Parenting teens and young adults

You will have to recalibrate your mothering instinct to accommodate the notion that not only do your children poop and burp, they also masturbate, drink and smoke. As their bodies, brains and worlds rearrange themselves, you will need to do your own reshuffling. You will come to see that, though you gave them life, they’re the ones who’ve got a life. They’ve got 1700 friends on Facebook. They’ve got YouTube accounts (with hundreds of subscribers), endless social arrangements, concerts, Valentine’s Day dances and Halloween parties. What we have – if we’re lucky – is a ‘Thanks for the ride, Mum, don’t call me, I’ll call you,’ as they slam the car door and indicate we can run along now.”Joanne Fedler, ‘Love in the time of contempt’

From the time that your child is born, veteran parents will regale you with horror stories about what it is like to be the parent of a teenager, making you fearful of reaching this stage in parenting. They describe the conversations with teens reduced to noncommittal grunts. The sleepless nights, broken curfews and broken hearts. As our children move into adolescence, many of us feel a great sense of fear and trepidation. So why is the case that parenting a teenager can be particularly challenging?

  • The transition from childhood to adulthood. An important part of adolescence is learning to how to be independent and separate from Mum and Dad. This means that teens and young adults need to experience a gradual increase in responsibility and freedom. The problem is that parents and children rarely agree on the pace of this. As parents it is often difficult to know how much freedom and responsibility is reasonable, especially if your child’s peers have a different level of freedom. “But Jane is allowed to go to the party, why not me. It is not fair. You always spoil things for me.” Peer relationships become more important to teens and this can particularly be a problem if their friends’ priorities and values are different to your own. As a parent it can also be a bit hurtful to realize that your child no longer wants to spend time with you in the same way, no longer thrives on your attention the way they once did.
  • The teenage brain – brain studies have shown that teenagers brains are primed for adventurousness, risk-taking and seeking new sensations. This can lead to conflicts with our teens about our their safety and about what is ok and what isn’t.
  • “I’m different to you.” Adolescence is about finding your identity – for teens this often involves differentiating themselves from their parents. It is no coincidence that teens interests in music, movies and other forms of culture can be the opposite of our own tastes.
  • Our teens are digital natives – They instinctively and easily incorporate technology into all aspects of their lives. This has its positives but can also be alienating, concerning, not well understood by us.
  • “Mum, go away.’ ‘God, you’re so embarrassing.’ Sometimes our teens’ behaviour feels rejecting and hurtful. Do they really want me to go away?
  • The stakes are higher as our kids prepare for adulthood – HSC, exams, planning for future employment. We can see the impact of their decisions on their future opportunities.
  • We remember what our own teenage years were like. And we want our kids to make different, wiser choices, to be protected from the things that hurt us when we were teens.

It is not surprising then that during this phase of our parenting, passions run high. As parents, we can wind up feeling scared and worried about the safety and future of our kids, and hurt by the way they are treating us. The challenge of parenting teens is riding out this phase, staying connected, and continuing to put in appropriate boundaries so our kids stay safe.

And it is important to remember that there are joys to be had in parenting teens too. It is fulfilling to watch your ‘baby’ grow into the adult they are becoming. There is still room for laugher, silliness and shared experiences. As parents we need to make room for and cherish these times. 

Things you can do

  • Learn about adolescence and the changes that your teen is going through. This can help to put their behaviour in context and give us choices about the way we respond.
  • Talk to other parents of teens. No one understand the way other parents do.
  • Stay connected to your teen, no matter what. Even if they tell you to go away. Because deep down they really still want and need your involvement.
  • Talk to a psychologist about it –if you can involve your teen in this, even better. The goal is to build health resilient relationships that can last into adulthood. But even if your teenager isn’t interested in coming along, you can still benefit.

More information for parents of teens

If you’re thinking of bringing your teenager to see a psychologist, here’s some information about what to expect

Find out more

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