Parenting babies and toddlers can be physically exhausting. We need to meet their physical needs, deal with tantrums, and the minutia of daily life. Teens may not have as many physical needs, but parenting takes on new challenges during the teen years. Teens often need you as much as infants and toddlers just in different ways. This week we will discuss why teenagers do the things teen do and go over some communication and parenting tips for teens.
Development in Teens
Teenagers are not small adults, but they are also no longer children. The teen years are years filled with not only physical development (see puberty blogs for more information about physical changes) but huge social, emotional, and cognitive changes. These years can be awkward, hard but also amazing!
During the teen years, your child’s brain is going through huge bursts of development. Each person’s brain develops at different speed and times, much like babies all walk at different times, but most brains are not fully developed until age 24! Additionally, different sections of the brain develop at different rates and times. Looking at how and when the brain develops can help us understand some of the behaviors we see in teenagers.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that regulates
- Impulse control
- The ability to think abstractly
- The ability to plan ahead
- The ability to see potential consequences.
During adolescence, this part of the brain is maturing. It is functional but works slowly and takes more time to process information. This part of the brain takes the longest to mature, often taking until 24 years of age to be fully mature.
The amygdala is the center of the brain that feels emotions and is responsible for aggression and instinctive behaviors. This part of the brain matures earlier during adolescence. But this area is REGULATED by the pre-frontal cortex. What this means is that teens will have well developed emotions but no impulse control to regulate these emotions. Basically, the amygdala says “do this” or “feel this” and the pre-frontal cortex is too slow to think about the situation and stop a certain behavior or reaction.
What does typical behavior look like in teens? It looks like: moodiness, risk taking, and impulsivity. These behaviors are due NORMAL brain development. And based on your child’s rate of development as well as personality, these behaviors will be evident on different levels or extremes.
Risk taking behavior is a scary but normal part of the teen years. Teens take risks, push boundaries, and experiment in order to learn, grown, and make connections. It is part of how they discover who they are.
Risk taking is a process that is rewarded in the brain! When teens take risks, their brain releases dopamine, a feel-good hormone. This hormone is found in higher levels in teens. The dopamine “dump” provides a reward from their brain. This helps solidify those experiences and increases the chance of taking other risks. Remember, risk taking is not just related to undesirable risks but also important risks that help teens learn about themselves. Risk taking can be trying a new activity or changing friend groups.
Social development during the teen years brings huge changes to your teen and family. Developmentally, they are moving towards independence. They are taking more ownership of their life. They are independent with personal care. They are working towards completing school and thinking about their future. They may even start driving, working and have some financial independence.
They are developing strong friendships and romantic relationships. They are spending more time with friends and looking for advice and guidance from friends more than parents. Friends often hold much more influence that parents and family do during this time. Fitting in with peers is very important. This may result in more concern about their body, clothing, and style.
Your teen may also become less affectionate and more hostile towards you at this time. This can be a time of high conflict. Generally, we see higher rates of conflict with younger teens and to a lesser degree with older teens. There are a number of reasons why this is a high conflict time. Your child’s development is accelerating. They are learning
- To manage emotions
- To manage behaviors
- To recognize their feelings
- To recognize other’s feelings
- To recognize other’s perspectives
- Communication skills
- Conflict resolution
Teens are still working on all the above skills. They are often very self-focused and can be very stubborn and willful. They may have a hard time understanding your perspective and rules and because they are working on the above skills may have a hard time defining how they feel, why they feel that way, and how to resolve the issue.
Teens are also
- Developing a strong sense of right and wrong
- Developing a deeper capacity for caring
- Learning about their personal qualities
- Developing the ability to identify other’s personal qualities
- Learning to set goals
- Developing the ability to consider factors in decision making including ethical, safety, and societal factors
- Learning what their passions are
- Becoming idealistic
- Developing a sense of humor
- Learning to think creatively or “outside the box”
growing a teen
Teens need a lot of calories for growth and brain development. Teen boys need 2800 cal/day and teen girls need 2200 cal/day. These numbers increase for teens who participate in sports or physical activity. Teens need a mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Do not restrict food groups.
Teens should get 60 minutes of physical activity daily. They should enjoy this activity. Activity helps with sleep as well as mood. It also helps build bone density.
Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep every night. Their circadian rhythm shifts during adolescence. This means their body wants to fall asleep later (around 11pm). Teens with poor sleep quality or duration are more at risk for anxiety, depression, and academic issues.
How to help your teen improve their sleep:
- Limit screen time before bed (screens off 30-60 minutes before bed)
- Keep their room cool, dark, and quiet
- No napping after 3pm, only 30–45-minute naps if needed
- Use bed for sleep only, don’t do schoolwork on bed
- Allow them to sleep in on weekends but only 1-2 hours past normal wake up time (sleeping in longer makes getting back on track on Monday morning equivalent of the jetlag that you’d experience flying from the West Coast to the East Coast)
- Wake at the same time daily if possible
- Avoid caffeine. If this is not possible, limit caffeine to 85-100mg per day (as recommended by the AAP)—caffeine increases the risk of insomnia, worsens sleep quality and increases anxiety.
Many of us are familiar with typical teen behavior. But how do we parent teens to help them reach independence while keeping them safe? And how do you co-exist with them in your home?
There are a few essentials for parenting teens. They are listed below but will be explored in detail below.
- Communicate with your teen
- Connect with your teen
- Support your teen
- Promote independence
- Respect your teen
- Provide Boundaries
- Grant Privacy
Communicating with Teens
How To Communicate
Communicating with your teen can be scary but open and honest communication is essential to raising a teen. To gain trust from a teen, they need to know they can trust you to communicate honestly and to refrain from judgement.
Your parenting mantra that needs to be communicated to your teen includes:
- You are a team
- It is okay to be you and you are loved for who you are
- It is ok not to be the best or perfect
- No one is perfect
- It is ok to make mistakes
- It is ok to fail
- It is ok to not be ok
- Your worth is not tied to your achievement
Encourage communication by
- Sitting side by side like in the car, avoiding eye contact can increase talking and communication
- Doing an activity together
- Asking about friends and peers first
- Asking open ended questions
- Focusing on positive topics or observations
- Asking them about things important to them
- Putting your phone/work down and give them undivided attention
- Being quiet and wait for them to talk
Teens sometimes says shocking things. They may say these things to elicit a big reaction. We may also react because we aren’t ready to hear certain things as parents. No matter what they say DO NOT REACT! Or at least try not to overreact! You only get one shot at your reaction. Start practicing your poker face when they are young. Try to respond calmly and do not let them see the nerves/anger/sadness that is going on inside. Overreactions or strong reactions can result in your child not sharing information with you in the future due to fear of what your reaction may be. If you need a moment to compose yourself, take it. Just excuse yourself for a moment and come back to the conversation when you are ready.
Often things that teens say to get reactions, such as “I hate you” and “You don’t love me,” are your teen crying out for communication, understanding, reassurance, and connection. Do not let the words bother you, look for what they may be trying to communicate with theses statements. What is going on in their life? What is upsetting them? Do they not feel heard or understood? Are they disappointed or hurt? Use these times as starting point for improving communication with your teen and your relationship with your teen.
The most important aspect of communicating with a teen is LISTENING! Listen, listen, listen. Listen to anything they are offering you and show interest in what they are saying. We want them to know we are interested in the little things so that they will come to you when they have bigger issues. Teen communication can be tricky. Listening is important because their attempts to talk to you may be very subtle. By spending more time listening than talking, you are more likely to be able to identify these times.
Also, by staying quiet, we allow our children to speak on their own terms. Give them time and they will start talking!
Avoid These Types of Communication
Not all communication is good communication. There are certain things we want to avoid with teens as it can result in disempowerment, shame, fear, anger and ultimately ruin your communication with them and your relationship. What should we avoid doing?
- Comparing them to others
- Attacking their character
- Trivializing their feelings
- Criticizing their appearance
Attacking their character can be very damaging to your child and their relationship with you. You should never tie your child’s actions to their character. Their person is NOT their actions. We need to expect teenagers to make mistakes. This is how they learn. Their worth should not be tied to unrealistic expectations. They should not worry about their actions or achievements affecting the love that you have for them. Also remember, this is the safe time for them to make mistakes. And bumps in the road do NOT mean they are off course!
