11 Things I’m Learning About Parenting a Teen

I love parenting a teen! It’s great.  Next year I’ll have two. I was thinking about it, and within five years, all four of my kids will be teens at the same time (but not yet…not quite yet).  Things do change as they get older, and so my approach to parenting has to also. I’ve been thinking about the strategies my husband and I have used over the past couple of years, and I’ve boiled it down to what we’ve found most effective (so far).

1. Not everything has to be a life lesson

I harp on. I know I do. In my defence: you get to this point in parenting, and you realise you only have a few short years left as the big influence in their life, and you just want to make every moment count! You want to show them and teach them as opportunities arise. You don’t want them to get caught in unnecessary traps so you reinforce! Reinforce! Reinforce!

But the thing is, not everything has to be a life lesson, even if I think it should be.  I would imagine it would be jolly annoying for the child too. Can’t we have just one conversation where the big picture of life isn’t on the agenda Mum?  No, we can’t. I mean…sure darling.  I choose to let more things go (which I find REALLY hard), and focus on relationship and listening. Really listening. 

2. Revisit family values

This is more for me than it is for the kids. I find it’s important for me to communicate clearly and calmly, and if the ground isn’t solid, it’s easy to lose footing.  For example, one of the values in our family is generosity. My daughter will use my make up. I want her to. And borrow my shoes and my clothes. I want her to. This world is full of “it’s mine” and I don’t want that for our family. Because generosity is one of our family values, I can draw on that if I need to. As an example: if a sibling wants to borrow something (reasonable) and are unfairly dismissed, I can draw on this value, and how they benefit from it (that is: using my stuff) and how that value has to extend for it to be an attitude rather than purely an action. That’s only a very small example and of course, respect of other people’s property is an important value that comes into play too.

This is about standing firm on the bigger picture, channelling consequences and allowing the flow on from that.  It’s important for me to personally take the time to reflect and revisit our family values, not to flaunt them, but so I know where I’m standing. 

3. It’s about responsibility and privileges and consequences 

There’s an interesting shift I’ve observed that happens in the late tween/early teen years.  Some would call it an attitude of entitlement. Some would call it self-centredness. I don’t think of it that way. I see it as kids finding their feet as abstract concepts of the world around them grow, and yet the bubble they are seeing out from is very limited, but they can’t know that yet.  I’ve had this conversation with two of my kids and it goes something like this:

There are things you should absolutely expect from being part of this family. It’s your right. You have a right to be loved and accepted. You have the right to be educated. You have a right to feel safe. You have the right to be fed and clothed and cared for and loved to bits.  If any of these things are out of kilter, we need to work out ways to make sure you’re feeling safe and loved in this family.

There are things that are privileges: Extracurricular activities, media devices, independence like staying at home on your own and spending time unsupervised with friends, disappearing into your room for a long time. They are all privileges. We want to give you privileges. We love giving you privileges, but they are earned by responsible behaviour.

So for example, my eldest is old enough to stay at home on her own now when I’m gone for short periods. She loves the space and quiet. And yet, if she’s unreasonably disrespectful, this might be the first thing that goes and she will have to tag along on the errands.  

Another little example: I clean the lunch boxes in the afternoon for the next day. If my kids forget to bring up their lunch box, that’s fine, but they will have to clean and dry it themselves in the morning. 

The important thing is it’s not about me enforcing it, but allowing natural consequences to run. I try and take myself out of the equation as much as possible for this age group and push it back on them.

4. Have agreements

This is important: form mutual agreements. Can’t stress this enough as a strategy! If there is an attitude or behaviour that isn’t edifying to them or people around them, I often come back to this: we develop an agreement and an outcome. When forming agreements, we might ask:

  • What are things that are reasonable (for the parent) to expect 
  • What privileges are important to you (the child) 

I find spelling it out in detail necessary. I might say:

Is it reasonable that I expect you are kind to your siblings (even when they annoy you purely because they are younger)? Is that a reasonable thing to expect?

Are these (_______) chores reasonable to expect you to contribute to family life?  So, for example, when the bin is full in the kitchen, can I call out for it to be emptied and could you choose to do it happily? 

These types of conversations do bring out a fair bit of stuff to deal with, but that is all part of making an agreement. Using the above examples:

My child might say, “But the younger kids come into my room without asking permission. And they purposely annoy me.”

Which I could then say, “Thank you for letting me know about that.  That is a parenting issue and something I will need to work on with them because that is not okay. I’ve written it down (write it down) so leave that one with me and let me know if there are not improvements in that area in the next couple of weeks (make a diary note/alarm on my iPhone to ask about this issue in 2 weeks). And with the issue about them annoying you, have you ever thought about it like this? They adore you! But you are often unkind to them at the moment and they are desperate for some interaction with you. How about trying to find a positive way to invest in them and I think you’ll be surprised how it changes things. Give it a try and let me know go.”

A bit more on that: I have found it’s important to re-establish roles for this age group (because they like to parent their siblings and it’s not helpful). I’m a parent and these _________ are my responsibilities. Your job is to be a good older/younger sister/brother and whatever that looks like. It can actually be a relief to teens too, to know they DO have an advocate for them when it comes to siblings. The idea is to then empower them with how they choose to interact with those around them.

