Surviving the Teen Years

By Gail Schwartz with Eve Kessler, Esq.


Guiding your adolescent toward adulthood starts with a dose of commonsense, coupled with clear expectations, and mutual respect • Most of all it involves not getting dragged into the drama that defines those tumultuous years

Sometimes it seems as if teenagers are in a constant state of crisis, often pulling parents into their drama. But as parents, it’s your job not to get caught up in their drama, but rather to empower them to handle their problems effectively. Below are concrete ways to help your teen turn crisis into opportunity—and in the process become a responsible young adult who has developed a personal belief system. 


Be creative in your response

There is a delicate line between what works and what does not work. If you’ve been responding in ways that don’t work, change your approach. It’s pointless to keep doing the same thing, hoping for a different outcome.

Use humor to diffuse tension

When the rhetoric heats up, bring down the temperature with humor. But beware of crossing the line into sarcasm, which often causes pain. It is not what you say, but how you say it.

Teens need to feel valued and in control in order to be open to learning. When you and she have differing opinions, aim for a win/win solution, even if that means agreeing to disagree.

Praise what she does—not her character

Say, “I like the picture you drew” not “You’re a great artist.” Use responses such as: “I’m glad you were kind to your sister today.” “You did a great job on that test. You worked hard for that.” “You make me smile.” “I’m so pleased you figured that out yourself.” By praising actions, you help your teen internalize character traits such as kindness, persistence, helpfulness, etc. 

Accept imperfection

Keep in mind that your teen is a work in progress. He won’t behave appropriately all the time, and he won’t change just because you tell him to. But you can help move him along the continuum toward maturity by reinforcing his positive reactions and behaviors. 

Acknowledge her feelings

You can’t change emotions; you can only change how you deal with them. Help your adolescent understand her emotions. For example, explain that anger is a cover for other emotions; it is never a primary emotion. Is she really feeling fear, shame, guilt, embarrassment, jealousy, frustration or insecurity? Being in touch with her true emotions will enable her to react appropriately.

Provide clear boundaries

Without boundaries, teens feel out of control. When you establish limits, be open to your child’s point of view. Don’t be afraid to change the rules if you feel he is correct; likewise be ready to accept his wrath if you opt to enforce the boundaries because you believe they are in his best interest.

Follow through

The flip side of setting boundaries is following through on consequences when your child oversteps those boundaries. To a smart teen, empty threats or inconsistent enforcement are an open invitation to manipulation. But if you threaten consequences, make sure they are appropriate. 

Present a united front

Don’t let your adolescent divide you and your partner: it will destroy the dynamics of your family. Discuss parenting with your partner. If you disagree, work through your differences out of your child’s earshot, but make sure to present a united front to him. Teens have an uncanny sense when it comes to figuring out where the fissures are and will not hesitate to drive a wedge if it’s to their advantage. 

Do not enable blaming

It’s important that teens enter adulthood accepting responsibility for their actions. Do not model blaming behavior at home. When you hear your teen pushing responsibility for her actions onto others, remind her that there are two sides to any story. Ask questions to help her see the other side: “What do you think he might say about what happened?” “Do you have any responsibility in this situation?”

Apologize if you’re wrong

Tell your teen that you made a mistake, even if it’s after the fact. He needs to learn that everyone is wrong sometimes, that he can be wrong, too, and that it’s okay to make mistakes: “I was really harsh with you the other day. I think I lost control, and I’m sorry.”

Re-frame the way you look at your adolescent

Instead of thinking of your teen as manipulative and trying to get her way, see her as clever and using her mind to get what she wants; instead of being stubborn, she is loyal; instead of being bossy, she has the ability to be a leader. Use those positive descriptors when discussing her conduct with her: “You like to tell people what to do and to help them. One day you will be a leader.”

Look ahead

Futuristic thinking is essential for adolescents. Teens tend to believe the negative and need you to feed into the positive. Acknowledge what you don’t like or what makes you upset, but explain that one day he won’t need that behavior and will choose to do things differently. Empower him with a positive vision: “I don’t like what you’re doing; one day you will choose to do it differently.” “You’re trying; it’s not working. Let’s think of a creative solution.”

Do not overprotect

Teens need to experience relationships, feelings, and situations for themselves. In order to be resilient, they have to learn how to master pain and disappointment. It’s a scary world for everyone, especially for kids with learning and attentional challenges who may be more fragile than their peers. Support your adolescent by feeding into the positive side of her thinking; make her feel capable and independent. It’s critical to let her know that you believe in her and what she can achieve.

Listen and respect

Listen and hear your teen’s subjective reality without interrupting. Even though you might see things differently this is her reality and she deserves a full hearing. If the discussion heats up and you do interrupt, derailing the conversation, re-visit the issue after emotions have cooled down. Tell your teen you were thinking about what happened and that you want to understand her: “Yesterday you were talking and I jumped in. I wasn’t really listening well enough. Can we discuss that again?”

Avoid arguing

Do not argue with your teenager: you will not win. Teens are driven by emotion, and logic often flies out the window. Do not let him drag you into what will surely escalate into an argument. Acknowledge his point of view, then step away: “I hear you and I can see you’re really angry with me. Let’s both think about this and we will talk later.” (If he storms off and slams the door, don’t let that behavior become the focus. Stay on track. You can discuss slamming the door at another time in a non-confrontational way.)

Keep your eye on the prize

Your relationship with your teen is the bedrock for her later independence. As you bring value to your adolescent, she will allow you influence. It is most important that, through your influence, she matures into a resilient adult with high self-esteem and a positive vision for her future.

This article is based on a presentation by Gail Schwartz, MS, MSW. Eve Kessler, Esq., a retired criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT) and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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