Do not trivialize your child’s feelings. The problem may seem small to you, but you are not your child, and they are not you. Their feelings are their feelings. Things that seem small to adults are huge for teens. Their feelings are valid and do not need you or anyone else to feel the same to be valid. Your job is to provide support and acknowledge how they are feeling. Empathize with what they are feeling. And if they need help learning how to cope with those feelings, be a resource for them.
Avoid lecturing, particularly when you are angry. And remember, NOT EVERY CONVERSATION NEEDS TO BE A LESSON. Can you imagine if every conversation you had with a co-worker or boss was a lesson or an admonishment? That would be exhausting!
Also, lecturing is rarely effective with teens. Remember how the amygdala matures first and it handles emotions, and the pre-frontal cortex lags behind? Teens often pick up on your emotions and immediately react with their own emotions. This means, when are upset and lecturing them, they will respond to your anger with anger, fear, or sadness. Their brain stops processing your explanation. Either remain calm and speak without anger or raised voice or allow for explanations after you have cooled down.
Avoid communication that criticizes their clothing, fashion choices, or looks. If their look is temporary or harmless, it is often not worth the fight or the implications of the fight. Often what seems like small comments to us can be very meaningful and hurtful to your child and can be psychologically harmful.
And lastly, PICK YOUR BATTLES. Not everything needs to be addressed. Sometimes saving the battle for the important issues or safety-based issues can result in more meaningful communication.
Refusing to Communicate
What do you do if your teen is upset but won’t talk to you? Do not take this personally. You should accept that they do not want to talk while still offering them support. You can
- Tell them it is ok if they don’t want to talk
- Tell them it is ok to say things that they think will be hard for you to hear
- Tell them it is ok if they want to be alone
- Offer to just listen and not try to fix the problem
- Offer to sit with them without talking
- Offer a snack
- Offer to take them out for a treat or a walk
- Offer to watch a movie with them
- Ok their feeling
- Let them know you are ready to talk when they are
- Let them know if they are having a hard time talking, they can use art, music, exercise, or other coping skills to help them with their feelings
What if when communicating, your teen tells a lie or repeatedly lies? Lying happens for several reasons. Teens may lie to
- Avoid getting in trouble
- Avoid embarrassment
- Protect themselves or friends
- Cover up emotions
- Make themselves look better
- Assert or try to gain independence
- To control a situation
- To avoid conflict
- Because they worry about what you think
- To make connections
If your teen lies, you are going to stay calm. Remember lecturing or showing strong emotion will shut down any conversation. Also, do not taking their lying (or most of their emotions) personally. Their lying is often more about them then about you. Emphasize how important honesty is and how lying can hurt others, endanger others, make things more complicated, and erode your trust. Most of the time the lie is ultimately harmless but not always. If the lie is dangerous or illegal, more in depth discussion and appropriate consequences may be necessary.
And as always, actions speak louder than words. Model being honest in front of your child and always being honest with your child.
Connecting with Your Teen
Our teens are gaining independence and spending more time with their friends. How can you maintain your relationship with your teen especially their busy schedules? Use your time wisely! Connecting with your teen is important because it strengthens their relationship to you and others, gives teens a sense of belonging and identity, and provides a positive environment. Ways to connect with your teen include
- Food, food, food- teens love food and treats, lure them out of their room with their favorite snack or a trip out to get a treat
- Feed their friends
- Stay up late with them (this is when the magic happens)
- Attend their activities and events
- Show interests in their interests including music, celebrities or favorite athletes and sport
- Have family movie night
- Have family dinners
- Have family rituals
- Help with their homework or help them study
- Watch funny videos or TikToks together
- Leave them a nice note
- Send funny pictures or memes
- Share stories of your childhood
- Involve them in preparing meals/baking
- Exercise together
- Show them physical affection
- Take family vacations
Supporting Your Teen
The best parent-teen relationships are those where the teen feels loved and supported by their parent. They know that you are a team and are on the same team. They know that you are there for them no matter what.
Support means just that, support your child. This does not mean you need to swoop in and fix their problems. As parents we want to guide our children, not enable or solves their problems for them. This does nothing to help them in the long run or prepare them for adulthood.
