Parents of struggling teens often find it challenging to find the best way to respond. It may help to keep the following tips in mind.∗
- Remember, virtually every child wants to have a good relationship with his or her parents, to succeed in life, to have friends, and to do well in school. Inborn challenges and difficult life circumstances may put these successes out of a teen’s easy reach. The struggling teen needs understanding and compassion as well as structure and discipline. Telling the teen who has ADHD to “just focus” is akin to telling a blind person “just open your eyes and see!” The person without eyes can learn to “see” with her or his fingers, ears, nose, and tongue. Similarly, the person with ADHD can learn to focus with individualized coping strategies and medication. In both cases, tailored supports are essential.
- Educate yourself about adolescent development. Learn about the behaviors to expect, the effects of physical changes, and ways to help your teenager deal with change. Knowing what challenges typical teens face can help parents weather storms and hang on to hope. Adolescents do grow out of some struggles.
- Remember your own adolescence, your changing feelings, anger at authority, and fears and hopes. Look at your adolescent’s behavior in the context of those memories to help keep perspective. Remember, though, that each person is different; your child may experience adolescence differently than the way you did.
- Join a parents support group or take a course on how to parent teens. Parenting is a learned skill. Peer support and education can help even experienced parents by giving them new ideas and coping strategies.
- Listen more than talk. Whether they show it or not, teens have heard what their parents have told them all their lives. The more parents repeat the same lectures, warnings, and threats, the less the teen pays attention. Keep lectures short.
- Show your adolescent how to delight in life’s pleasures and how to cope with the hard times. The beliefs that life should be fair and that one should always be happy can lead to frustration. Today’s teens tend to feel that having fun is a “right” they are due. The peer culture promulgates this myth. Parents’ voices can get lost in the cacophony.
- Reward good behavior by telling your teens how good it feels to you when you see him or her follow the rules. Positive reinforcement is far more effective than criticism or punishment. Words that belittle irreparably harm your relationship with your child.
- Teach your adolescent that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand, and give your child increasing responsibility for his or her personal well-being and that of the family. Many teens respond well when they have opportunities to show they are able to responsibly handle gradually increasing freedom and independence. When an adolescent’s behavior is out of control, a parent naturally and rightfully tends to assert limits to keep their child out of harm’s way. Once the teen’s behavior is more compliant, it is important to let the leash out gradually so the teen learns that responsible behavior leads to more freedom. Understandably, parents may be hesitant to allow more freedom, for fear that their child will free-fall back to the days of defiance. At some point, however, holding the teen back can in and of itself lead to meltdown.
- Spend quality and quantity time with your adolescent. Adolescents naturally pull away from the family and spend more time at school, with friends, or at a job. Still, some time spent with caring parents is key to a teenager’s ability to grow emotionally and socially. Take advantage of times when your teen is home, over dinner or watching television, to continue building your relationship. Know about your child’s outside interests. The trick is to be present and attentive without hovering and being intrusive.
- Encourage other caring adults, including friends and relatives, to spend time with your teenager. Aunts and uncles or adult neighbors can offer your teen additional support, guidance, and attention.
- Accept that you have feelings, too. You may feel frustrated, angry, discouraged, or sad during difficult times with your teen. Being a good parent does not mean being perfect. Model the ability to apologize when you have let your emotions get the best of you. Your apology will help your child understand human frailty and will model now to mend a strained relationship. Rupture happens in all parent-child relationships. Repair is what matters.
- Many parents of struggling teens ask themselves, “Where did I go wrong? What did I do to make my child be like this?” Parents who have been preoccupied with their own struggles may feel guilty about how their issues have hurt their children. Taking responsibility for one’s mistakes is a first step toward personal growth. This process can motivate a person to change for the better, develop a plan to become the kind of person he or she wants to be, and put that plan into action. This also models what parents want their struggling teens to do.
- Seek support and guidance for yourself. Parents may feel embarrassed when their child is having trouble. Parents of struggling teens often feel isolated from parents with “normal” teens. They may feel there is a conspiracy of silence: Why aren’t other parents talking about their children’s challenges? Parents may feel blamed, stigmatized, marginalized and silenced, and fearful of condemnation for having a child in trouble. Remember that millions of other parents of struggling teens are out there. Their silence separates them from each other. By talking to each other, parents of struggling teens can help one another.
- Do not despair. Adolescence is stormy for most families. Time, growth, and maturation can help. A lot.
∗ Some of these guidelines are adapted from recommendations developed by the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth under the auspices of the Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Family and Youth Services Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.