How to live happily with your teen*

*even when it seems like an alien has taken over his/her mind and body!

Recently, I overheard a conversation between two parents. One of them asked the other how things were going now that her kids were teens. The other parent said with a chuckle: “You know teenagers: Can’t live with ‘em, can’t shoot ‘em!”

There is no doubt: Some teens are hard to live with and parent/teen relationships are difficult to maintain when it seems like an alien just descended down on your family and took over your teen’s body.

(If it’s any consolation, teens believe parents are like aliens too, AKA strange entities who have no clue about the way things really are or should be.)

So how can parents bridge this gap (and increase the odds that the tween and teen years are a positive time, not a time when they feel like they want to—but can’t—“shoot ‘em”)?

How to improve and strengthen your relationship with your teen.

  1. Get to know your teen

One day as I talked with a fourteen-year-old girl, she told me about her love of animals and about how she had a dream of becoming a veterinarian one day. She also told me that she wrote poetry. I asked to read some of what she had written. The poems were beautifully written, eloquent and full of emotion.

I asked her what her parents thought of her poetry.

She told me they had no idea she even wrote poetry. Or that she wanted to be a veterinarian.

This did not surprise me. I see this a lot.

In one school I know, they do quarterly awards for academic and good citizenship-type achievements. At the assembly where the medals are handed out, the principal reads something about the student—things that the parents have told him about their students—something unknown, unique, special, interesting, unusual or noteworthy.

The principal told me that well over half of the parents did not know what to tell him.

What about you? Would you be able to tell someone two or three sentences about your teen? Could you explain what makes him or her unique, special, interesting, unusual or noteworthy? If not, it’s time to think about it!

What would you would do if you did have a stranger living in your house (who was going to continue living there for years)? You would take the time to get to know him, right? This is what you need to do with your teen. Get to know him/her. Ask questions. Really find out what “makes him/her tick”. Think about what your teen likes to do in his/her spare time. What does he/she read about? Who are his/her heroes? Why do you think he/she picked those people as heroes? Once you know these things, it will give you many things to talk about and new ways to connect in a positive way.

One final note about talking to your teen: Open-ended questions (as opposed to yes/no questions) are best. Think about when you first met someone you were interested in, either in a dating situation or a budding friendship situation. What was one of the things you did? You asked each other questions. You didn’t just stick to yes or no questions because you really wanted to get to know that person and find out what they thought about things. This is crucially important in your relationship with your teen. If you want to know about school, instead of asking, “Did you have a good day at school?” or even “How was your day?”, ask, “What was the best thing that happened to you today?” or “Tell me about what you learned in science class today.” And then listen to the answer and ask follow up questions. Be interested and be genuine. And resist the urge to give advice or lecture in response to something they tell you (unless they specifically ask for it).

One sure way to improve your relationship with your teen is not just to get to know him/her—but to to find something to like about your child and then let him/her know you like (or admire or respect) it. Kids need to know that they matter to their parents and they need to know that their parents LIKE them (they know you “have” to love them; but what they want is to be liked too). Think about how good you feel when someone points out something about you that they like; this is how your teen feels when you do that for them. What talents or traits do you admire in your child? (Is he artistic? Does she have a great sense of humor? Is he kind and compassionate toward people or animals? Does she have a flair for fashion or design?) Find something to recognize and then let your teen know you like and admire that about him/her.

2.      Recognize that it’s normal that your teen is different from you

When I was expecting my second child, I remember thinking that he was going to be very similar to his brother in personality, temperament and even looks. Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be nothing like his brother—not his looks, his personality or his temperament. They each got the best (and worst) parts of their dad, and me and then on top of that, they ended up with a few of their own unique characteristics. (Maybe from some distant relative!)

Your teen is not you. He/she is a complete, unique individual. He/she is his/her own person with his/her own likes, dislikes, talents, skills and abilities. This can be hard to deal with!

Sometimes you might be tempted to put your own desires and expectations on your kids. This is normal; we all want our kids to have what we didn’t have. But you need to be careful about this because when you express your opinions, it can get in the way of your teen knowing him or herself. If he/she is very different from you in terms of interests, skills, abilities, etc., he/she may think that in order to please you, he/she has to do what you want him/her to do instead of what would make him/her really happy in life.