Your child often doesn’t want to fix their problems when they come to you with an issue. Ask them, “do you just want to vent or do you want my help fixing this problem.” Often, teens (and most people) just need to have someone list and understand what they are saying and how they feel. If they want you to help them, talk through fixing the issue with open ended questions or prompts to help guide them through solving it on their own.
At times it can be hard to offer support to your teen. You are often the person who suffers the outbursts of their emotions and stress. Repeat this to yourself:
They aren’t GIVING me a hard time. They are HAVING a hard time.
When your child acts out, this is the time they need your love and support the most. Your support allows them to safely express that emotion. Remember to keep your reaction calm, reach out and offer support, increase communication and listening, and be there to help your child cope with their emotions.
Also, part of supporting your teen is helping them take care of themselves. Working on the basics, nutrition, exercise, and sleep can help them be their best selves. See the side bar for information about teenage needs.
Our goal for raising teens should be to help them through these years while allowing them to develop all the skills, including emotional, social, and cognitive, that they will need to become happy and successful adults. We need to help them become independent adults and help them find their purpose. Remember, growing up means growing away!
Promoting independence is one of the hardest hurdles for parents. We want to keep our children safe. And adulthood comes faster than you can imagine when they are small and you are in the throes of having babies! Their transition, from children who need us to children who are breaking away, can be very hard. We need to honor and help them become independent.
We need to let them practice being independent before they can become fully independent on their own. Think of a new baby walking. You don’t carry them until you believe they can walk! You childproof your house and let them work on crawling, pulling up to stand, and cruising so they can strengthen their body and develop the skills they need to take those first steps. Independence is just another developmental milestone that needs the same treatment. We need to let them practice and strengthen those skills when safely under our care.
This is hard to hear but basically our job is to set boundaries, monitor for safety, but get out of the way! But what about the normal teen brain changes that cause increased risky behaviors? How do we handle knowing that is normal behavior with our desire to keep our children safe?
First, no teen should be suddenly thrust into full independence. The process of becoming independent should be slowly developed over time. This may mean leaving your older school age or pre-teen child home for short periods of time, increasing chores and responsibilities, and giving more freedom with friends. An example would be allowing a middle school age child to walk around downtown with friends. It can also include letting your child do tasks for themselves such as making their own lunch, doing some of their own laundry, setting their own alarm. As your child takes on new responsibilities successfully, they earn the privilege and responsibility of more independence.
Additionally, part of our job as parents to help develop critical thinking skills. We can help our children slow down and think about the decisions they are making. We need to make sure they know increased responsibility brings privileges. These responsibilities and privileges will result in them needing to make more decisions that may have more importance behind them. These decisions will have consequences. These consequences can be good or bad but they will be responsible for the consequences from those decisions.
You can help your child think through all the options and consequences BEFORE they need to make those decisions. For example, if your child is new to driving, you can discuss the risk of drunk driving and what that would mean for their use of your car, their license, insurance, and the possible consequences to their health as well as any passengers.
And sometimes, you need to let your child experience the consequences of their action. If they don’t add their laundry to the hamper, they won’t have clean clothes. If they don’t complete their homework or study for an exam, their grade will suffer.
Ignoring or preventing your child from increasing independence and practicing those skills often backfires. It can result in increased conflict as well as increased rebellion, lying, and sneaky behaviors.
Moving Toward Adulthood
Your child will be developing different types of independence as they prepare to leave your home. One will be social independence, meaning they will be moving away from you and will look for social and romantic relationships. They will also be looking forward to college and entering the work force. They may also be thinking of living independently outside of your home. We can start helping them prepare for this by requiring they help with chores that help your household run such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. We can also work on setting boundaries for communal living such as keeping the house and common spaces clean as well as respecting others. This may mean having a noise curfew or other set rules that family members follow. You should also allow your child to have a space of their own to take care of but also to express themselves.
Your teen will also be looking to become financially independent. Teaching your child how to handle money, budget, and save for big purchases is an important step in financial independence. If your child has money from an allowance or a job, let them start to pay for extras with that money. This will help them learn the value of saving and budgeting before they have a larger budget and expenses to work with.
The teen years are a time to try out activities and interests. This is a time when many teens find a passion or determine their career path. It is a time when they are actively planning their future include college and their career. Sometimes finding this passion comes naturally and easily, and sometimes it can be harder. Your child may not know what they are interested in or what they want to do with their life Encourage them to explore different interests. Exploring is part of the learning process. Encourage them to write their dreams, interests, and goals down or to create a dream board. Work with them to develop their goals and steps they need to take to meet those goals.
