The Teen/Parent Rollercoaster!

Anyone who has had the pleasure of sharing their life with a teenager knows that life can be a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Very rarely does life go smoothly for too long. We all know to expect the unexpected and, on some days, to just hope for the best!

On the other hand, it can also be really difficult to be a teen as there are periods filled with self-doubt, anxiety about appearance, a quest for social acceptance and a desperate desire to be liked, changing social dynamics and friendship groups, sometimes overwhelming peer pressure, a prevalence of dangerous risk taking behaviours, some unrealistic parental expectations and raging hormones all experienced whilst living in a world which constantly presents conflicting and confusing societal messages. We also know that teens can sometimes be incredibly unkind to one another. I honestly, believe it is harder to be a teen now than it has ever been.

Despite all the challenges, the unpredictability and the heartache, which can come with being the parent of a teen, it can be an incredibly rewarding time as a parent. Although our children sometimes think they don’t need us at this time, whilst they may appear to try to push us away, they actually need us more now than at than any other time in their lives. However; we walk on a pretty precarious tightrope, as we try to give our children the independence they desire whilst being there for them when they need us.

I actually love working with teenagers, despite all the challenges, as it is incredibly rewarding. Over many years of working with many, many teens I’ve found that the following strategies have worked for me:

  1. Teens need firm boundaries and they actually respect these. As parents we need to set the boundaries for our children, and it is our child’s job to try to push the boundaries, but we need to stand firm and resolute and not let these boundaries be changed. If you set a curfew of 11pm then this must be the curfew. Your teens will lose all respect for you if you keep giving in and allowing the boundaries to be changed.
  2. Teens respond to consistency. Nothing confuses a teen more than an adult who is inconsistent in their response or their mood. It is the job of the child to be moody and unpredictable not the adult.
  3. Teens need to hear the word NO and to understand that NO means NO. Too often, teens think that if they ask, nag or plead often enough then ‘no’ can become ‘yes’. Often saying no is really tough and it is easier to just give in, but if you renege because your child has pestered you enough, then they will quickly learn to continue to do this. Don’t make a rod for your own back by giving in too easily or too often.
  4. Presenting a united front is crucially important. Most couples feature a good cop and a bad cop (I’m sure you can work out which one I have been in my family!) and our kids quickly work out the weaker link and capitalise on this. Proactively discuss your position as a couple on acceptable activities, curfews and consequences and never assume that you will be on the same page. Have this worked out before the discussion with your kids so they see you as a united front.
  5. You need to know where your teens are and what they are doing at all times. Don’t assume that they are telling you the truth. If they say they are going to Adam’s house, ring and check with Adam’s parents and don’t be afraid to ask questions such as who else will be there, what are they going to be doing whilst they are there, and which adults will be home. 
  6. Develop strong and trusted relationships with the parents of your teen’s friends as they can become your greatest allies and support. Create a pact with one another to always be honest with each other about communicating what you see and hear each of your kids doing. Don’t be afraid to let your friends know when their teen is doing the wrong thing or putting themselves at risk. Also, if a parent tells you something that your teen is doing, be appreciative of this information and don’t become upset with them. It often takes great courage to reach out and be honest with another parent.
  7. As parents, we don’t always get it right. When we make a parenting mistake (and we all will at some stage), own the mistake, apologise, and make amends. Our children learn to model their behaviour on our reactions and responses.
  8. When your teen does something incredibly stupid, which you could never imagine that they would have done (and believe me they all will at some time!), try to remain calm. If you get angry and over-react then the teen will focus on your reaction rather than what they have done. This is probably the hardest thing of all to do as when we are disappointed or upset with our kids, we often get angry. In my experience anger never helps, it only ever distracts from the real issue and makes it harder to deal with.
  9. Probably the most important thing of all is that you are not your teen’s friend, you are their parent. There will be times when they will be angry with you, they won’t speak to you and they will give you the silent treatment. They will slam the door on you, they won’t look at you, they will say you are unfair, and they may even say they hate you. If these things are happening, then generally you are doing exactly what you should be doing as parents. Conflict is a natural part of life with a teen and occurs when we are doing our job, setting boundaries, saying no, and enforcing consequences.

I’m certainly not saying that I am an expert in working with teens, and always gets it right, but I’ve worked with enough teens and their families to know what has worked in most situations so I hope that by sharing the above it might be helpful for you. I am certainly not trying to judge but rather to help.

Being a Head of High School is a lot like being parent of a teen. I know to expect the unexpected, and to expect to be challenged daily, that the students will occasionally do incredibly stupid things, that they will disappoint me, they will frustrate me, they won’t always tell me the truth, they will make mistakes, and they may be moody and oppositional. But I also know that if I am calm, firm, fair, consistent, kind, and approachable then I am best able to help the students in my care and teach them what it means to be a good adult.

ABOUT THE AUTHORMark Hemphill headshot

Mark Hemphill is the Head of High School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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