Are you at a loss as to how to parent your difficult teenager? Perhaps you are wondering if you have a “troubled teen”?
Are you constantly worried about what they might do next?
Do you know what is troubling them?
Have you got the knowledge and tools to support them?
I’m here to help. As a parent, it’s so difficult to adapt to our teenagers’ changing needs and challenges and to be responsive. We can’t always “get it right”. Sometimes we can be left feeling hopeless and unsure what to do for the best.
“What have we done wrong?”
“Why won’t she listen to me?”
“I don’t understand why he behaves like that.”
For parents of ‘difficult teenagers’, it can feel like a constant battle of wills. The teen is pushing and testing the boundaries, and it might feel like they are doing themselves or others harm.
In this article we take a look at how to understand and work with a young person through their teen years. To pre-empt and respond to difficult teenage behaviour and develop a master plan that supports both them and you.
What is a ‘Difficult Teenager’?
Well, this definition will differ from family to family. Very often, a teenager’s difficulties are affected by external and environmental factors outside your control, such as academic or friendship problems.
Preston Ni, a Professor of Communication Studies, states that:
“Teenagers are a unique and often self-contradictory breed. As a group, they strive for individuality yet crave peer acceptance. They act like they know everything and yet lack much experience. They feel invincible and yet are often insecure. Some teenagers thrive on testing and challenging authority. A few may be self-destructive.”
- Perhaps you feel they never listen and show a negative attitude towards you, your house rules, boundaries and expectations?
- Perhaps they display temper tantrums? Angry teens may appear disengaged from you, defiant and uncooperative.
- Do they have frequent mood swings?
- Are they being secretive and non-communicative?
- Are they generally being a disrespectful teenager?
Take a moment to reflect on what feels particularly difficult for you about your teenager at the moment.
Difficult Teenagers: Labelling is Not Always Helpful
Although I have used the term ‘difficult teenager’, your child doesn’t necessarily need fixing and there isn’t always something wrong.
In fact, if your teenager is “difficult”, it’s more about understanding what they are communicating through their behaviour. Their actions tell you something.
Difficult Teens: Always Try to Look Beneath the Surface
There are so many reasons why your teen’s behaviour might be difficult at the moment or they may be difficult to parent.
Friendship problems, undiscovered learning difficulties at school, or gender or sexuality concerns for example, may be weighing heavy on your teen and causing a lot of stress.
General academic pressure may also be a factor. There’s a lot of pressure on academic outcomes for young people these days.
Your teenager may have neurodivergent traits which make teenage life that little bit more difficult. For example, a key trait of autism is black and white thinking. If your teen sees life in absolute shades of black and white rather than greys, they can feel difficult to parent at times.
Spend some time reflecting on the reasons why you have a “difficult teen” and explore this with your child if you can.
To do this, you will need to increase that sense of connection between you, at a time when it may feel very strained.
Start with just a few minutes of connection each day.
Talk to your teenager about their interests perhaps, during a calm time of day when they are in a positive state of mind.
Communicating With a Difficult Teen
Your child needs to feel heard and understood. They may need extra guidance, support, validation and love.
Read Dr Lucy Russell’s guide to listening skills for parents as a great starting point.
You will find her article about the anger iceberg analogy helpful too, in understanding your teen’s behaviour.
Difficult Teens: Understanding Trauma
Teenagers who have experienced difficult times or had traumatic life experiences tend to become hypervigilant to threats and may react quickly and defensively to every little thing.
This then governs their behaviour. This article about teenagers and trauma is a brilliant in-depth guide.
Help from a mental health professional may be required. I will explain how to find help below.
Dealing With Teenagers: What’s Normal?
Challenging teenage behaviour is normal in adolescence. However, if it has a significant impact on your child’s life, family life or the lives of others (such as peers) then this is outside of the “normal” range and you may need external support.
The best way to help you identify what normal might look like is to have an understanding of the teenage brain and development.
I recommend the book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dan Siegel.
Your teenager’s brain is not fully developed until at least around the age of 25 years, so they will inevitably be learning and developing through curiosity, mistakes and exploration.
This period of time is characterised by many emotional and behavioural changes, in addition to physical changes.
Difficult Teenagers: The Brain Explained
During early childhood, the brain’s structure is on a rapid developmental remodelling and wiring mission. But it takes the next phase of development through adolescence for the wiring to be optimised in key parts of the brain.
The teenage brain experiences remarkable growth. In particular, the prefrontal cortex stands out. This area aids in rational thinking and decision-making. However, during the teen years, it’s still maturing.
