Hello, parent-of-a-teenager-with-problems (a.k.a. most parents of teenagers)! If you’ve found yourself here, you’re probably going through some tough times at home. Perhaps your child has grown up faster than you could have ever imagined and suddenly they are trying to claim independence at a rate you’re not ready for. Maybe your teenager is going through struggles of their own, like depression, bullying, or anxiety, and you are not sure how you can help.
You might have multiple adolescents laying the groundwork for World War III in your home and you and your spouse are struggling to just get everyone to the table for peace talks. Whatever the situation, raising a teenager is hard work. But there is good news! This is perfectly normal, and while you might be struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel, there are things you can do to help your teenager and bring the family together.
Before we get into some tips, however, let’s address the question:
“What is a teenager?”
This might seem like an obvious question, but it’s helpful to acknowledge that to be a teenager means many different things. On the surface, we could define this as the age range 13-19. However, with every year that passes, adolescence seems to be growing in both directions. More and more, adolescence is continuing into the early 20’s as financial realities are pushing adolescents to rely on their parents longer and longer. On the other end, the proliferation of social media and the interconnected nature of our world has allowed for kids to start acting like “typical” teenagers by mimicking behavior and attitudes they see all around them at an earlier and earlier age.
From another angle, teenagers are a completely different culture with their own rules and ways of interacting with each other. Not really kids, not really adults, the teenage years are this ambiguous in-between without a rulebook. At some moments they are expected to behave like adults, but still respond to and respect authority like children. The cognitive changes ongoing at this life stage allows them to form their own identity, but when family and culture can pull them in differing directions, this causes more anxiety in the ambiguity.
Finally, teenagers are growing, changing beings. Voices drop, hair appears in places, curves grow, muscles form. Looking in the mirror can become not just an expression of vanity but an exploration of new territory. At the core of it, adolescence is a period of discovering who you are – internally, externally, and socially.
Navigating and Addressing Teen Problems
Keeping that in mind, adolescence is then fertile ground for issues to grow in and around your child. Here are some ways that you can help them navigate this tough time.
1. Recognize the differences, remember the similarities
Teens today are growing up in a world that is radically different than that of 30, 20, even 10 years ago. The proliferation of social media and smartphones are connecting us in ways that provide great opportunities, both positive and negative, for increased social interaction. Now the value of this connection is best saved for a different discussion, but the reality remains that adolescents are connected to each other 24/7. This means news travels faster. An embarrassing moment from a Friday night might not be the talk of the school on Monday, but rather the talk of the town by Saturday morning. It’s difficult if not impossible to escape the grapevine.
Further, what teenagers (and really, all of us) choose to share on social media tends to be a sort of highlight reel of life. Given the insecurities that many teenagers are dealing with around self-image, family life, and success, these problems are further complicated when the everyday mundane to negative is being compared against their peer’s highlights.
Related to this, adolescents are bombarded with mixed messages all the time. We often think of how the media portrays unrealistic standards for women, and it totally does. Also, our boys are expected to be “a man” in so many ways that are unrealistic. We see it in magazines, on television, on the internet – men with strong bodies, successful and dressed for success. If they are going to have a beard it will be full and not patchy. When men with a bit of a gut make it on the big screen, usually they are reduced to the punchline of a joke or are inserted for the comic relief.
What does this tell our boys? That if they are not perfect, their only value exists in the humor they can provide around them. It robs them of their capacity to value intelligence, respect, kindness, and the ability to be whoever they want to be. For girls, all these issues exist as well and the margin for error is often even smaller. High school presents a very unforgiving social crucible where kids’ own insecurities usually manifest in the bullying and tearing down of each other. Social media provides a whole new tool for bullying that can follow them around. In the pre- and early internet days, usually you could find respite from your bully once you got home. Now your bully can sit in your pocket all day long.
However, not everything is different today than it was before. Remember that you were once a teenager and this time has always been challenging. You can remember what it was like to have your body morph before your eyes. Teenagers have always been cruel to each other and often just want to hear that their experience is not unique (although they might push back and say you don’t get it, just remember while the actual experience may be different, the feelings and emotions are the same). You probably had some conflict with your parents. Maybe you felt misunderstood or like they couldn’t relate – every generation feels that disconnect. So sometimes working with your teenager’s problems will involve remembering the problems you had as a teenager, and telling your child what you would have wanted to hear then.
