In the teen years, we need to adapt our parenting style to match our children’s changing levels of social, emotional and cognitive development. Parenting teens can be so hard to because we can’t just treat them as big kids with the same rules, yet they are not ready to be treated as adults.
Sometimes we need to adapt our parenting skills in the process of finding the right balance.
Parenting Today’s Teens
Today’s teens face particular challenges, some of which we as parents are having to figure out how to deal with for the first time. For example, post-pandemic many teens have missed out on essential social contact and their social functioning and confidence are lagging behind. This has caused low self-esteem and poor mental health. As parents of teenagers, we are also trying to navigate the constantly changing arena of social media and online safety. How can we keep our teens safe when the online environment is constantly shifting?
I’m Lucy Russell, a clinical psychologist in children and young people’s mental health in the UK. My favourite group to work with therapeutically is teens. Perhaps more importantly, I also have personal experience of parenting teenagers, as my two children are both teenagers!
In this article I want to outline 6 essential ingredients which will help your child to have positive mental health despite all the stresses and demands teenagers are facing. I am to give you confidence in your parenting of teenagers.
What are the Main Sources of Stress in Teenagers?
The main sources of stress among teenagers include:
- Peer pressure
- Hormonal changes and mood swings/mood changes
- Concerns about academic performance
- Worries about the future
- Family conflict
Here are my 6 essential keys to parenting teens who flourish, in order of priority.
1. Make Sure You Offer a Safe Base
“a place of safety, represented by an attachment figure (e.g., a parent), that an infant uses as a base from which to explore a novel environment. The infant often returns or looks back to the parent before continuing to explore.”
A safe base is vital for little kids but it’s also vital for parenting teenagers. Healthy adolescent development can only take place if they have a safe home to relax and recover from the demands of daily life. A safe base means not only a safe physical environment but also secure, close relationships with at least one adult with whom they feel safe.
Normal teen behavior involves gradually exploring more and more of the world, but returning to their “safe base” when they feel insecure or unsafe. Without this safe base, teenagers will feel extremely insecure and may struggle to develop true independence.
Do the best you can to make home a safe, stable haven for your child. Here are some important ingredients to a safe base:
- Family life involves some quality time with shared happiness and connection, however brief (e.g. a walk together, chatting in the car, watching a TV programme together).
- You (and any other adults in the home) are working towards connection and a positive relationship with your teen. Lines of communication are open.
- Parent-child relationships are loving and warm at their heart, even if the strong bond is often tested.
- There are clear, firm boundaries in place such as family rules with natural consequences. Boundaries help teenagers feel safe, even when they push them.
- Your teenager has their own private space to rest and recover, however small (it could be a corner or segmented area if they don’t have their own room).
If you’re looking to better understand and connect with your teenager, you can’t go wrong by picking on of my 10 best parenting teenagers books.
2. Re-think Lifestyle
To get your teen son or daughter successfully through the challenging teenage years, make sure you look at the basics. These include:
- Eating well, and
- Social contact.
Sleeping well is the cornerstone of mental health. Your teenager’s evening routine is the first vital step in ensuring they can wind down effectively and sleep.
When it comes to getting enough good quality sleep, start with taking a measurement of your teen’s sleep using my free sleep tracker template.
Next, look at your child’s daytime habits that are affecting their sleep and tweak these. For example, It’s important that your child’s brain connects the bedroom only with sleep and relaxation. Where possible, homework should be done in another part of the house and electronic devices should not be used in the bedroom.
In my view one of the best physical activities for overall wellbeing in teenagers is yoga. It’s fantastic for increasing mindful awareness, reducing stress and contributing to emotional development including self-regulation.
Any physical activity is beneficial for teen wellbeing, and even short bursts can be fantastic mood-boosters. Your teen can easily find a free workout on YouTube. As there are hundreds or thousands of choices, they are bound to find something that suits them. Your teen may need help from you to get started. For example, you could help them find a free printable workout tracker to boost their motivation.
If you can see that your child is not flourishing, read my article on lifestyle and mental health. It will give you lots of ideas for small adaptations you can suggest to your teenager to improve their well-being. Want a quick start guide with 3 easy ideas that will make a difference? Then start with my article called Quick Wins to Improve the Emotional Well-Being of Your Child.
If you know your child is experiencing stress, you will find a strategy called the cup technique helpful. My article about child stress will help you identify your child’s “cup fillers and emptiers”. It will give you plenty of ideas to ensure your child’s cup no longer overflows with stress.
3. Actively Build Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is a tricky concept when it comes to parenting of teenagers. What exactly is it and what do you do when young adults don’t seem to have a high level of it? As I explain in my article about children’s self-esteem, there are 3 components: Resilience, Optimism and Competence. The good news is you can work on each separately with your child and you will be able to see a real life difference in a short space of time.