Simultaneously, the limbic system is active. This system handles emotions and rewards. During adolescence, the limbic system can be more dominant than the still-developing prefrontal cortex. This can lead to emotion-driven decisions.
Two significant processes occur during this time. One is the formation of the myelin sheath, which speeds up neural connections. This helps improve cognitive functions and reactions. The second process is synaptic pruning. This refines neural connections by eliminating weaker synapses, strengthening essential ones.
The balance between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system, combined with these neural processes, can make emotion regulation challenging for teenagers. Understanding this helps us empathize with their experiences.
It can be challenging for teens to manage big emotions such as anger, because it is the (as yet under-developed) prefrontal cortex which will eventually help them effectively control and inhibit the powerful emotions which originate in the limbic system (emotion centre) of the brain.
So whilst anger which hurts others (physically or emotionally) is not okay, you should know that your teenager is not in full control of their brain yet.
Watch this video to learn about your teenager’s brain.
What Does Difficult Teenage Behaviour Actually Look Like?
During their teenage years, children love to push adults’ buttons, especially their parents who are usually their main source of authority. When they do this, they are trying to communicate something, illicit a response and test you!
Some examples of button pushing:
- Teasing others
- Being defiant
- Talking back
- Being sulky
- Having “temper tantrums” or outbursts
- Breaking the rules
- Challenging set boundaries
- Provoking and poking
It’s important to recognise what’s happening and remain calm and in control.
Your teen needs you to be the adult.
Try to find out what’s triggering them and whether there is anything you can do to help. This article will give you some tips for staying calm.
Try to reframe this challenging behaviour if you can.
Reframe it as your child learning to assert their independence and figure out where the boundaries are. At the same time however, it doesn’t mean you should accept disrespectful or dangerous behaviour or that there shouldn’t be a consequence.
Difficult Teens: Risk-Taking
Risk-taking is a normal part of healthy development and should be encouraged. Positive, calculated risks develop a child’s confidence and growth as human beings.
There are certain organisations, such as scouts, which actively encourage the freedom to learn through calculated risk-taking.
It can take time for many children to learn how to calculate the pros and cons of taking a risk safely. Some teenagers will need more coaching in this area than others from parents and teachers.
Some risky behaviours are of course not healthy and can lead to consequences that are long-lasting.
These are behaviours which put the child or others at risk of physical, mental, emotional harm or abuse. They can be referred to as red flag behaviours, ones that are cause for concern.
- Drug use.
- Alcohol abuse.
- Petty crimes (such as stealing, anti-social behaviour).
- Hate or knife crime.
- Risky or promiscuous sexual activity.
Is your teenager engaging in these risky behaviours?
In this case, the number one priority is ensuring their safety. See the section below on professional help, and take a look at our article about teen behaviour contracts.
Social Media Use in Teenagers
Social media is an important way that most teenagers stay connected with each other and the world today. I have written an article to guide you on social media use in teenagers.
Statistically, teenage girls use platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram more than boys, and for longer periods of time. Many of us have had to radically re-examine our boundaries and beliefs about our children’s screen time since the pandemic.
Whether you have a pre-teen child or a teenager, this article looks at the risks that you need to consider and well as advice on how to get started.
Your Difficult Teenager: When to Seek Professional Help
If you see any red flag behaviours like aggression or self-harm, the first step is to visit your doctor. The doctor will be able to recommend an appropriate support pathway for child and your family.
This might include:
- Counselling and other mental health services
- Family therapy
- Social worker
- Support groups
- in the UK: A referral to CAMHS (NHS child & adolescent mental health services)
Knowing how to deal with a difficult teenager can feel overwhelming and there are some behaviours that may need addressing with professional help. You may be worried that your teenager is experiencing mental health problems that are leading to their difficult behaviour.
The reality for some parents is that their teenager does not want to or will not engage with them as parents. Much as you try, it can feel impossible for you to get through to them or provide the level of support they need. This is when help from an external source can be invaluable.
If you or another member of your family feels threatened by your teenager you should call the police. It is important that your child understands that there is an absolute boundary when it comes to threatening or aggressive behaviour towards others.
In my experience, the police tend to deal with such situations sensitively and it may lead to you getting some direct support from your local council’s family support service.
By drawing a firm line, you will be not only helping your child to understand the boundary, but making it less likely that the situation will escalate to further – and possibly even more serious – incidents.
You will also find information about how to get the right help for your child in our article about child therapists.
If you feel like you or someone else is at risk of harm from your teenager’s behaviour, it may be appropriate to call the police.