2. Open communication
Related to the connection we all have through our phones these days, we might feel like communication is at an all-time high for humanity. However, exchanging texts between you and your child cannot replace face-to-face contact and conversation. We often end up in this odd situation where we think we have communicated far more than we actually have. In one sense, you might know where your adolescent is at all times; you feel close, and our brains are easily tricked into thinking we have communicated. However, really we’ve only got as much information about our kids as TMZ gives you about celebrities. You know where they are, what they are doing, but not what they are feeling. This comes through face-to-face communication and connection.
Many parents feel like their adolescents simply won’t communicate with them. To start to crack that open, show, don’t tell. Begin with communicating with them and not expecting much in return. Perhaps over the years your relationship has become strained and your child doesn’t feel safe to bring their problems to you. You have to build that connection and bridge back. Honesty is a two-way street and they might respond drastically if you begin to communicate how you are feeling and how you are experiencing the world around you. Now, be careful here not to cross the line into switching the roles and leaning on your adolescent to solve your problems or use them as your own personal therapist. Rather, keep communication open enough that they recognize you are human, too, full of your own thoughts, feelings, emotions, strengths, and faults.
3. Be consistent
Okay, I will be honest – this one might be the hardest. As humans we are many things, but consistency generally does not come naturally. We have moods. We have good days and bad days. Work affects us, family affects us, health affects us. Even weather patterns affect us. Some days your tolerance for your child’s acting out may be higher, other days lower. However, although many kids might act as if they want all the freedom, you’d be surprised how many teenagers I have worked with wish their parents would provide a little more structure and boundaries. Further, they want to be able to know they can rely on you. If you say you will be able to attend an event, don’t let work get in the way. Consistency can help build the relationship and be something they will rely on. When your teenager has a problem, then, they will be more likely to see you and come to you for guidance.
Now I’m going to almost contradict everything I just said, so bear with me: exceptions are okay, too. Firm, dogmatic rigidity in the name of consistency isn’t helpful. Maybe your child has a favorite band they’ve been wanting to see for years, they have saved up the money, but they won’t be home until 30 minutes after curfew. Given a history of good behavior, this might be a sort of situation where an exception can be made. Have the talk about what you want them to do to check in so you know they are safe, but also work with them. In general, it is helpful to be firm, but not un-bendable.
4. Get to know their friends
Teenagers often look first to their friends to help with their problems. You might want them to come to you, but often this is just the case. It might help you to have some peace of mind, then, if you know who they are turning to. In order to do this, it might mean opening up your home as a place for them to be and to hang out. However, you have to ride the line of being present but not intrusive – perhaps preparing a snack for them or just being there to say hi and bye with a brief conversation at each end. If your child’s friends trust you and think you’re alright, they’re more likely to point your teen back to you to help through their emotional problems.
Another aspect to this, some friends will simply be a bad influence. However, until you get to know your child’s friends, you can’t really know who is supportive and who to be wary of if your child is spending too much time with a certain friend. Broaching that conversation about a friend who is a bad influence, though, is always a tender task. However, if you have already kept communication open, gotten to know their other friends, and remained consistent, they will be more amicable to listening to you when the time comes to have tougher conversations.
5. Cultivate support
This final tip really is the culmination of everything I’ve said before. You might feel at a loss to dealing with your teenager’s problems. It’s complicated to know what to do if your child is depressed, angry, acting out, using drugs, etc. However, what you can do in any situation is help to cultivate support in their (and your) life. Building on the previous tips will help to create a network of support in you and in their peer group for them to lean on.
However, sometimes it is necessary, normal, and okay to have some professional support. Teenagers often enjoy talking to adults who aren’t their parents – they feel treated like adults and, as frustrating as it might be, might respond to the exact same advice just coming from a different mouth. A combination of individual and family counseling for your teenager might be just the help you need to get through a particularly tough time.
Family counseling provides a designated space to talk through problems between you two (or more) and provide a sort of neutral but educated arbitrator. Most teenagers I have worked with find that having space to be able to air their thoughts and have them interpreted back to you helps smooth over even the most constant and volatile arguments you may have been having.
In general, raising a teenager is definitely hard work. Hopefully these tips, while by no means exhaustive, can steer you towards setting yourself up for more success in working with your teenager’s complicated problems. Know that as long as you’re doing your best to provide a good amount of emotional support and structure, you’re probably already helping. If you feel like you need more support, know there is no shame in reaching out for help. Just reaching out is a strength and a big step towards helping you, your child, and your family.
“After School,” courtesy of unsplash.com, pexels.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Screen time,” courtesy of unsplash.com, pexels.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Selfie time,” courtesy of CreativeWix.com, pexels.com, CC0 Public Domain License