The magical answer to parenting a teenager is…

I have no idea.

This is a post about teenagers (as a generalization). Maybe some of you think you don’t have to read this because your kids are little and not quite teenagers yet. I think parents of little kids are the ones that need to read this.

Since the beginning of time, the teenage years are that unavoidable and fearful time for parents when your children are stuck in this stage of immature maturity.

It’s the age when kids think they are smart enough and old enough to make their own decisions and find complete disregard for the parental units and their “old school” rules and ideas.  But as adults, we realize how completely ill-prepared they are for such “adult” responsibilities and decisions.

I have a few teenagers in my life and even sort of-kinda-raising 2 as a pseudo-step-parent. (That’s a long explanation for another day).

They are all different, unique and wonderful individuals. Even if sometimes they are a total pain in the ass.

When I had the pleasure of hearing the Dalai Lama speak at WestConn this Fall, I was in awe of his answers for everything. All things lead back to “finding your own inner peace.” He had hope for the world, for every ailment that plagues humans, for every tragedy and defeat. But when he was asked by an audience member, “teenagers are so apathetic, unmotivated, careless, etc., how, as parents, do we get them to care about themselves, their self-worth and their future?”

The magical man nodded with understanding of the question, put his hand to his chin and thought for several long seconds as every parent in the room held their breaths for the answer.

No one moved. No one breathed.

Then, he threw his hands in the air, shrugged and said “I have no idea!”


Everyone laughed, but the look of fear on these parents’ faces persisted. How could the Dalai Lama not know the answer to that one?

Maybe I’m trying to answer the question that the coolest, wisest man on the planet couldn’t.

How do we get teenagers to care about themselves? How do we get them to listen, if not to us, at least to their own conscience?


I wasn’t really that bad of a teenager. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke (pot or anything else), I played competitive sports year round, and was an average student (I didn’t apply myself as much as I could have). I did go to high school drinking parties from time to time, but I always drank my water. My friends were the good kids, the athletes, the honor society kids. We obeyed curfew, we didn’t disrespect our teachers, we didn’t get arrested, we didn’t do reckless and stupid things, we didn’t get pregnant, we all had larger and grander plans for our lives.

But we weren’t bored or boring. We had fun, laughs, adventures, stories, etc. And we were far from perfect – our parents were not always 100% pleased with us. But we are all pretty well-rounded and (somewhat) successful adults.

We also had a clear understanding of our own mortality. My best friend (since I was 3 years old) died at 16 with another classmate in a car accident our junior year. They weren’t reckless kids. They were the good, sweet, normal law-abiding kids. And they were gone. Just like that. It changed me, and it changed many of us.

I’m now on the other side of things. I’m “old” and in a parental role for some of these teenagers.

These teenagers that think curfews and restrictions are “holding them back”.

Teenagers that don’t get their own mortality or don’t care about it.

“YOLO” (You Only Live Once) was the overplayed motto of 2012. Adults may think that means to make the most of your life, teenagers are using it as a call to party like it’s 1999.

Teenagers that think they are cool and mature enough to smoke pot, drink, have sex, etc. at 15, 16, 17 years old.

That all existed waaay back when I was that age, but I feel like it’s different now.

Maybe social media plays a part of it. The kids that did all that stuff when I was in high school or (gulp) way, way back in the early 1980s when my wife was in high school, had their own groups, they did things somewhat clandestine and many of them turned things around.

I know, as an adult, that respect goes a long way. Self-respect and respect others have for you. Twenty years ago, if you partied too hard in your small group of friends, the result was some joking from some close friends for a week or so. Now, teenagers are tweeting their drunkenness, their pot smoking, their “unbecoming” behavior for the world, their parents, their teachers, their peers, their college admission counselors, to see. And they think it’s cool.

And the swearing. Oy vey. Now, I can drop some horrible things that would make even some truck drivers blush, however, there’s a time and a place. I never, ever, ever, ever swore in front of my parents or elders. Ever. I rarely curse now in my mother’s presence and I’m 36 years old. Between Twitter, Facebook and just normal, everyday conversation, I hear teenagers use F-bombs like it’s the most common word in the English language. As adults, we know that we all swear, some more often than others, but we also know how you feel about that person in the office that curses too much and in the wrong company. It’s not “cool” or professional.

This generation has to deal with college being harder to get in to and costlier than 20 years ago. Blue collar jobs are harder to land than 20 years ago. And you see these teenagers just throwing opportunities away. Opportunities that you know millions of teenagers across the globe would give a limb for!

So, I ask again, how do we get teenagers to care about themselves?

I have no better answer than the Dalai Lama.

But I do believe in a few things.

