Parenting a Teen: Navigating High School

As your teenager approaches the high school years, changes in their attitude, mind and body are often easy to see. They may want to spend more time with peers and less time at home, they may not be as open in sharing their thoughts and emotions, and they are, obviously, growing into the body of a young adult. As their parent, however, appropriate ways to manage those changes and help your child to thrive may not be so clear.

Since parenting a teen presents its own unique set of challenges, it can be confusing and frustrating to both you and your teenager. The good news is this is a common feeling among parents, so here are some tips you can use to guide your child through these years.

Don’t take your teenager’s behavior personally

When a teen pulls away, yells or behaves unpredictably or emotionally, it’s easy to feel attacked or hurt. Jody Baumstein, LSCW, a licensed therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life, says, “A teenager’s brain is not fully developed. Therefore, we have to understand that they sometimes operate in an emotional, irrational or impulsive way.” It’s normal for teens to respond with emotion, to barely respond at all or to make quick decisions. If you’re aware that this is typical, and it’s more likely to happen than not, then you may be less likely to take it personally. It’s not about you—it’s normal teen behavior.

Set realistic expectations for your teen

When a teen doesn’t do what a parent asks them to do, or if they break a rule, it’s very frustrating. That’s why it’s OK to be the parent, let your child know what you expect them to do and what the consequence will be of not doing it. Baumstein says, “Setting clear expectations and enforcing limits will help your teen learn boundaries and expectations for their behavior.” This can not only create a more peaceful home, but it also sets your child up for success after school, where expectations and consequences carry more weight.

Baumstein recommends tying your expectations with real consequences. For example, if you want your child to do a chore, tie it to something that matters to them. If they want to go to a friend’s house, they needs to clean their room first.

Be clear about your expectations, then be consistent and firm with them. It’s your job to offer the expectation. Your child has the option to comply or not, but they should know that you will consistently enforce the expectation and limit. Otherwise, they will continue to push boundaries.

Let your child fail

One way teens learn is by making mistakes and then seeing how things turn out. They need to be able to make a decision and then process how it went. From failure, teens can learn how to be more responsible, adapt to situations and not be afraid to try new things.

One thing you can do to help your child is to allow them to make their own decisions (within reason) and live with the consequences, whether good or bad. Let go of the reins a bit. Allow your child to decide whether to take an umbrella on a rainy day, whether to take a harder class in school or what summer job to take. Then, if they come home wet from the rain, overly challenged or disappointed from their decisions, you can be there to help them process and learn from their decisions.

Protecting your child from pain and mistakes will not allow them to develop the skills they need to manage their own life when they're an adult.

Give your teen opportunities for open communication

Teens’ lives are really busy—between sports, school and their friends—so it can be challenging for you to find time to communicate with them. When teens no longer need their parents for rides, that connection to family is even harder to find. Be intentional about connecting with your child by creating natural opportunities.

Instead of saying “Oh, we need to talk,” plan family mealtime, walk the dog together or take a trip together to the grocery store. That way, the conversation feels more natural instead of forced and stressful.

When they do talk to you (even if it’s something you really don’t want to hear):

  • Actively listen without judgment.
  • Thank your teen for coming to you.
  • Let your teen know you’ll get back to them if you don’t know the answer right away.
  • Ask for permission before sharing any personal stories or advice.

Be a positive role model

Our children do notice what we do, even though they probably won’t acknowledge it. That’s why it’s so important to be a good role model for your teen.

  • Demonstrate healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep, eating right and creating downtime for yourself.
  • Show and share the ways that you handle failure, anger and other emotions. How do you react when things don’t go your way?
  • Show that you have different interests and activities to help them understand the importance of not having their sense of identity completely wrapped up in one thing, like a sport, perfect grades or a relationship.

You’ll also have more influence if you can build family time into you the day. Baumstein says that this time together should feel authentic. “It’s about doing what works for your family.” It should be time when your teen can share about their day, hear about yours, and talk openly without any judgment or pressure.