Children & Youth

3 Tips for Working with Teenagers

In my household this school year, both of my kids are entering pivotal times in their young lives. My son is in grade 12 and will be expected to make some big decisions about what he will be doing with his life post-graduation. My daughter, however, is in grade 9 and is at the very beginning of her high school journey. She is making the transition from a small fish bowl into a larger aquarium.

As a parent and therapist who has worked for many years with youth and their families, I know some of the potential changes that lie ahead for my kids. I wanted to share some insights and learnings, and to be totally honest, remind myself of what my spouse and I need to have our eyes and ears open to in the coming months. As we know, there is no instruction manual for raising and letting go of our teenagers.

I will start with my daughter who is nearly 14, but has been trying to rapidly advance toward adulthood for quite some time now. She is headstrong and sure of herself, and rarely asks for my opinion, let alone advice. However, like many other teens her age, she is trying to sort out the balance between her school life and extracurricular activities. One of her main concerns is whether or not she wants to commit to the sport that she has been actively involved in since she was six years old. After a few days of discussion (and many reminders from me that it is her decision) she asked this question: “Mom, what do you think I should do?”

This question actually caught me off-guard a bit, but I will admit that I was smiling on the inside. Maybe she really did value my opinion after all! I fought the urge to tell her what I really thought she should do, and rather outlined what I thought were some valid reasons she should stay with her sport or leave it. In retrospect, I realize that the process of letting go must also involve opportunities for the teen to check-in. Our conversation reminded me that she is becoming more mature and making increasingly important decisions. I want her to be able to manage her choices and boundaries so that she can choose the best options for herself. This is the important work of parenting a teenager as there will be many more situations for her to consider in the coming months.

This reminded me of what this time was like with our son. He had a “transition year” with no extra-curricular activities other than video games. I worried and fretted that we had let him quit his piano lessons and track and field team so that he could turn his brain to mush playing games in the basement. Maybe he would even be one of those kids who lived in their parent’s basement forever! A couple of years later, I am breathing much easier. He picked up a different instrument in band, joined a choir, and got a part-time job. His brain is still fully intact, and he is a content, well-adjusted young man. So how did this happen? And, how can my husband and I (hopefully) pave the same path for our daughter?

Last year I found a fantastic book called Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood by Dr. Lisa Damour. I’d definitely recommend this book if you are raising a girl or if you work with adolescent girls. In one chapter, Damour recalls hearing a police officer describe his mantra for dealing with difficult suspects, referred to as the three F’s: be fair, firm and friendly (p. 153). I hope this is what we have achieved in our household, as I think it can be very useful when dealing with the teenagers at home or in a clinical setting.

1) Be Fair

Teenagers have extremely well-tuned justice detectors. They can sniff out situations where adults are being hypocritical, inconsistent, irrational, or simply just winging it! They are in the midst of the important and necessary developmental stage of becoming autonomous. They take notice when the adults and authority figures in their lives – especially their parents – are not being consistent with the standards that have been set for them. Even though they don’t always act like it, teenagers will respect you and your opinions if you have a significant track record of being fair, rational, and treating others in a consistent manner. This doesn’t mean not making mistakes, but rather apologizing when it is called for, either directly to your kids or to another family member. For example, when I have impulsively snapped at my husband at the supper table, it restores harmony in the room when I make a sincere apology. We want teenagers to value the important adults in their lives, and being fair goes a long way when trying to make this a reality.

2) Be Firm

Teenagers still need to know that there are expectations for them. As parents, we should give them more choices, and more room to make independent decisions, but it is important that we still adhere to previously set standards and limitations when needed. Communicating our values and what is important to us is not only what our teenagers expect us to do, they also need us to do it. Having confidence that parents will maintain their standards is like seeing a lighthouse in the dark, stormy seas of life.

3) Be Friendly

Relationships are very important and, as adults, we need to reach out and make bridges to the youth in our lives. Maintain interest in your teen and what they are doing, and even if you get the brush-off, don’t give up. This can often be as simple as extending invitations to join in activities, such as walking the dog or watching a TV show. My kids usually prefer to engage in other activities, but that shouldn’t mean the invitations cease. For example, the tenth time I asked my daughter to join me on the sofa to watch America’s Got Talent, she said yes! If I had given up when she said no the first nine, we would have missed that opportunity to connect.

I hope that as you are reading this, you can already identify many instances where you have taken the time to be fair, firm, and friendly with the teenagers in your life. Chances are you are that important adult that they look to for guidance as they navigate the twists and turns of growing up and becoming independent, mature adults.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Trish Harper

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Trish is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights – Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. This book is available on our website.

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