One Tough Job

I’m not talking about teaching 8th grade – I’m talking about parenting a teenager!

Remember when they were 3 years old and were unhappy?  You could usually cheer them up with a hug and a cookie.  It’s waaay more complicated now, isn’t it?  You ask, “What’s wrong?”  And you get “Nuthin” or “Stop bugging me all the time!”  Or a defeated shrug.  Any further attempts on your part to communicate are either ignored or greeted with an outburst that lets you know your efforts aren’t appreciated.

And yet – when I shared this reality with my 8th graders a couple of years ago, there was a thoughtful pause and then one student said, “I’d still like that cookie!”  And from the corner of the room a soft voice said, “And I’d kinda like that hug.”

Parents tell me their teens don’t talk to them anymore.  Teens tell me their parents won’t listen.  Obviously, the desire to communicate is there on both parts, but it seems like you no longer speak the same language.  It’s my goal to provide a place to share advice and experiences in this blog.  Teens tell me I “get” them, and every year I hear, “I wish you’d tell my parents that!”  But I don’t have all the answers, so I’m hoping this can be a dialogue.  Please use the comment section to share your advice and your questions – and even your frustrations – and let’s make living with teens more meaningful and enjoyable than you thought it could be!


    • First off, let’s define a “cool” parent. Teens would be the first to tell you that that they need their parents to set boundaries to “keep us from messing up our lives.” I asked around, and a parent is considered to be “cool” if she understands teen culture but doesn’t try to be a part of it, and if she’s interested without being nosy. A cool parent also spends time with his teens without embarrassing them by asking personal questions in front of other people, or by showing off.

      Your best tool is conversation. But make sure it’s a two-way street – I always say there’s no point in lecturing, because after 30 seconds you’re the only one listening. If you can discuss issues before they become “live,” you’ll be way ahead. For example, when my boys were 10 or 11 and we’d visit the mall, I’d tell them then that they would never be allowed to just “hang out” there with their friends. When they asked why, we discussed personal responsibility as well as safety. A few years later when the day came that they were invited to hang out, they already knew the answer.

      Your second best tool is negotiation. If your teen wants to stay all night at a friend’s house where you’re not comfortable with the supervision, tell him he can stay until 10:00. After ranting a bit, he may plead, “Well, can I at least stay until midnight?” At which time you can either agree, or counter with “11:00.” Eventually, you may settle on 11:45, but both of you will feel like you’ve had a say. This is called sharing control, and I’ll cover it lots of times in this blog.

      My other suggestion is to take advantage of what you see on TV or in the movies. Simply mention casually (don’t “go off” on a teen – it’s a major sin in their world) your feelings about what you’re seeing or hearing. For example, when a young unmarried couple is shopping for an apartment together, you might say, offhandedly, “Don’t they know they’re supposed to get married first?” Don’t preach, don’t ask for input. Just throw it out there and let it float awhile.

      A parent who’s overly controlling isn’t cool, but neither is a parent who let’s his teen do whatever he wants. It always comes down to maintaining a reasonable balance. We’ll be talking more about how to do that!

  1. I think i totally lucked out with mine. Of course we are really close. He’s closer to me than dad. And i think the difference is that i’m better at reading his cues and knowing how to discuss issues without causing a “block” if that makes sense. And maybe its just because he’s only 14. Honestly though, i think MUCH of raising a teenager is done when they are 2 and 3 and 4 and so on, its about setting up clear boundaries, consistently following them, but more importantly building a strong relationship, lots of time, lots of talking. We homeschool and that helps a lot because we have a lot of LONG deep conversations. Anyway, I’ve not experienced much of what you describe, (yay!!!) Looking forward to your future posts and gleaning from your wisdom!!

    • Rebecca, I also homeschooled and was pretty close to my kids then. BUT, when they get older and are exposed to so many new people and opportunities the relationship between us changes, not to mention their maturity and wanting more autonomy. I have found that even though there was a strong bond, they need others to grow, and the boys especially need the dad, good or bad, it is a natural process. Don’t be surprised if you get pushed to the side a bit as he ages, just rely on prayer to get you through! Besides, if you have that bond now, he will still come home excited to share many things with you, just not everything. After all, isn’t our goal as parents to raise independant and capable adults? (It is a hard thing to do…letting go.)