Showing Your Teen Respect
Your relationship with your child is changing. Teens are much more aware of how relationships work. Teens want and deserve to be respected as their own independent person. Showing your child respect will enhance your relationship with your child and help build trust and communication. Ways that you can show your teen respect include:
- Give them privacy
- Knock before entering their room and ask to come in
- Do not go through their belongs. If you need to let them know why you are concerned and why you are doing it
- Keep information they share with you private between the two of you, if you must share it due to safety issues, let them know you are sharing it, why you must do so, and with whom you are sharing it
- Set clear boundaries that are consistent and do not change based on your mood
- Allow them to express differing opinions
- Validate their experiences and feelings
- Acknowledge that emotions and actions are two different things
- Don’t say because I said so, explain your decisions and rationale
- Apologize if you make a mistake or are wrong
- Let them know when they were/are right
- Invite them to do things, don’t demand
- Give them space if they need it
- Allow them to be involved in making boundaries and consequences
- LET THEM SAY NO TO YOU
- This is so important! They need to practice saying no and being confident saying no so that when situations happen involving drugs, sex, alcohol, or risky behaviors, they can confidently say no!
Promoting independence with your teen does not mean that parenting ends and it is a free for all or your child is treated like an adult. Just like your toddler and school age children needed set boundaries and expectations, so does your teen. Setting boundaries with teens can be more challenging. They are by nature trying to push boundaries as well as find their way on their own. Teens also expect to be included in decision making. Working with your teen to set their own boundaries makes them more likely to understand the boundary and respect that boundary. Including your teen when determining boundaries and rules should not be seen as giving up “parenting power”. It is a move that increases respect, communication, and promotes independence while reducing conflict.
When setting boundaries, make sure your boundaries are fair. They should be age appropriate as well as appropriate to your child’s development. They should be clearly defined. They should be set and not changed based on your mood or on a whim. Offer choices or compromises. This means, when setting a curfew, do not set an arbitrary number. Discuss what time they think is fair and set the time together. Set the rules and the consequences for not respecting that boundary. In this example, it would mean respecting curfew, calling if you are going to be late, and detailing what happens if they break curfew. For example, if they break curfew and come home 30 minutes late or do not follow the rules, their curfew may be set 1 hour earlier next weekend, or they may not be allowed out at all next weekend.
Boundaries in your house may also include house rules for cohabitating together as well as rules for screen time. Boundaries can include setting limits on devices or monitoring what information they have access to on the Internet or what they are watching. These rules also deserve discussion, compromise, and explanation.
Boundaries are also not 100% set in stone. The boundaries can and should changes as your child’s age, experience, and previous behavior changes.
Part of promoting independence in your teen is providing and ensuring their privacy. Privacy is a milestone, and it is a milestone that is earned due to trust and respect. Privacy should start small and increase as your child earns trust. Privacy includes privacy in their space, of their belongings, of their body, and of their communication with others.
Parenting Teen Resources
The prospect of parenting teens can be daunting. We remember out teen days, the things we did, the way we felt. Meeting our children with compassion, respect, and open communication can help support our children during this time of huge changes and developmental leaps. We can enrich our relationships while preparing them for independence and a happy and healthy adulthood. At CHC, we are here to support your child and your family through this process.
Children’s Health Care of Newburyport, Massachusetts and Haverhill, Massachusetts is a pediatric healthcare practice providing care for families across the North Shore, Merrimack Valley, southern New Hampshire, and the Seacoast regions. The Children’s Health Care team includes pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners who provide comprehensive pediatric health care for children, including newborns, toddlers, school aged children, adolescents, and young adults. Our child-centered and family-focused approach covers preventative and urgent care, immunizations, and specialist referrals. Our services include an on-site pediatric nutritionist, special needs care coordinator, and social workers. We also have walk-in appointments available at all of our locations for acute sick visits. Please visit chcmass.com where you will find information about our pediatric doctors, nurse practitioners, as well as our hours and services.
Disclaimer: this health information is for educational purposes only. You, the reader, assume full responsibility for how you choose to use it.