When you become a parent, you learn about the care of feeding of the infant and child. You learn how to keep them on a schedule of eating, sleeping, and pooping, how to secure them safely in a car, and to entertain and teach them at the same time. You learn that when you say things like, “because I said so,” “I’m not going to ask you again,” or “do you want to go to bed early?” you generally get your intended result.

But nothing prepares parents for the creatures called teenagers.

Seemingly overnight, your sweet angel may turn into a devilish being over you whom you have little control. Your darling boy or girl will begin speaking a strange dialect only their friends understand. The activities that used to amuse them will be discarded in favor of long periods behind closed, often slammed, doors.

 Tread lightly, there’s a… teenager in there.

While they tend to be quite agreeable as youths, teenagers often become unpredictable, and can lash out at their housemates at any moment, sometimes over a mere glance in their direction. A teenager in the house can be a miserable experience if approached incorrectly. Be prepared for constant battles over time, chores, privileges, clothes, noise, privacy, friends, money, school, and you just trying to be your foolish self.

Creatures of the night

These nocturnal beings are known to travel in packs through the neighborhood, looking for adult-free spaces, eating everything, and leaving stray shoes and half-empty water bottles in their wake. They either want nothing to do with other humans, or they are extremely needy, asking for car rides, money, and food without offering anything in return but a surly look and an eyeroll.

If you have a teenager in your household, or are expecting one in the next few years, learn from those of us who have walked your path and have seen their teenagers grow into the loving and agreeable humans known as young adults. It’s best you approach them with a combination of compassion and authority.

The Power Struggle is Real

What were you like as a teenager? Do you remember arguing with your parents over things like curfews or attending family events? Most of us, even if we were generally good kids, can remember butting heads with our parents over some, usually trivial, event.

Pre-teens usually begin testing their boundaries without being aware of what they are doing. They may begin challenging anything you ask of them: eating dinner with the family, taking out the trash, babysitting a sibling, or going to bed at a designated time.

Recognize that they are learning to be autonomous, and this is an important part of growing up. That doesn’t mean they get a free pass on household chores, but it does mean it is time to let them start being their own person.

 The signals

Some signs that your pre-teen or teenager is finding their autonomy include changes in hair or clothing styles, experimenting with makeup, seeking out new friends, a change in taste of music, movies, or TV, a need for more private time, and, of course, the inevitable push-back against rules.

Your teenager will learn how to push your buttons with the expertise of a concert pianist. He will play you for whatever he can get: a later curfew, new sneakers, or a trip to a theme park.

It’s important to remember that the power struggle is truly a struggle for your teenager. They are often feeling emotional or upset without understanding why. They need to be seen as their own person to the rest of the world, but they subconsciously still want the security their parents offer.

“The worst fight I had with my daughter still haunts me,” Paige said, “She was thirteen, and we were screaming at each other to the point we were both in tears. The funny thing is, I have no idea what we were arguing over. It got to the point where we both just had enough and stopped.”

You win when you don’t play.

Paige’s experience is common. It may seem like your teenager wants to fight for the sake of fighting. Remember that this is not a competition that either of you needs to win.

Resist the temptation to argue back or yell at your teen. Remain calm and listen actively. Instead of lecturing, try to determine what your teen is really upset about.

In his book Stop the Screaming, Psychologist Carl Pickhardt said, “A healthy adolescent is supposed to push for all the freedom to grow she can get as soon as she can get it, and healthy parents are supposed to restrain that push within the limits of safety and responsibility.” The solution, Dr. Pickhardt says, is not to try to stop your teen from arguing, but simply to stop arguing back.

Dr. Pickhardt goes on to say parents can avoid arguments with one of these statements:

Declare what you want without justifying it: ” I need you to help me fix dinner.”

Explain your position without defending it: “I need your room picked up before your grandparents arrive.”

Discuss your differences without arguing over who is right. “I’m not trying to change your mind; I’m just giving you my point of view.”

Listen to his or her argument without rebutting it. “I hear what you say, and I am glad to know what you think.”

Respectfully refuse an invitation into argument. “I don’t have the energy to debate this right now.”

Dr. Pickhardt writes that when it comes to arguing with their teenager, parents always have a choice. The issue is never that the teenager argues too much, but that parents too frequently agree to argue back.

