Helping Your Teen Navigate Change

Help guide your teen through change

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If there’s one word that defines the teenage years, it’s change. Growth spurts and acne tell just a fraction of the story. The brain is also changing in profound ways, all as teens try to assert their independence, figure out their identities and build deeper friendships than ever before. While it’s important for each teen to find their own path to adulthood, those of us who’ve already made the journey have an important role to play. These tips can help you guide your teen toward a healthy, happy future.

This activity will help you:

  • Communicate with your teen
  • Set appropriate expectations for your teen and yourself
  • Find resources to enhance your parenting playbook

1. Treat yourself and your teen with compassion.

As the parent or caregiver of a teenager, you’re going through almost as many changes as they are. You’re figuring out how to guide your teen through a challenging transition while adjusting to the idea that they will one day leave the nest. It’s OK to feel disoriented, and to doubt yourself at times. Remember, there isn’t one “right” way of parenting a teen, and you are not alone on this journey.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that your teen deserves your compassion and empathy. It’s crucial for them to know that your love is unconditional, even when their behavior is frustrating. Plus, modeling compassion is the best way to teach it. If you’re struggling to come up with a compassionate response to something your teen has done, ask yourself what you might say to a friend who’s going through a difficult situation.

2. Strive to be patient, present, and prepared.

Most teens spend several years preparing to spread their wings, and their first attempts to fly can be clumsy and hard to watch. These attempts may involve questioning family beliefs and traditions, challenging authority figures, or trying a new set of friends each week. Weathering confusion and frustration is part of the process for parents.

Your job isn’t to save your teen from discomfort. It’s to be caring, reliable, and present. One of the best gifts you can give them is showing that your love and commitment are indestructible. No matter how much they may tear you down or push you away, they need to know that you will still accept them and be there for them when they need it.

3. Listen carefully and ask questions.

Your teen might not share many details about their life with you, at least for a period of time. Whether they’re talkative, reserved or somewhere in between, ask questions about how they’re spending their time, who they’re hanging out with, and what’s difficult for them right now. Also ask what’s going well, and what kinds of things they find interesting, surprising, and funny. The more you know about the choices and changes they’re facing, the better prepared you’ll be. Even if you don’t get many answers, your teen will know that you care, and that you’re interested in who they are becoming.

Difficult conversations are an essential part of parenting a teen. It’s important to speak candidly about topics like drugs, alcohol and sex, and to be receptive to questions. Likewise, do your best to acknowledge the emotions your teen expresses, even if you don’t know exactly where the tears, anger or worries are coming from. Active listening – giving your teen your undivided attention, letting them talk with few interruptions and summarizing what they’ve said – can give you insight into your teen’s world while helping them feel heard.

4. Set clear rules and apply them consistently.

Make your household’s expectations as clear as you can, and discuss them with your teen regularly. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • What kinds of behavior are off limits in your house?
  • What chores or household duties is your teen responsible for?
  • What do you expect of your teen academically?
  • When is it OK to have visitors?
  • If your teen goes out at night, what time do they need to come home?
  • Are there any limits on when they can use a smartphone or tablet? If so, what are they?
  • What rules do you have about dating, if any?

If your teen has questions or concerns about the house rules, approach them from a place of empathy. You don’t need to change the rules if they disagree, but showing that you hear and respect their opinion helps build trust. 

On the flip side, be ready to stand firm if a rule has been broken. It’s OK to be flexible when the situation warrants it, but generally speaking, it’s best to apply rules consistently so your teen knows what to expect. Some of your teen’s choices will boggle your mind even if they don’t break the rules. Let these go. If you choose your battles wisely, you’ll have more leverage in conflicts about safety and other crucial matters.

5. Learn from other parents – and lean on them.

Many parents benefit from hearing other families talk about raising adolescents. Success stories can be excellent sources of strategies you might adapt for your own family, while tales of missteps can highlight how even the most competent parents struggle. Plus, other parents can help you stay up-to-date about emerging issues affecting teens and their families.

Parenting books, podcasts, and support groups are often good sources of this material. You might also explore message boards, blogs or newsletters on specific challenges like parenting a child with ADHD or thriving as a single parent. Looking for recommendations? Ask a teacher, therapist or librarian for their top picks.