In terms of chores, I try and focus on systems (and teaching the children to form their own) and initiative in this age group.  So when I spell out what I expect of my teen in terms of adding value to family life, the focus is on thinking outside of themselves and power to them in regards to how they choose to do it. 

The next step is to talk about what is important to them and how we, as a family, can facilitate that. The kids can shoot for as much as they want, and we work out an agreed medium.

This same strategy also works with pulling kids up on certain things, like habits, manners or social behaviours that aren’t helpful. Sometimes when having a conversation with my kids I’ll say, “Are you happy if I mention this _____ when I see it, and will you see it as me caring for you?”

I’m not talking about nitpicking every single thing, but there have been times where a certain issue, sometimes even unconscious, needs to be redirected and this is a great way to do it rather than nagging or putting them down. In my experience, the kids have always been, yep, sure mum. Thanks.

5. Household Rules

We’ve had to move the line and adjust it for this age group but there are still rules for our household. One of the big ones is devices and computers have to be used in general living spaces. This has been really lovely actually, because often you will find my daughter and I sitting at the table, both working on different things, but there’s a communion there too.

6. Find out what they like

You think you would know your kids by the teen years. And you do! But their likes change and develop, and I’ve found it important to align myself with them in this way. For example, by reading their favourite book or listening to their favourite music and finding out why they like it so much.

7. Teach them how to argue with you (properly)

I like this one. I like a good debate. And I want my kids to be strong and confident.

I’ve been fascinated how investing in good persuasion skills have played out in family life. Just recently, my two older girls came to me with a joint request. They both gave me a written letter outlining their request, the reason for the request, what positives would come out of it and what they could do to make this request happen. I was rather flabbergasted and impressed with their thought process. 

I’m writing an entire new post about this one, but in short, I want my kids to challenge me because I’m not a perfect parent, and I need them to push back in the right way so I can be a better parent. 

However, there are both edifying and unedifying ways to do this. And it takes practice. There have been many times where my kids have pushed back and I’ve put so many holes in their argument they are left with nothing to stand on. And there have been times when I’ve been humbled by an assumption I wish I hadn’t made. There’s a fine line here and it’s something we’ve worked on and developed (and will continue to do so).  The point is, I actively teach my kids to argue with me in the right way. 

8. Take them places in the car

Parents become a taxi. Like, wow. But those times in the car, especially if it’s one on one, are vital! Many of the most important conversations I’ve had with my kids have been in the car, driving them to somewhere. And it’s not just important conversations, but general chatter too (see point 1). 

9. Don’t be precious about being their everything

I think there is a risk of wanting to retain that sense that you are the apple of their eye.  I never think “Why didn’t you tell me that?” but rather “What do I need to change so I can open the communication channels between us better.”  Kids tend to talk when they feel safe and respected.

10. Make normal things normal

When it comes to talking about those tricky subjects like sex, puberty and big questions, I’ve always had the policy of making normal things normal. I tell myself: Never act shocked; never taboo a subject; get over your own insecurities and put them aside. At this age, we’ve already broached most of the big topics, but I do prompt occasionally to see if there are any questions, so sometimes I will randomly ask, “Do you have any questions about anything? Anything you’re wondering? Anything you’ve heard about that you want an opinion on?” Keep communication lines as open as possible.

11. Just rescue them sometimes

There are times when I choose not to make an issue, I won’t address and attitude, I don’t enforce a consequence. Sometimes, they just need some no-strings-attached help. It’s about graciousness.

On a different vein, this has also come into play before when my teen might be caught in a potentially unhelpful situation and can’t see themselves out. I’ve done this before, and I’ll do it again: I’ve yanked them out of it. Again, it’s about graciousness. It’s tricky to know when to do what as a parent, but I’ve learned to trust my instinct.

Teens are great. They really are. They make me a better person. They GET sarcasm and that is So. Much. Fun.

Honesty, I don’t really know what I’m doing but I’m winging it with graciousness, strength and love. And here’s a cupcake.

11 Things I'm Learning About Parenting a Teen

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Kelly loves life at both ends of the spectrum: wearing high heel shoes one day and hiking boots the next; sipping tea out of a pretty cup and slurping hot coffee from a camping mug; challenging herself physically and stopping for quiet unhurried moments to feel the wind on her face. Kelly and her husband Matthew seek to live a fun and adventurous life with their four children and pet bird.

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  1. Lisa says

    I love so much about this post Kelly! I love that you’re a couple of years ahead of me with children so I can learn from you. My favourite learning from this post is the agreements – that’s something I can do differently and hopefully get a different (better) response with. I also really like the arguing – I have one who simply walks off in a huff, and I am constantly asking her to debate me – we’re getting there. Thank you.

  2. Kathryn McDonald says

    these are great suggestions! Thank you for sharing them, and for acknowledging that teens are great, not monsters.

  3. Caroline says

    This is such a helpful piece. Thank you! My kids are at a younger stage (5 and 9). Both boys. I’m trying to set up some house rules (I really like your one around devices).
    Have you any advice for the chores you set up for your kids at that age?
    I’m finding it a bit of a minefield, trying to put fires out without the constant nagging I often feel I am throwing at them.
    Thanks again for your advice. Love hearing about how other parents do things!

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