Challenging teenagers – how to deal with them

For many parents, the teenage years present the greatest challenges. They feel lost and overwhelmed by how reckless, rude and uncooperative their child has become. Why won’t they listen? Why are they so irresponsible? What makes them so irrational?
They often feel like there is no hope, like their child has gone over to the dark side and will never return!
Parent Help receive many calls each day from concerned parents of teenagers. These parents are looking for a space to vent their frustration, as well as some practical advice on how to deal with them.


Are the teenagers being challenging, the parents must understand that it is not their fault; many of the behaviours that they are struggling with are relatively common and developmentally appropriate. What this means is that it is normal to become more moody and disagreeable during the teenage years, partly due to hormonal changes and a healthy developing sense of independence. But most importantly, research has uncovered that during the teenage years the brain undergoes major changes: the parts of the brain that seek out novelty and reward are enhanced; in addition, the prefrontal-cortex, the part of the brain involved in impulse control and decision-making is under-developed, and as a consequence, the emotional regions of the brain exert more influence during adolescence. This leads to emotionally charged behaviour, risk-taking, reward-seeking, and impulsive decision-making that may continue until the mid-twenties when the brain reaches adult maturity.

Think back to when you were a teenager. Most likely you made more risky, reckless and irresponsible decisions during this period than any other time in your life. What did your parents do? What do you think would have helped you make better choices?

Although teenage angst is in part normal, this doesn’t mean that there is no hope! Understanding the way that the teenage brain works is a powerful tool for overcoming the parenting challenges that arise during this time.


Strategies for dealing with challenging teenagers:

Connect – In order to gain a sense of independence, teenagers will often reject their parents or become detached. This is part of the process of discovering who they are. However, it’s important that the parent does not reciprocate and pull away as well. Rather the parent needs to look for opportunities (big or small) to connect with their child: sitting down for a meal together, going shopping or to the movies, being involved in their favourite hobby or sport. The main thing is to foster as many positive interactions as possible (even if it means letting them win the argument or wear the t-shirt you hate). Building a strong connection with your child means they are more likely to listen to your advice or come to you when they are in trouble. If you feel your relationship with your teen has hit rock bottom, organising a counselling session together (or separately) can help to get things back on track.

Accept – Having a good relationship with your teenager is very important; however, they will probably still make some decisions you disagree with (or that make no sense at all – thanks to that under-developed pre-frontal cortex). Making mistakes is part of being a teenager; and an important part of learning. It can be hard as parents to accept these mistakes and move forward. Understanding how the brain works during adolescents can help parents see that sometimes it’s important to lower our expectations and accept that this period of development is marked by the trial and error. It’s also key to keep in mind that this is a normal stage that will not last forever!

Scenario Testing – As mentioned above, the teenage brain is ill equipped to deal with quick decision-making, especially in emotionally charged situations, which can lead to impulsive and risky behaviours. One way to counteract this is to give them the chance to think through decisions before they happen. Rather than telling them what to do, present them with a possible scenario that concerns you and ask them how they might handle the situation. This gives you the opportunity to practice problem-solving together. For example, before heading out to a party you could discuss what they might do if a friend becomes intoxicated, or how they would react if someone they didn’t know offered them a lift.

Boundaries – Be clear about what you expect and ensure that all family members are on the same page about what the rules are. Make sure that the rules are reasonable and age-appropriate – including them in the creation of the rules, and regularly discussing and updating the rules, can help with this. It can also help to openly discuss your family rules with other parents and your children’s friends, this can provide an opportunity to gain insight into what expectations other people have for their children; moreover, it gives you the chance to communicate with them what behaviours and values are important to your family.

Respect – Modelling is a powerful parenting tool; if you want respect from your teenager then you need you show them how to be respectful. This might mean walking away before the argument starts, resolving disagreements in a cool and collected manner, or apologising for mistakes that you make. Children of all ages are more likely to do as we do, not do as we say!

Normal teenage behaviour vs. early warning signs of mental illness

What if the behaviour goes beyond what would be considered normal teenage moodiness or rebellion? Although it is normal for teenagers to withdraw from parents and display risky behaviour, if they seem unhappy or anxious and are spending increasing amounts of time away from peers (especially if they were once social), or if they are behaving erratically and putting themselves or others in serious danger, they may be experiencing mental health concerns and need professional help from your GP or through a local agency.


Parent Helpline

If you have found this information useful and would like to talk with one of our trained telephone support workers – about your challenging teenager or any other parenting issue – give our free nationwide Parent Helpline a call on 0800 568 856. We are here to talk about any of your parenting concerns. We receive calls about all age groups – from babies to adolescents – and no issue is too big or small. 

Parenting Course

In Wellington we also run “Different Approach – Different Response”  a therapeutic course that focuses on improving your relationship with your teenager. See for more details.

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