If you are not sure whether your teenager needs professional help or how to access it, you can watch my colleague Dr Lucy Rusell’s free class: Does My Child Need Help, And What Kind of Help is Right For Us?
How to Deal With a Difficult Teenager: Don’t Do It Alone
Remember, you are not alone.
Reach out to other family members or friends to help you and reinforce important messaging.
Sometimes, young adults don’t want to share everything, good or bad, with their parents. They may be able to relate better with siblings, cousins or other family members outside of the immediate family.
If you’re a parent who has little or no family support, there are lots of parenting groups, including on-line options that you can look to for support and the sharing of ideas and strategies. See below for further details.
You may also feel inspired and comforted by these Parenting Quotes for Hard Times.
Difficult Teens: The Master Plan
How to Deal With a Difficult Teenager
The good news is that there are lots of practical and proactive things parents, teachers and other adults can do to support teenagers.
Take a look at the master plan below which identifies some key areas to focus on as a parent.
(You may have some great ideas of your own too).
1. Communication With Difficult Teens
Sometimes, teenagers don’t think that adults really listen to them and this will lead them to act out, seeking validation. Another thing teenagers often do is stop listening to you! They show it verbally and in their body language.
Assertive and effective communication (which includes active listening) can help to decrease resistance and improve co-operation from your teenager. This is because you are leading and showing them how clear communication can be positive and work.
2. How to deal With Teenagers: Firm Your Boundaries
Experiencing more independence is probably high on your teenager’s priority list. They want to make their own decisions.
Testing and challenging boundaries is normal. However, it’s important to have clear rules and boundaries at home and outside.
Teenagers still require a framework of boundaries and these are especially helpful when there is uncertainty and challenge in their lives.
Let your teenager know what you expect of them and what behaviour is acceptable/unacceptable and why.
3. Difficult Teens: Work on Consistency in Parenting
It’s really important for all adults to show consistency in messaging and when applying rules and boundaries.
Reinforcing the same messages and giving clear parameters and consequences in place is crucial.
4. Difficult Teens: Boost Your Relationship
Try to set aside 1-1 time with your teenager.
Speak positively in front of other people about your teenager.
Let your teenager know that they are loved unconditionally and that you’re there for them, no matter what.
5. Help & Support in Parenting Difficult Teens
Know how and when to seek out wider support and help. Don’t try to do it all alone.
6. Nurture & Dealing With Difficult Teenagers
In difficult times, even though you may feel exhausted and challenged, it’s a good idea to increase nurture of your difficult teenager.
Home environments have a strong influence on teens’ health and well-being.
Showing increased warmth and supportiveness and a non judgmental approach will help them to feel safe.
It’s hard to do this if your relationship has suffered because of your teenager’s difficult behaviour. Just do your best to carve out some time when you show them unconditional love no matter what. This could be an extra hug, making them a cup of tea, or watching a movie with them.
7. Parenting Difficult Teens: Rewards
Don’t forget to reward good behaviour and positive choices, even if it feels like they are few and far between.
Let your child know you’ve noticed and that you are proud of them.
However, don’t get too hung up on this. Focus on helping instil in them a desire to make their own good choices without need for extra validation.
8. Dealing With Difficult Teenagers: Be a Good Role Model
You have far more influence over your teenager than you might imagine!
Show the kind of behaviour you want to see in your teenager. If you require them to be respectful towards you, then you must show them respect too. Be respectful to others around you as your teenager still watches you as a role model, learning from you all the time.
9. Difficult Teenager: Keep Your Cool When Your Buttons Are Being Pushed
The less reactive you are to provocation, the better you can access good judgment choices and responses. The best way to manage this may be taking some slow, deep breaths or use other calming techniques before you talk.
Remaining calm and in the adult/parent role will allow you to be more effective in diffusing tricky or threatening situations with your teenager.
When you are feeling calm again, consider using a behaviour contract if there are problem behaviours which need increased boundaries.
10. Focus on Your Teenager’s Interests
Tapping into your child’s interests and things that make them feel good about themselves is vital.
Encouraging and enabling them the try out new things can channel their energy and help to re-focus your teenager’s mind away from activities that may be harmful for them.
Dealing With Difficult Teenagers: Summary
Understanding how to deal with a difficult teenager isn’t straightforward with so many factors and forces at play.
Remember that it’s normal for your teenager to test you and the boundaries placed on them in society. They are trying to find their place in a fast changing world.
As the adult, you can help them by giving clear boundaries and being there for them, no matter what.
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.