  1. Self-respect goes a long way. Give your child confidence (not false confidence, but real confidence) in who they are. You cannot make your child’s decisions for them. You need to arm them with the care and confidence that they need to be good and true to themselves. Then, you just cross your fingers when you watch them go out the door.
  2. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Teenagers hate communicating with their parents. Hate. It. And I hated how much my mother needed to know. She knew where I was going, who I was with, she knew the parents of the kids I was with, she knew if anyone drank in my group, she knew my friends’ curfews, she knew who I was driving around in my car, she knew who I talked to on the phone, etc. She was strict but not unapproachable. I knew I could tell her something when I needed to. Open communication from birth is huge, in my opinion.
  3. Rules. Make reasonable but firm rules from the beginning. We are struggling with this now with our five year old. Nobody really likes to follow rules, but we all appreciate the need for them. I have a strong-willed young person in my house and I know I need to do some major character-building between now and when he turns 16. There are rules everywhere. Start by making sure that your child knows that some things are just not okay, not acceptable and not tolerated. This is life.
  4. Lead by example. Work on your own insecurities as a parent. Work on your own self-confidence and self-worth. Take pride in the good decisions you’ve made. Be a respectful and courteous person. Don’t spend time judging, talking about, or comparing yourself to others. Let your child see that you are comfortable with who you are and it will carry weight when you try to instill in them to be comfortable with themselves.
  5. Courtesy, compassion and empathy. The most wonderful teenagers and people that I’ve met are the most compassionate people. They give much of themselves.
  6. Be aware of the smoking and drinking in your child’s world. I really believe (and actually, so does the Dalai Lama) that drugs and alcohol are the major factors in the “teenager problem” of which we speak. I’m not sure what the actual answer is to having alcohol in the house around your kids. I know some people believe that if your kids grow up around alcohol that is consumer responsibly, they are more responsible about alcohol and drugs than those kids in homes where it was either banned completely or abused. I have not conducted any studies in the area, but I think that the “leading by example” thing applies here as well. If you have value in a healthy lifestyle (a glass of wine at night is reasonable, but not abusing your body), I think your children will value their bodies and health more to hopefully make some thoughtful decisions about what they allow themselves to inhale or ingest.
  7. Teach what is a “privilege” and what is rightfully theirs. It seems that many teenagers think they are entitled to a phone, a car, money, things, even privacy. These are things you can work on through their younger years. When they are responsible, they earn such privileges. When they are irresponsible, such privileges can and will be withheld from them by their parents, teachers, or any other authoritative figure.

I don’t have all of the answers. Heck, I could be totally wrong. The Dalai Lama didn’t have a list like this. I’m totally open to suggestions – please share your thoughts.

What I do know is that you have to start now, you can’t start trying to shove values down their throats when your child is 14 or 15.

As parents, it is our responsibility to try to raise responsible children who will be good members of society as adults and I guess we need to start at day one.

No pressure parents!

5 thoughts on “The magical answer to parenting a teenager is…

  1. FYI — I got an email today about an online Positive Discipline course. You also get all kinds of e-books and workbooks as a bonus for signing up. It’s not cheap ($99) but here’s the link:

    Reading over the website and watching the sample video took me back to when my boys were preteens and how I had to tie myself in knots to learn these techniques (they did not come naturally to me) but boy, did they work! Here’s an example of what they did to solve a problem once I empowered them to take care of it: instead of endlessly fighting over who “controlled” the cartoon choices on Saturday morning, and making me come in and break up the fights, I told them it was their problem to solve, and I would not intervene. Somehow, they decided on their own to alternate weeks of “control.” THEN they took it a step further and decided that whoever was in charge of the cartoons on Saturday also got to ride in the front passenger seat of my car for that week! Two fighting scenarios immediately disappeared!

    I am merely a fan — not a paid shill!


  2. this is a great post, thanks! my daughter is only 2 but i try to engage teens every day for work. they are hard! they are so lucky these days with all the technology the grow up with but at the same time they won’t ever understand living without it. it’s a “me” world for them full of instant gratification. they don’t need patience or to work hard. it’s almost easy for them. i think if we take time, be patient, and instill good morals and values we can hope to keep them in line! 🙂


  3. Oh I just LOVED this, Holly. You are so right that you have to start when they are little! I think even the littlest ones can grasp the concept of rules and the logical consequences of breaking the rules. One of my favorite books is “Positive Discipline” by Jane Nelsen, and the various companion books, such as “Positive Discipline for Preschoolers.” The title sounds terrible, but the books are wonderful. They teach you to empower your children to make good decisions AND they teach you, as a parent, the value of logical consequences. In a nutshell: your kid misbehaves, consequences ensue, they serve their time and then they feel free! It ISN’T mean to punish them — it’s liberating! As they get older, they can even create their own consequences. My children were much stricter than I was, so when they suggested they should not watch TV for a month as a consequence, I got to be the good guy and say, “Well, let’s try a week of no TV and see if you have new ideas about your actions by then.”

    One other big one for me is ZERO TOLERANCE FOR LYING. I told them over and over how much worse it is when you are ultimately found out, as you inevitably will be, so just tell the truth and be done with it. I really don’t understand lying anyway — it takes so much energy and lie and remember the lie and create stories around it, not to mention the constant anxiety re: being discovered. I will admit I sometimes say I was stuck in traffic when I really dawdled and left late, but that’s about it. I even have trouble with the white lies of saying someone looks nice when they really don’t, but I do try under certain circumstances, such as when your friend is ready to walk out the door in her party finery, and it’s too late to buy another outfit.

    Hey, this all relates back to Michelle’s earlier post about Living Your Beliefs! And Holly’s #4, above! You have to talk the talk and walk the walk if you want your little disciples to do the right thing. The best way to avoid lying is to try not to do anything you need to cover up! Exceptions for “a bear is coming” and other bedtime tactics, or sneaking candy and telling your kid it’s cheese!


  4. ACK! Right now I’m reveling in the fact that my most pressing problems are feeding my young boys all day long and trying to get my 5 year old out of diapers! Thanks for the reality check, Dear Sister! (And great list!)


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