Resilience, just like optimism and a sense of competence, often develops through life lessons and experience. However there are steps you can take to enhance its growth. My article on building resilience in children is full of practical tips. Resilience starts with feeling safe and secure at home (see above) but it’s necessary to push yourself outside your comfort zone and take calculated risks.
4. Grow Responsibility
A lot of parents of teens realise too late in the teenage years that they haven’t encouraged responsibility in their child as much as they would have wished. Perhaps you sometimes feel your teen is rather entitled? Or perhaps they don’t have strong values and morals?
Some of the telltale signs that your teenager lacks a sense of responsibility are:
- Your child is self-absorbed.
- Your child has to be nagged to do household chores.
- They struggle to make their own decisions.
- Your teenager engages in risky behaviors.
- They are vulnerable to peer influence and often do things which are not in line with their general morals.
I favour a “gradual supported responsibility” approach to developing a responsible teen. What does this mean? It means that teenagers are not adults so they can’t just start doing adult things of their own accord, like washing the car or making a three course meal. But you can do these complex tasks with them, gradually handing over the reins and witnessing the positive effects.
If you expect your teen to behave as responsibly as an adult and they are regularly falling short of your expectations, it’s a sign they need more direct support. You may need to adjust their expectations. For example, if their room looks like a bomb site, they probably want to tidy it but lack the organisational skills to actually do it. They need your help to break the task into smaller chinks and physically help them get started. If you expect them home from visiting their best friend by 9pm, they may not intend to be late but get carried away. They may need several reminders from you.
By the mid to late adolescent years, your teenager should also be clear on their values. What do they believe in, and what do they hold beliefs against? What morals do they want to live by? How can your teenager live by this moral code a little bit each day? It can be a sign of a major problem if your child doesn’t have clear values. They will be much more vulnerable to the negative influence of peer groups, for example, if they don’t have clear reasons not to be.
5. Get a Firm Grip on your Child’s Screen Use
Parents are having to navigate screen use from a beginner perspective. When we were children we didn’t have TikTok, SnapChat, or many of the complex video games today’s teens play. It’s new territory.
I believe in the saying “everything in moderation”. Video games and social media can have benefits for young people. The digital world can enable positive social interaction for those who struggle with face-to-face contact. Online interaction can build confidence in teenagers in some cases, including for my own teenage son.
On the other hand, too much time spent gaming or browsing social media can be addictive and can impact sleep. It can take away from essential elements of a healthy lifestyle such as physical activity. Screen time needs to be managed carefully and you must set strong boundaries. My article on screen time and boundaries will give you effective ways to do exactly that. You may need to develop a behaviour contract to reinforce your boundaries.
If you don’t feel you have a full awareness or control of your teen’s social media use, check out this article about teens and social media to get you started. Parental monitoring is important whether your child is thirteen or seventeen, but it will look different depending on the age and developmental stage of your child.
In the early years of being a teen, your child will need a lot of monitoring. As they become more savvy and sensible, of course you will need to allow more privacy and freedom in your parenting as they advance towards adulthood. But if your child is emotionally younger, you will need to put in tighter controls to keep them safe from bullying or exploitation.
6. Act Early to Support Mental Health Issues
Adolescence is a developmental stage full of hormone changes, emotional and physical changes and social change. To a teen, it can feel like they have little control. This puts teenagers at higher risk for mental health problems than other age groups.
According to the World Health Organisation, anxiety is the most common teenage problem when it comes to poor mental health. Worry and anxiety are the most common reasons for children to seek help at my clinic. It’s important to understand the triggers and early anxiety symptoms in children, so you can develop a plan of action and have a toolkit of practical strategies at hand. If your child’s anxiety has advanced beyond the mild stage and they are having panic attacks, read my no-nonsense instructive guide to panic attacks in children and apply the recommendations. Steps include slow, deep breath, grounding techniques and sitting with your teenager until the panic passes.
Many teens suffer with low mood. Not all require high level interventions such as therapy or medication. If your teenager’s low mood is only occasional or mild, my article on simple methods to help your teenager with low mood is a brilliant place to start. If you’re more concerned about your child’s ongoing low mood, you need to understand the contributing factors for your child’s low mood. It outlines nine strategies to apply.
If your child’s poor mental health is significantly impacting their happiness or functioning in everyday life they may need extra support and this might include professional help. If you are a UK parent you can sign up to watch my free class on how to find additional support for your child. The free support available will depend on the area you live in, so I always recommend speaking to your child’s doctor first of all. Your child’s high school or middle school may also be able to signpost you to sources of mental health support. If you want to understand what kind of therapist your child needs, take a look at my article describing the many different child therapists and how to locate them.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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.