Improving Parent-Teen Relationships

Improving Parent-Teen Relationships

Adolescence can be challenging, but living with constant discord is not the only option.

 “Why do you hate me?”  

“You’re the worst mother in the world!”  

These are some of what Kate Hoyle hears from her 14-year-old daughter.  

“It’s like she went from being a sweet girl to a raging teen overnight,” said the Woodbridge-based parenting coach and mother of two. “It was like getting slapped in the face.” 

As children become adolescents, they often begin to push away parents and crave independence. Topics of conversation that were once pleasant now can be volatile. Some parents may question their parenting abilities.  

“Adolescents naturally become more autonomous and shift somewhat to peer influence after looking exclusively to parents for the answer. But a smart parent learns to shift their approach and skills with the onset of this stage of development," said Hoyle. “This change can be gradual or it can be sudden and is sometimes the result of a major life change. It is important to get to know the parents of your child’s friends.” 

"Routine and ritual help maintain open communication."

— Kate Hoyle, parenting coach

Recognizing and understanding the change in behavior that is associated with this developmental stage can help parents to navigate it, says Bethesda-based therapist Carol Barnaby, LCSW. "Tweens and teens begin to develop their autonomy by questioning, testing, and for some violating the rules parents set for them," she said. “They express strong opinions about politics, clothing, music, and social relationships. They begin to yearn for their freedom to do adult-like things.  They may lose interest in previous hobbies, be easily embarrassed, and have emotional ups and downs." 

It is not uncommon for teens to act like they know best and to dismiss a parent’s guidance. “It can be annoying, but it shows confidence," said Hoyle.  "Enjoy debates and discussion with them. They need to develop independent analysis and thought.” 

However frustrating for a parent, this stage is necessary for a child’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. “It’s when they’re entering the final phase of childhood, where they are working on being able to self-govern and grow into an independent functioning adult," said Barnaby. "Kids begin to enter this phase around the age of 12 to 14 and want more and more independence and less need for parent connection. Instead, they might see who they are in the eyes of their peers." 

Though they might appear to push away parents, teens still need to feel connected to them. Simple conversations can help recreate that bond. At times, parents must create opportunities to spend time without phones or electronics with their child, advises Ameila Muench, Psy. D., a child psychologist in Alexandria. "Do something together that they enjoy and try to keep the time consistent,” she said. “This can quickly become your special time away from other family members, and it allows them to open up." 

 “Ask questions to find out rather than instantly responding with your view. Listen rather than instruct." 

— Ameila Muench, Psy. D 

"Routine and ritual help maintain open communication," added Hoyle.  "Your child gets to know when you are available and you get to understand when they are most likely to be open to talk. Car rides work well because it removes the intensity of a sit-down conversation requiring eye contact.” 

Listen without judgment or criticism and resist the urge to offer unsolicited advice, advises Muench. "Use active listening, which means being able to repeat back to them what they have just said," she said. "Take note of the language they are using. What are they really trying to tell you? Ask questions to find out rather than instantly responding with your view. Listen rather than instruct."  

While establishing rules and setting boundaries are necessary, trying to control a teen might lead to rebellion, says Hoyle. “Get curious, not furious,” she said. “When your teen makes an unhealthy choice or does something you don’t agree with, getting mad or telling them you’re disappointed will further your disconnection. Their behavior is trying to get one of six core emotional needs met: acceptance, affection, appreciation, attention, autonomy, or connection. Which one is it? Look beneath the surface." 

Allowing teens to have a certain amount of personal space and feel that they are trusted can strengthen the relationship between a parent and an adolescent. “Continuous tracking and distrust can affect their mental health that can lead to depression,” said Hoyle. 

Self-doubt is common among teens, so praise helps build confidence if offered sincerely. “They’re trying to find their place in the world, so focus on attributes not attainment," said Muench. "If teens and tweens learn that they only get praise when they look a certain way or achieve through academic endeavors or sports, they can become people pleasers or unhappy perfectionists." 

Remember that this stage in a child’s life is only temporary. “One of the biggest things we can encourage in a child is curiosity. Talk to them as the person you want them to be," said Hoyle.

Surviving the Teen Years 

1. Avoid trying to control 

2. Spend time together without electronics 

3. Withhold judgement 

4. Offer sincere praise 

5. Maintain open communication 

6. Allow independence, but set boundaries 

7. Give teens personal space