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Adolescence - when times get tough

Adolescence; youth; parent; anger; frustrated; teenager; trust; control; safe ;

Living with a teenager can be a stressful time for parents. Often they seem to change overnight from friendly lovable children to difficult strangers. It is important to remember that you have put a lot of effort into earlier parenting and laying the foundations for your teenager's development. The effort will not be wasted and you need to have faith in your past efforts.

The major task of a teenager is to become an independent and responsible adult and most teenagers eventually achieve this and go on to have teenage children of their own. Providing you can hang in there, and at the same time keep your own sense of balance, your teenager will most likely eventually emerge as a likeable adult.


What parents say about teenagers

The following are comments that parents make about their teenagers from time to time. If you can relate to one or more of these you are one of the majority of parents of teenagers.

  • "She is sullen, moody and argumentative."
  • "He doesn't care about anyone except himself."
  • "She says she hates me."
  • "He won't do anything around the house."
  • "She spends hours using social media."
  • "He spends hours playing video games."
  • "She tells lies, saying she's going somewhere and then I find out..."
  • "He expects me to drop everything for him, but when I ask..."
  • "She goes out late at night and then sleeps all day."
  • "He is never off the phone."
  • "Sometimes she is a delight, next minute - hateful."
  • "Whenever I try to give him advice he says "What would you know?"
  • :She doesn't want to spend time doing things with the family."

How parents feel

There are times when living with adolescents can make you feel really exhausted. It seems as if nothing you do is right. You wonder what could be wrong with the lovable obedient child you once had, and whether you will ever get back to a friendly relationship again. Here are some of the things that many parents say about how they feel.

  • "I'm fed up."
  • "I'm at my wits end."
  • "I feel used."
  • "I feel so angry."
  • "I feel bitter and betrayed."
  • "I feel I can't trust her."
  • "I can't make him do anything."
  • "I feel stressed out."
  • "I'll end up having a nervous breakdown."

Parents ask

Here are some of the questions many parents ask themselves and some suggestions in the following sections about how to deal with these problems.

Why should I put up with this?

The reason you put up with many of the struggles of being a parent of a teenager is that you have no choice, as these years are 'inevitable'.

Teenagers are in a stage between childhood and adulthood, one of the most rapidly changing times of their lives. Their behaviour seems to go between two extremes; they often want to be treated like an adult, but behave like a child, and have the responsibility of a child. This happens because they are struggling with their own feelings about wanting to be grown-up but often are a bit scared of what it all means and how they will cope (although they may not ever admit it). It is very human to want the fun without the responsibility.

When you ask yourself "Why should I put up with this?" it is likely to make you feel angry with your young person, and then you may act in a way that makes things worse.

  • If you say to yourself instead "He is struggling with all the pressures of growing up and must be feeling bad to be behaving like this", you are more likely to think things through and give a better response.
  • It is also worth remembering that they may behave differently when they feel they have to impress their friends.

How can I trust them?

Parents very often say that they can't trust their teenagers.

  • Telling lies about where they have been and what they have done to try to cover up a wrong or in order to get what they want, is not uncommon. However if they are caught out they are likely to be furious that "you don't trust me". Often they are ashamed but cannot show it.
  • For many teenagers the pressure and influence of their peer group is very strong. Lying is often an attempt to be doing something that "everybody else" is allowed to do and not missing out on the action.
  • Don't despair! As teenagers mature, most teenagers whose parents have practised honesty will also assume similar values and behaviour.

In the meantime, if you try to concentrate on safety issues rather than details of arrangements it may reduce lying and help to get what you want - which, after all, is that your teenager is as safe as possible. The dangers for teenagers, particularly at parties, are excessive alcohol, abuse of drugs, unwanted or unsafe sex and physical safety. Parents also worry about teenagers getting home safely.

  • Spend time discussing these issues and working out ways your teenager can act to keep as safe as possible, rather than worry about the exact time your young person came home last night. Teenagers who are trying to be "grown up" and have control of their own lives resent parents if they see them as trying hard to keep control - but they may respond if you talk about your concerns about their safety.
  • You could have a contact number for where your teenager is staying and if there is a change of plans, ask that she phone. Having a mobile phone and if necessary taxi money in case of emergency will reduce the risk of her feeling forced to come home in what would possibly be an unsafe situation, eg with a driver who has been drinking.

How can I prevent them from messing up their life?

Parents naturally feel worried that their teenagers will take risks, do something without thinking of the consequences, or make a choice or mistake which could affect their whole life. Parents try to advise and guide their children in an effort to protect them from making mistakes.

  • It is hard to watch your children suffer from their own actions and parents want to protect their children from this happening.
  • However teenagers need to experience the consequences of their own actions, and parents who continually protect them from the consequences are not helping them grow up. The role of parents is to help them learn to be responsible rather than try to protect them.
  • The most important influences in helping teenagers cope with these turbulent years of development are their parents, whatever it may seem at the time. Whatever they say and do, they are learning most from watching you show them how to be a responsible adult.
  • It is important for parents to be available to listen, talk, explain, and discuss issues such as rules, safety, drugs, sex etc. In order to really know what is worrying your teenager you need to listen before you give your point of view.
  • Most teenagers come from homes where they have been cared for and loved. Everyone was a teenager at one stage and surprisingly most get through these years and turn out OK.
  • Sometimes we have to watch while they make mistakes which we feel could have been prevented if they had taken our advice.
  • Allowing your teenager to eventually become a responsible adult can only occur by allowing them to take on responsibilities.