One of the most loving things you can do for your teen is to encourage him/her to follow his or her own path.

3.      Realize that in many ways, teens really can’t help the way they act

Do you remember that movie “Gremlins”? In it were these cute, furry creatures. They were so adorable but they came with a huge warning:  Keep them out of sunlight. No water—not to drink and definitely no baths. And the number one rule: don’t feed them after midnight.

And when the movie’s character disregarded those warnings…chaos and devastation ensued.

So what if I told you that you are living with a creature (sometimes adorable, sometimes not so much!) that comes with his own list of “warnings.” Studies show that until your child turns 25, he cannot fully:

  • Regulate intense emotions
  • Delay gratification and balance short-term rewards with long term goals
  • Problem solve
  • Foresee and weigh possible consequences of behavior
  • Consider the future and make predictions
  • Shift /adjust behavior when situations change
  • Control impulses

Until age 25, this is your child later if your child has ADHD)! The one you “trust.” And leave unsupervised. And let drive your car.

The reason for this is in their brains. The pre-frontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to reach maturity, and this is the region that gives an individual the capacity to exercise “good judgment” when presented with difficult life situations.

This is also why your kids still need rules and guidance and boundaries. (And this is why your car insurance rates shoot through the roof when you add a teen to your policy!)

Oh and one last word about teens and their behavior: HORMONES.

Their brains are swimming in hormones.

As a result, they are sometimes going to act like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all day long, over and over again, and sometimes hour to hour. When your teen is in the midst of the hormonal craziness (and that’s what it can be like under the influence of hormonal mood swings sometimes—temporary insanity!), it can be helpful to keep the following in mind:

  • Your teen can’t help it.
  • Your teen still needs patience and love no matter how he is acting.
  • And remember: This too shall pass.

If I had one piece of advice for all parents, but especially parents of teens with ADHD it would be this: Don’t take their behavior personally. Part of being a normal teen is to pull away from their parental figures in an effort to develop independence. Also, a very important part of a teen’s job description is to be annoying to their parents! So they’re just doing their jobs, right on schedule!

4.      Remember: You can only get out what you put in

In addition to taking the time to get to know your teen and let him/her know all the things you like about him or her, it’s important that you communicate your love in a way they’ll recognize. There is a book, “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman that describes the 5 different ways we express love and need to receive love. In a nutshell, Chapman says we often automatically express love to others in a way that correlates to how we feel loved—which can sometimes be a problem because the other person might not feel loved in the same way as we do. Example: I feel most loved when someone I care about wants to spend time with me. My husband feels love through touch. I can spend time with him all day long and he won’t necessarily know or feel that I’m showing him love by doing this unless I also hold his hand, hug him, etc. which is how he feels love. Chapman would say that our Love Languages are different and for our relationship to be strong, I need to show him love using my husband’s language, and vice versa.

I think it’s important that parents communicate to their teens in all 5 languages: Words of Affirmation (saying ‘I love you, praising, complimenting, etc.), Acts of Service (doing something nice for him/her), Receiving Gifts (buying something you know s/he would love), Quality Time (having dinner together, watching a movie together, etc.) and Physical Touch (hugs, a pat on the back, etc.) Even if these are not things you need to feel loved, they will still communicate love to your teen. The important thing is that you do all of them. (Because as teens, it might not yet be established which one of these is their primary “love language”. And, you really can’t go wrong being too loving, right?!) Many parents I know do one but not the others, for example, giving gifts but never spending time together, or spending time together but never saying “I love you” or “you are awesome”. To build a strong relationship, you need all of them.

Also, despite what you might think, teens really do crave time with you. Create opportunities for connection. It’s an understatement to stay that it’s hard to find time to spend with your kids as they get older. With jobs, school, activities, social lives…time is limited. But it’s crucial that you make time. Having and maintaining a connection depends on it. One thing I know about teens is that sometimes it’s really hard for them to sit and have a one on one, face to face deep conversation. To quote your teen: “AWKWARD!!” But side by side can be so much better. When you do an activity together side by side, (working in the garden or doing dishes or sitting next to each other in the car), suddenly it’s not so awkward. So make the time, set the scene and then start communicating! (And remember: you don’t always have to talk about deep things to communicate. Laughing and goofing around together can be incredibly bonding!)

Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear from you! Just send me an email to