Nicer, funner, safer – 5 parenting tips for making life with teens better

If you’d like to:

  • communicate better with your teenager,
  • get along with them better,
  • keep them a little safer,
  • have a better idea of how they’re really travelling with their mental health (or sexual health),
  • find parenting a little less painful and a little more rewarding.

You absolutely can.

You can improve things, with or without their co-operation. You’re not powerless, even if it feels like it sometimes. And once you get things moving in the right direction, it’s quite likely they’ll end up contributing to the cause even if they didn’t lift a finger to start with.

Hopefully, these five parenting tips will assist you in making life with teens better.

  1. Listen

This is on every good parenting and relationship list.

It’s so central that if you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard it many times before, so I should just move on. But it’s so central, that I can’t.

When I say listen. I don’t just mean hear them out. It’s called “active listening”. That’s a thing. Look it up. It takes a bit of learning and practise (like many new skills), and a good deal of self-control – especially when you’re speaking with your own kids. It also feels a bit awkward and clunky when you’re starting out. But I guarantee you, if you get the hang of it and use it well, your teens will talk to you more, you’ll learn more about what they really think and what they’re really into, and you’ll have a better relationship with them.

I can’t bring you up to speed here – you seriously should go and look it up online (here’s another link) or in many good parenting books.

But in essence – it’s about seeking to really understand what the other person is saying and where they are coming from, before seeking to have your point understood (kudos to Stephen Covey). This doesn’t mean you need to agree with or approve of what they say.

Practically, this means that when your teen tells you something – even if it seems bad, stupid, irrational or wrong to you – your first comments (if you want more communication) aren’t instructions, advice, evaluations, criticisms, emotional outbursts, or discipline comments (which all side track or close down conversations). Your first comments aim to show you are hearing what they’re saying, and when you’re getting good at it, validate what they’re feeling. Active Listening keeps the conversation going – you’ll get more detail, more depth, the real McCoy. And your kids will be safer for it. You can get to the discipline and advice stuff later if it’s still needed, and you’ll be working off better intel when you do.

  1. Be safe to be around (don’t punish them for talking to you).

This one’s kind of the natural counterpart to point one. If you make a solid go of these two alone, you’ll be well on your way.

You want your teenager to talk to you more, tell you what’s going on, and come to you for advice?

Don’t punish them or make them pay a high price for doing so.

Behaviourally speaking, a punishment is anything that happens after an action is taken, that makes them do that action less in future.

When your teenager tells you something (especially the concerning stuff you might particularly want to know about and have influence on) and you respond with nagging, criticism, judgement, punishments, lectures, ridicule, or intense emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness, they’ll be less likely to open up to you again (at least in a sincere way, but maybe still to rile you up sometimes).

Thomas Phelan in his older book Surviving Your Adolescents talks about the ‘4 cardinal sins’, which are spontaneous problem discussions, nagging, insight transplants, and arguing. They don’t work, and make things worse. They often make your teen more likely to do the very things you so desperately don’t want them to do, and less likely to do the things you want them to.

So minimise negative interactions by ditching the unhelpful ones and maximising discipline efficiency. I don’t mean avoiding confrontations when they’re needed – you absolutely need to set boundaries for them and be firm. I mean having a solid system in place for dealing with discipline matters in a planned, consistent, respectful and fair-minded way.

  1. Make the strengths switch

Imagine if your parent, every time you caught up with them, routinely commented on your shortcomings and simultaneously came across (at least in their own eyes) as smarter, more capable, and more experienced that you. Leave you positively hanging out for your next conversation, would it? I don’t think so.

Kids don’t like it either.

But we do this stuff all the time. I should know – I’m a school psychologist with over a decade of experience and a parent to three children – My wife (the musician) is eminently more patient and graceful with the kids than I am. Seems like knowing the theory and actually doing it are two separate things, who’d have thought? It’s easy to know this stuff, and think you don’t do it, but on closer reflection realise that you actually do it quite a bit. I know firsthand.

It’s not all our fault – we’ve got a built in bias for negative information. This makes us good at spotting problems, which certainly has its uses. But if that’s all we’re focussing on with our kids, then we’re making them feel bad about themselves, discouraging them from talking to us, and completely missing the best of them and their best resources for getting better – their strengths.

