get their heads out of the sand. It's a different world – a lot more brutal. If you haven't looked at comments online, you don't appreciate how uncivil and cruel written communication has become. You don't see how adolescents deal with an assault of words on a daily basis. Whether it's directed at them or someone else, it affects their mental and emotional health. If you can't get them off social media, at least talk with them on a regular basis about how insane it all is—how people become heartless behind a keyboard and how important it is to interact with folks face-to-face.

    Communicating with teens means being porous, receptive to new ideas and a changing world. If you're dismissive of what's happening with teens and their sexual identities, their love of rap and hip-hop, and their interest in veganism, socialism, and animal rights, you become just an old fogey to them. They shut down and become isolated, depressed, anxious, and even suicidal.

    Thanks for your question. I, too, had parents who checked out when I was an adolescent, so I'm very mindful not to do that with my teenage sons. My 17-year-old came out to me last year. I was so grateful that I had kept the lines of communication open and he felt safe enough to tell me.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      23 months ago

      That's so true, Asfia. When we understand a teen's brain is not fully developed, we can cut them some slack for the bad choices they make like driving too fast or not turning in homework. Now I have an 18-year-old and really enjoy our relationship. He's largely responsible for his life and I'm just there if he needs a little help and guidance. If we give them a solid foundation, they really do turn out great but there's certainly a lot of worries along the way!

    • profile image

      Asfia Yasir 

      23 months ago from Canada

      This article has brought very meaningful insight for all parents. I myself is a mother of three kids and one of them being a teenager. Although we have been teenagers once but when it comes to parenting, at least Im not able to comprehend many mindsets of teenagers like negativity which is mentioned in this article. Ofcourse with great efforts to remain calm and patient disputes are resolve but when you know whats going on inside their minds, understanding of their issues gets a lot more easier.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      4 years ago

      Yes. With teenagers, it seems like a lot of the parenting involves just waiting around until they're ready to talk. My sons never say much, but I'll be ready when they finally do open up! Thanks for reading!

    • Ebonny profile image


      4 years ago from UK

      You are SO right about teenagers not wanting to communicate directly after school (and sometimes this applies to younger children in my experience) and as you say parents shouldn't take it personally.

      Thankfully after something to eat and a little down time, they're usually much more "human" but yes, it's really frustrating when they respond with just a grunt to our attempts at conversation, especially if as a parent you have juggled your work responsibilities etc to make yourself available to collect your children from school or be there when they arrive home. My own parents were never there when I got home (not their fault) and so being around at the end of my kids school day was something I strived to do. Reading this, I'm realising I was possibly lucky not to have had them nagging me to communicate at this time when I was a teenager!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      4 years ago

      I can totally see how you thought your son had major problems since you had no brothers. I think it's easier to parent the opposite gender through the teen years. If I had daughters, I'd be more hurt by their complaining and criticizing. With my sons, I don't take it personally. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Nancy this should be very encouraging for moms who still have teens in the house. I remember waiting for a super-serious diagnosis on my son when he was just being a normal teenager (I have no brothers). You share some very healthy perspectives.


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