Choose Your Battles

Learning to make their own decisions is one of the most important life skills you can teach your teenager. It’s important that you give your teen opportunities to practice decision making when the consequences are small. When your 13-year-old wants to dye her hair purple and cake on caterpillar-like eyeliner for her school photo, what is the worst that can happen?

“My son grew his hair long in seventh grade,” Shelly said, “It looked awful. For two years we never saw his eyes. He knew his father and I hated it, but we didn’t force him to cut it. He was a good student and an athlete, so why fight about the length of his hair? One day he shaved it all off. Now he looks back at pictures of himself and asks us why we let him wear it like that. We just laugh.”

Style choices, household chores, mealtimes, family activities, and shopping offer opportunities for leeway without serious consequences. Give your teen some say in the matter while still expecting them to participate within the household.

Instead of demanding that your son empty the dishwasher when you want it done, let him choose between emptying the dishwasher before he goes to bed or before he leaves for school the next morning. He’ll probably choose the next morning just to put it off, and then will complain that he doesn’t have time before school. When he comes home from school to find he now must unload the clean dishes and load the dirty ones that have accumulated since the night before, he will have learned something.

Stacy took an approach that helped her daughter enjoy more independence while still helping her family.

“I relied on Kailey to help watch her younger sister after school until I got home from work,” she said, “but when she was fifteen, she really rebelled, so we had to work something out. I let Kailey pick three days a week she would stay home with her sister after school, and I started paying her for babysitting. On the other days, Chrissie went to after care or went home with a friend.”

Giving her the freedom to choose which days she watched her sister and letting her have time after school to spend with her friends on other days helped Kailey feel that she had some control over her personal time.

Bigger challenges, such as staying out past curfew on weekends or participating in unsafe behavior require a different approach.

Set Reasonable Boundaries

Part of helping teenagers learn to make good choices is teaching them what it means to be part of a community. Later in life your adult child will answer to a supervisor, meet deadlines imposed at school or work, pay bills and taxes, and hopefully vote and support causes important to them.

Learning how to follow rules and schedules begins at home. There is plenty of evidence that shows that teens who grow up without boundaries or expectations turn into adults who don’t make good decisions.  

In his book, Boundaries with Teens: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, author Dr. John Townsend describes four anchors of boundary setting:

Anchor 1: Love. I am on your side. Start your discussion by reminding your teenager that you are always acting in their best interest. Instead of just presenting a list of rules or ultimatums, remind your teenager your job is to provide guidance around them to help them make good choices.

Anchor 2: Truth. I have some rules and requirements. This is where you show your teenager where the line in the sand is drawn. They need to understand that they have to have some buy-in to reap the benefits of living at home with a family, and the cost they pay is to stay within the boundaries you set. Give them boundaries, but with some room for them to make choices without going past the line in the sand.

Anchor 3: Freedom. You Can Choose to Respect or Reject the Rules. This is where you acknowledge that they have the right to make decisions, but only to a point. They need to understand that any behavior that goes over the line, such as engaging in unsafe or illegal behavior, will not be tolerated.

Anchor 4: Reality. Here is What Will Happen. There are consequences to bad decisions. If your teenager goes over the line, what price will they pay? Often parents make the mistake of either not having consequences or not enforcing them.

Every parent wants to keep their children safe, and wants to see them succeed, but parents who bail their kids out of trouble at school, in athletics, or at work, or who fail to employ punishment when boundaries have been crossed, may end up with young adults who are insecure and unable to make good choices for themselves.

As one parent said, “My teenager thinks I’m always on his back, but he doesn’t realize I’m the only one who has his back.” Rest assured that he will, one day, realize all you did for him. And if you are lucky, you will get the ultimate payback: grandchildren.

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About Deb Ingram

Deb is a health coach and award-winning health and wellness writer covering plant-based nutrition, fitness, sustainable living, mental health and relationships. Deb also writes for the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and manages YouOnPlants.com, helping people eat more veggies. She lives near her daughter in St. Petersburg, Florida, and travels often to Southern California to visit her son. Deb enjoys nature parks, restaurants with vegan options, movies, and the end of hurricane season.

View all posts by Deb Ingram