Note: If your young person is making choices that are really dangerous it is important to get some professional help - some consequences are too dangerous to learn from.

How can I keep control ?

  • Growing up is about learning to rely more on your own self control compared to a child whose parents do all the controlling for them.
  • Basically there is nothing that you can do to bring your teenager under total control. This would defeat the lessons they must learn to become an adult. Have a look at 'Discipline (teens)'.
  • You cannot control their behaviour and you cannot force them to accept your standards and beliefs.
  • You may feel that your young person is not ready to take on the responsibility for making her own decisions, but trying to control teenagers is often the way to make them rebel.

What you can do

You can't control or change your child, but you can control and change the way you react and this will affect the way they react. In other words you can choose how you behave and respond and this will affect the way they behave and respond.

  • Parents need to have expectations for standards of behaviour and they need to set guidelines.
  • It is helpful if family rules are clear, discussed and negotiated with teenagers.
    • It is OK for teenagers to argue about a rule, and for parents to change the rules depending on the age of the teenager and if the teenager has a reasonable argument. It is important to negotiate with your teenager, rather than rigidly sticking to a rule or direction.
  • Just because rules are broken does not mean that you do not have them or do not expect them to be followed in the future.
    • Parents often feel hurt, let down or betrayed when rules are broken.
    • This testing is a normal process in developing independence. If young people make mistakes or break rules you can discuss it, give a consequence if necessary and then give another chance to try again.
  • Trying to control or change your teenager will lead to a power struggle.
    • It means trying to make him do something he doesn't want to do. It means one wins and the other loses, and since the teenager is in control of his behaviour, you cannot win.
  • Even if you succeeded with a big enough bribe or punishment to make your teenagers do as you wished, you cannot continually watch them and also it is not helping them learn to be responsible.

Don't get involved in battles over small issues - ask yourself, how important is it?

  • What your teenager needs to learn is the effect his behaviour has on other people, what happens as a result and how this affects him.
    • These consequences are often thought of as bad things, however the consequences of our actions can be good or bad depending on what we learn from them.
  • Your teenager needs to understand that all behaviour is a choice and every choice carries its own set of consequences.
  • If the behaviour becomes a problem or causes discomfort to themselves they are more likely to change it.
  • Help your teenagers learn that there are consequences to what they do. It needs to be a gradual process, not something that suddenly happens when they leave home, eg if they spend all their pocket money unwisely they may have nothing left for something they really want.

When we talk about responsibility for their own actions we are not talking about extremes.

Parents will always be parents and at sometime in their grown up children's life may need to help them or "rescue" them. Of course you would become involved if there were a danger. It is in the day to day decisions and responsibilities, that parents must help them achieve independence.

  • Stop thinking for them - let them work it out. Stop nagging and reminding. Allow them to notice the problem and ask you for assistance if necessary.
  • Stop telling your teenager how to solve a problem. Instead discuss the different choices and what they might mean, and let your teenager choose a course of action. Some teenagers seem quite pleased to be helped, eg reminded to take sports clothes to school, reminded to take lunch etc, and then they can blame parents when things don't work out.
  • Expect that you would do a chore better, but by doing it for them they will never learn. Be patient, give encouragement and don't criticise.
  • Stop preventing them from accepting consequences of their own actions, or lack of actions. For example, when they forget to put washing out it doesn't get done; leaving things at home results in consequences at school; being late for a meal means they miss out; running late means they may have to walk or take alternative transport. Let them wear the results of their behaviour, good or bad.

Remember miracles don't happen overnight and there is no magic formula, because all parents and teenagers are different.

  • You know your teenager's strengths and weaknesses better than anyone does and letting go gradually will be influenced by these.
  • If your relationship is strained, don't expect it to alter overnight, but with patience and "hanging in there" you may gradually see some light at the end of the tunnel and your relationship with your teenager will begin to improve.

Angry adolescents

Many adolescents become very angry towards their parents, and some become quite aggressive. This can be very difficult to live with. If this is happening at your home, have a look at the topic Violence towards parents by young people.

Keeping your sanity and sense of humour!

Remember no one is a perfect parent. Aim for 'good enough'.

  • Forgive yourself your mistakes - it would not be good for young people to have perfect parents - they need to know how to deal with making mistakes.
  • You don't have to be right all the time.

Don't expect your teenager to fulfil your own dreams.

  • Your teenager is an individual not an extension of yourself or owned by you.
  • Remember that it may take years for him to discover where he wants to go with his life.

Encourage your children to talk openly with other adults - parents don't have to be the only important adults in their lives and it will help them to have someone adult to turn to when they are at odds with you.

  • Share your feelings with other parents of teenagers; it will probably reassure you that you are not alone and that what you are going through is probably "normal".
  • Sometimes ask yourself what is the worst that could happen in this situation? If it is not too serious it could be one that you can let your teenager make all the choices about.
  • Remember your own youth - try to remember what you felt like, what you did and how you have now turned out.

Try to keep a balanced point of view - is it really that bad?

  • Keep your sense of humour, have a laugh at the situation sometimes - and at yourself - but it is not usually helpful to laugh at your teenager!
  • Don't make your teenager the focus of your whole life - take time out for yourself, take up something new that you enjoy.
  • Keep time for yourself - your own interests, relaxation time etc.

More to read

Reachout - a website for young people going through tough times 

Raising Children Network has many topics including 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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