Lea Waters rocks. Her recent book The Strength Switch has some seriously good stuff in it about noticing, nurturing, and building your kid’s strengths. Just reading it will probably tweak your thinking and help a bit, and if you actually get into applying it… well! Not a book person? ‘Just give me the overview and let me get stuck into it’ more your style? Try her online 5 week strengths based parenting course

  1. Get into the growth mindset

People with a fixed mindset about something (e.g., their personality, intelligence, or skills) believe that they’ve basically got what they’ve got and it can’t be fundamentally changed. So when their abilities are critiqued, they are critiqued as people.

No one likes to look stupid, mess up or fail. So if you’ve got the fixed mindset about something, you’ll probably be more interested in taking opportunities that make you look good, than situations or challenges where you might fall short. Which means sticking to what you know and can already do, and avoiding challenging or stretching yourself beyond your current abilities. If you have to try hard, it means you “haven’t got it”, so effort is bad. This effectively limits your opportunities to get better, and focuses on looking good instead. And if you can’t look good – not trying, not caring, and/or bringing others down a peg can protect you from feeling too bad about yourself.

People with a growth mindset believe that things like their personality, intelligence, or skills can always be developed, refined, and built upon – that improvement is possible. It’s not Pollyanna nonsense about people being able to be or do whatever they want to – just a sound understanding that great operators are made, not born. That skills, capabilities, and qualities are built through time, effort, opportunities and good strategy. This leads to wanting to stretch and challenge yourself, working towards getting better, and actually getting better.

This is relevant to both you as a parent (your parenting ability can improve, your relationship with your teen can improve), and to your teen. And you can put someone in a growth or fixed mindset by how you speak to them, so it’s really worth getting clued in. If you can make your teen more defensive and resistant to growth, or more open and motivated for growth, just by how you speak to them and I know which I’d prefer.

Carol Dweck is the big name in growth mindset. Her book Mindset is an easy read with good stuff on learning, achievement, sports, business and relationships

5. Negotiate

Start with the end in mind.

You want your teenager to end up (perhaps sooner rather than later) as a fairly mature, responsible and capable young adult who can make good decisions for themselves, without your input.

And they’re going to make decisions for themselves, without your direct input, sooner rather than later.

So they would benefit from practice at making their own decisions, within appropriate boundaries, while they are still living with you.

Plus, giving them a real and increasing say in decisions and rules that affect them can do a lot for your rapport, reduce their defensiveness, and make them more open to conversations with you around the issues. These conversations can help connect them with their more intelligent thoughts (they do have them) and give you a role in guiding and shaping how they think.

And anyway, it’s less and less about control as the teen years progress, in the strictest sense of the word you have very little of that left now. Influence is increasingly the name of the game, and it’s what will still be with them when they’re out and about without you over their shoulder.

I’m not for a minute saying you should hand over the keys to the kingdom, leave it up to them, and just hope to be retained as a consultant. You’re still the parent, they’re the teenager, and you will know better than them on many issues, some of which are too high stakes to leave it up to them. I’m saying chart a course for how you can incrementally hand over freedom and responsibilities (because they should always go together) to scaffold their development towards standing on their own two feet.

Still here?

I’m touched. And more importantly, excited for you and your teen, because you really can do a lot, with or without your teen’s co-operation, to make things better. You’ve still got power. Probably more than you think.

Alright, I’ll throw in a couple more:

Be curious about and take an interest in their stuff. It shows you care about them, and gives you more positive material to talk about. You don’t need to share the passion for their thing. You’re interested in them and their world.

Reflection and deliberate action. It’s easy to read this and like the sound of it (I hope). It’s something else to actually do something with it. I know, I’ve got 3 kids and a job. The list is never ending and there’s so much I never get around to.

Maybe adapt a leaf out of Scott Pape’s book (The Barefoot Investor), get a good parenting book, and book in some evenings for parenting reading and/or date nights to reflect on how things are going and consider strategy. Or book yourself onto a course – goodness knows we do enough training to acquire and improve skills for work – why not parenting? And if you’re feeling brave, what about (sincerely) asking for some feedback from your teen themselves? They may be able to offer super valuable information for working with them better. But if you ask, you must not defend yourself. Simply listen to whatever they have to offer, thank them for their input, and consider it as you go.

All the best, and always happy to have a chat. Hopefully these five parenting tips will help you in making life with teens better.

Luke Smith

Senior School Psychologist