  2. my 16 year old never wants to go to bed at the set time (it’s 10p.m. on school nights). I know he needs the sleep, but he often stays up later because my husband will not see that he gets to bed (I often have to go to sleep earlier because of my health issues). I have tried explaining how important it is to get proper sleep for so many reasons, not necessarily all at one time. I cannot decide which one is worse, the teen or dad. Friends suggested just letting the kid stay up. I know the popular saying is “pick your battles”, but when does sleep time become a health issue? What do you suggest? 🙂

    • Sounds like you’ve gotten yourself into a classic power struggle. If your son doesn’t go to bed when you’ve told him to, you’ve got to issue consequences. But you’re not there to enforce the bedtime set by you, and Dad doesn’t enforce it for you. I’m sure you don’t want to look like you’re powerless or ignored (who does?), but you’re pretty helpless to “make” either Dad or Son follow your rules.

      The experts tell us high schoolers should get at least 9 hours of sleep each night. For the average teen, who gets up between 6 and 7 in the morning, that translates to bedtime no later than 10. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually realistic for two reasons:
      1. Between after-school commitments and homework, many teens just aren’t done with everything they need to do by 10, and
      2. Studies have shown adolescent circadian rhythms are set to be sleepy at midnight and not awake until 9 a.m. Their level of melatonin doesn’t even begin rising (a sleep trigger) until after 10. This means they’re just not tired.

      So what’s a concerned parent to do? First off, make sure that once he’s in bed, he’s sleeping and not texting or playing games on his phone or computer. I’m astonished by how many teens tell me they’re up texting at 2 or 3 a.m.

      Secondly, hold a family meeting. Explain in as few words as possible your concerns about your son’s health if he doesn’t get enough sleep. But acknowledge that at 16 years old, 10:00 might not be a reasonable request. Ask him when he thinks he could realistically get to bed every night, and JOKINGLY say you think 1:00 a.m. might be too late. Be prepared to settle for as late as 11 or 11:30. Once you’ve given him some control, you may be surprised at the results. Instead of staying up just to prove to you he’s not tired, you may find that some nights he chooses to go to bed earlier just because he’s tired (and can do so without relinquishing any control). Other nights, he may push it until midnight. If he has the freedom to take charge of his own sleep needs, he’s more likely to make better choices. This doesn’t mean you don’t make suggestions occasionally: “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been really keeping some really late nights. Did you have a plan for catching up on some of that sleep?”

      You didn’t mention weekends, but if his schedule allows, you might consider letting him stay up really late on Friday (until 1 or 2), then letting him sleep in on Saturday morning. Again, he enjoys a little freedom and control, and you have a bargaining chip in your pocket.

      One last thought: he will probably keep a schedule like this (late to bed) not only through high school, but all the way through college. Learning to monitor – and take care of – his own sleep needs is a really important skill!

  3. Do you feel that we need to deal with the girls differently than the boys?! I have two great teens!!!! I am not as worried about by 13yo boy (as said above maybe because he is only 13) as I am my almost 17 yo girl. She still feels as though she doesn’t fit in any where, she is smart, funny and talented, but hangs here head low and grumpy at school (per little brother). She has only one semi friend (due to boyfriend who takes priority, has never been invited to a party and has no one to “hang out” with much less she is not out going enough to put herself out there to make new friends. I worry that these experiences are part of growing up and do not want those to happen in college with no back up (me). Fortunately she does talk to me!! I try not to embarass her?! I enjoy being involved in my kids activities and try to give them freedom to be out on their own. What can I do to help this miserable teenager? Texting seems to be her only comfort and it is with two boys far away???? No other friends.

    PS thanks for this blog, the balance of raising a teenage is much like the working mom struggle.


    • While social difficulties can be just as painful for boys as they are for girls, I do think girls need to be handled differently. As women, we understand how our much of our self-esteem is reflected in the approval of our female friends, and it’s hard for a girl not to have that.

      I know your daughter, and she’s not just smart – she’s brilliant (as well as beautiful). In some high school circles, this means two strikes against her, because she might be seen as a threat or even as intimidating. In a smaller school, where competition is higher and choices for friends are smaller, this can lead to an out-of-sync teen. In this case, I define “out-of-sync” as being unable to find friends with similar maturity level, intellect, outside interests, or temperament. I know it’s tough now, but the good news is these kids usually find their kindred spirits in college.

      In the meantime, you might evaluate how much time she’s devoting to the boyfriend that might be spent with other girls. Also take stock of her extra-curricular activities: is she participating in activities she really enjoys, where she might meet other girls she can relate to? Are they all tied to the school, or does she have opportunity to meet girls from other schools? Is she involved at church? Often barriers which exist at school are non-existent in a good youth group.

      Some girls don’t need to be part of a large circle, but they all need at least one good friend to confide in. I’ll pray she finds one soon. In the meantime, I’m glad she’ll talk to you. Stay open and available – and maybe look for times when you can suggest she invite a girlfriend to come over or to join you on an outing. It’s so much easier to talk to one girl than to a group!

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