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Parenting: Prepare for the Teen Years

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KEY POINTS

  • Part of being a teen is fitting in with friends and becoming more independent. It may work best to let some things go and focus on talking to them about other important issues such as sex, drugs, and alcohol.
  • Parenting a teenager is a balancing act. You still need to provide structure and guidance. However, don’t always try to prevent your teen from making bad decisions and learning from the consequences if it doesn’t put them in danger.
  • Let your teen know that you are there to guide, listen, and support them. Let your teen know that you love them no matter what.

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What is different about the teen years?

During the teen years, your child’s body grows into a man's or woman’s body. Your teen’s emotions, thinking, and behavior will also change. Your child is trying to decide the kind of person they will be as an adult. A major goal during these years is for your teen to learn how to be independent and self-sufficient. It’s not an easy time for your teen or for you. You have new things to think about, like curfews, dating, driving, drugs, and how to respond to behavior that you may not like.

Here are some of the things you can expect, and ideas for how to respond.

Looks

Hormones cause physical and emotional changes for your teen. Girls will develop breasts, pubic hair, and start having menstrual periods. Boys will develop muscle mass, facial and body hair, bigger genitals, and voice changes.

Think back on your own teen years. You may have struggled with acne, body changes, and feeling self-conscious at times. Were there things that helped you?

Your teen is likely to try different looks and identities. This can cause stress and conflict between you and your teen. If your son wants to dye his hair blue, paint his fingernails black, or wear unusual clothes, think twice before you object. Part of being a teen is fitting in with friends and becoming more independent. It may work best to let some things go and focus on talking to them about other issues such as drugs and alcohol. If something does not put your teen in danger, let them make their own decisions and learn from the consequences.

Sleep

Puberty brings changes to the sleep-wake cycle. Your teen will probably be most alert in the evenings and not able to fall asleep until late in the evening. Teens need about 8 or 9 hours of sleep. If your teen needs to get up early for school or work, this means that they may not get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can cause moodiness as well as problems with attention and memory. Lack of sleep also makes night driving hard for your teen. Most accidents happen between 9 PM and 2 AM. To help your teen get enough sleep:

  • Have a bedtime routine. A quiet routine before going to bed can help your teen calm down and fall asleep more easily. Reading or listening to quiet music is helpful. Computers, cell phones, TVs, and video games are more likely to keep your teen awake. This is partly due to the light from the screens, which stimulates the brain. Your teen should shut off screens at least 1 hour before bedtime.
  • Encourage short naps. A 20 or 30-minute nap before 5 PM can help your teen get enough sleep. Longer naps may make it harder to sleep at night.
  • Sleep in a little on weekends. Sleeping until late morning is OK, but if your teen sleeps too late, it can make it even harder to get up on Monday mornings.

Decision-making

Parenting a teenager is a balancing act. You need to balance your actions and attitudes. You still need to provide structure and guidance. However, be prepared to let your teen make decisions and become more independent.

Don’t always try to prevent your teen from making bad decisions. Learning how to make good decisions often involves making some bad decisions. Expect that your teen will make some mistakes and face some uncomfortable consequences.

Peer pressure

Wanting to spend less time with family members is normal for your teen. Friends become very important. Your teen thinks constantly about what friends think, what friends believe, how they dress, and what they do. They will spend a lot of time on the phone or computer, texting, or hanging out with friends. Your teen may want to look confident and cool in front of friends, and they may have a shift in things they like to do. This may be a genuine change of interest, or it may be an effort to fit in with peers.

Peer pressure becomes a problem when your teen’s friends encourage something that is dangerous or against the law. The teen years are a time to experiment, and that may include sex, drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Although your teen may know something is harmful, they may choose to do it because they want to be liked, to fit in, or to be accepted.

Get to know your child’s friends and their parents. Make sure an adult will be home when your child visits a friend or attends a party. Monitor how your child spends money and their use of social media.

If your teen asks you for advice, try to describe the pros and cons in a brief, impartial way. Ask some questions to help focus on the main risks. Be clear in your preferences, but also give your teen the chance to make a good decision. For example, you might say, "I think drinking alcohol at your age is very dangerous. I trust you to do the right thing." Teens that can resist peer pressure are those who have a strong sense of self and the confidence to say no.

Brainstorm with your teen about ways to handle tough situations and ways you can support your teen. For example, "If you find yourself in a place where kids are drinking alcohol, call me and I'll pick you up — and there will be no scolding or punishment." The more prepared your teen is, the better able they will be to handle high-pressure situations.

Sex

It is not always easy to discuss sex with your child. However, it is important to help protect your teen from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STDs or STIs). Whether your teen admits it or not, they may have many questions and need the facts. It's not possible for you to be with your child 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so the best you can do is give information and let your teen know that you are there to listen and provide support.

  • Start talking with your child about sex before puberty starts. Girls may start puberty as early as age 7 or 8 years or as late as age 14. Boys may start puberty as early as age 9 years or as late as age 14.
  • Know your own feelings and values before you talk to your teen. Share your family values with your teen and talk about what you believe is right and wrong. Your teen needs your advice on values. Not having sex is the safest way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. However, if your teen is thinking about having sex for the first time or is already having sex, make sure your teen knows how to prevent pregnancy and STDs or STIs.
  • Talk about topics such as sex before marriage, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, prostitution, sexual harassment, and rape. Teach your teen that healthy relationships are built on respect and concern, and that it’s OK to say no to sex. Let your teen know that others may have different values about sexuality.
  • Take advantage of teachable moments. A friend's pregnancy, neighborhood gossip, and TV shows can all be times to ask your teen what they know or think. It is usually better to ask questions, and then listen carefully to the answers than to lecture your teen.

Rules

Your teen will likely act unhappy with your rules and expectations. However, without rules, your teen may feel you don't care.

Your teen may argue or want to negotiate. It may help to think of this as a way to teach them how to make good decisions and how to resolve conflicts in a respectful way. Your teen will sometimes do things just to rebel. It’s a way to prove that they can be independent. Even though your teen tells you to back off and leave them alone, they still need and want your guidance.

For safety reasons, you should always know where your teen is going, when they’ll be back, what they’re doing, and with whom. Let your teen know that you trust them but know that sometimes they will break the rules.

Let your teen know what will happen if they break the rules, such as loss of cell phone, TV, computer or game time, and car privileges. If your teen breaks something, they should repair it or pay for its repair or replacement. If your teen is doing poorly in school, you can use these same consequences.

Communication

It helps if you have built a loving, trusting relationship with your child. This makes it easier for your teen to talk honestly with you. Let your teen speak their mind and respect their opinions. Your teen is more likely to talk with you if they feel you will really listen and try to understand.

Expect mood changes and be prepared for conflict. Often, your teen will feel that life is all good (going on a date with someone they like) or all bad (not being invited to a party). When your teen is in a bad mood, they may not want to talk about it with you. If teens want to discuss a problem with anybody, it is usually with a close friend. Expect your teen to want lots of space and privacy.

Part of learning to be independent is developing opinions. This means that your teen will express differences of opinion and argue with you. Your teen may resent your limits and attempts to help and respond with anger or defiance. At times your teen may come across as rude and unreasonable. “I hate you” may really mean “I don’t like this rule.” You can respond with a comment like, "It really hurts me when you say that." Make your statement without anger if you can. What you are trying to teach is that everyone has the right to disagree and even to express anger, but that screaming and rudeness are not OK. Be patient. You may need to deal with an issue more than once.

Communicating while sharing hobbies or sports can be a comfortable way to keep up with what your teen is thinking. For example, you can golf, play baseball, go to movies or plays, or shop together. You could also use car time as a way to spend one-on-one time with your teen. If you are driving your teen to an appointment or to a friend’s house, try to use this time to talk rather than driving in silence or with the radio turned up. Go out for sodas or take your teen out for a meal on the way to or from another activity. This does not require your teen to miss out on other events with friends. Dinnertime or family game nights are also good times to talk about your day and ask your teen about their day.

When your teen talks about their concerns, stop what you’re doing and listen. Let your teen know that you are there to guide, listen, and provide support. Let your teen know that you love them no matter what.

Warning signs

If your child has any of these problems on a regular basis, it may be time to see a counselor or therapist:

  • Trouble eating or sleeping
  • Drop in grades or trouble at school
  • Being very angry or withdrawn much of the time
  • Using drugs or alcohol
  • Withdrawal or disinterest in usual activities
  • Eating disorders or self-injury

Get emergency care if your child has ideas of suicide or harming others or harming himself.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-07-30
Last reviewed: 2019-05-16
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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