Parenting can feel like an inescapable theme park of chaos. Truth is, you’re not simply a parent, but a negotiator, a janitor, a superhero, and the prime suspect in the mysterious case of the missing sanity. It’s a job as exhausting as it is exhilarating, as thankless as it is rewarding.
Little kids are certainly a challenge. They think mud is a food group and possess the lung capacity of a blue whale. To a small child, a closed bathroom door is an open invitation to barge in and begin an in-depth discussion about how butterflies eat.
And teenagers? Ha. Sit down. That unique species of human known for their selective hearing, passionate devotion to incomprehensible memes, and the uncanny ability to turn any request from an adult into an act of war. Evolution, take a bow, you outdid yourself. It’s like living with a constantly malfunctioning drama generator.
Since the dawn of time parents have wanted to know “What’s wrong with these kids?!” — which is hysterical because a few short decades ago they were these kids. You were not born middle-aged, grumbling about mortgage rates. It’s amazing how people forget what it was like to be a teen. As you morph into a lecturing, finger-wagging version of yourself, just remember: You weren’t always the herald of good decisions. You too were once the mayor of Bad Choice City.
All too often parents dismiss teen’s feelings, ridicule their thoughts, criticize their judgment and give unsolicited advice. This doesn’t go over well with anyone, especially angsty, hormone-addled people that are struggling to make the awkward transition to being autonomous adults.
“But I’m the parent! They should obey!” Very true but you can win this war with many casualties or few casualties. It can take minutes or it can take hours. Up to you, Jefe. The dictatorial communication strategy doesn’t usually get parents what they want. It just makes your adolescent chaos magnet more difficult to deal with. You don’t have to give in to their whims, but you do need to listen a bit more if you want this to go smoothly.
So we’re going to cover the two big challenges parents face with teens: what to do when they flip out and what to do when you need them to accomplish something.
No, these are not magic spells that will make them happily calm down and do your bidding. If I said that, I’d be lying. But a few tweaks in your communication style can reduce the intensity and duration of conflict, get them to behave better and improve your relationship with them.
We’ll get insight from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, “How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk.”
Okay, let’s get to it…
Yeah, they’re as subtle as a foghorn at a library. These are the moments when being a parent has all the appeal of a gas station bathroom.
First step is control your own emotions. We don’t need to double the crazy. Maintain altitude above the chaos.
And now you need to focus on listening. I can hear your internal groans from here. “Listen to them? You want me to listen to a creature whose main contributions to society thus far have been ‘influencer’ aspirations?” Yep, that’s precisely what I’m suggesting.
Don’t be the Empire to their Rebel Alliance. If you start deploying your Death Star of unsolicited advice without first sending in a diplomatic envoy to Alderaan—that’s your kid’s viewpoint, stick with me here—you’re gonna end up with a full-blown insurrection. And not the cool kind with Ewoks.
You will have a chance to get your message across. But you have a better chance of being heard if they feel they’ve been heard first. If you skip the “listen” part and go straight for “lecture”, well, now you’re just white noise, a dull buzz in the background of their profoundly absurd existence. Good luck infiltrating that fortress of seething hormonal angst.
1-Instead of Dismissing Feelings, Identify Thoughts and Feelings
They’re talking. Okay, probably yelling. Anything you say right now will be like stepping on a conversational IED. Ignore or dismiss their distress and you will add to it. This will not reduce the volume in the room.
So listen and put into words what you think they’re feeling. Hold back on what you’re feeling for now. Your next sentence should start with, “Sounds like you’re…”
If you guessed right, they feel heard. If you guessed wrong, they will give you the answers to the test. Either way, they’re putting their feelings into words and this will help dissipate the emotion. Bonus: you’ve taken the all-too-common “You’re not listening!” retort off the table.
2-Instead of Ignoring Feelings, Acknowledge Feelings with a Word or Sound
Remember when you were a teenager talking about how “adults just don’t get it”? That adult is now you. You are the “they” in “they just don’t get it.”
So open your ears, widen your eyes, and brace yourself.
Don’t interrupt. Use “minimal encouragers” to keep them talking: Oh… Mmm… I see.
Let them turn those raging emotions into more words. Their feelings will die down a bit.
3-Instead of Counterattacking, Say What You Feel
Okay, now you get to speak. Do not just emotionally explode like a champagne bottle and undo all the good work you just accomplished.
Don’t tell them how wrong or rude they are. Neutrally, tell them how you feel or what you want.
When you listen first, your lectures turn into dialogues. They become TED Talks featuring audience interaction. In their eyes, you go from being the “Dictator of Doing Your Chores” to being the “Constitutional Monarch of Maybe You Have a Point.” The yelling can morph into a sane conversation.
But if it doesn’t…
4-Instead of Logic and Explanations, Give in Fantasy What You Can’t Give in Reality
Here’s where it often goes in circles, when they seem immune to logic. A frontal assault means this will go on forever and likely escalate.
So come at it from an angle, with a more human touch. Give them in fantasy what they want in reality: “Yeah, wouldn’t it be great if your homework just did itself?”
This may sound corny but it’s less about the facts and more about the approach. It keeps things light. It’s a response that implies you’re on their side. It deflects and distracts instead of escalating. You’re standing firm while not seeming unsympathetic.
The conversation may soften. But if not…
5-Accept Feelings as You Redirect Unacceptable Behavior
You could just give in. All it will cost you is your dignity and any concept of parental authority.
Instead, when you’re in the twilight of your patience, show empathy while sticking to your position: “I hear how you feel about ______. The problem is you still need to ______.”
Is this going to magically resolve everything and make them sane? Of course not. But it will go more smoothly and you will have less broken furniture. You’re not the evil dictator. There’s still room for both love and respect in there — without you caving. And sometimes you will be able to come to a peaceful resolution.
Okay, that covers when they want something. What about when you need something from them?
Maybe your teen is playing music so loud you can hear it through their bedroom wall and your own despair. It’s the universe’s way of ensuring you appreciate solitude. How do you get them to turn it down without reenacting the Battle of Stalingrad in your living room?
1-Instead of Giving Orders, Describe the Problem
Teens operate on a completely different plane of reality, a dimension where every parental commandment is not just ignored, but actively rebelled against as though it were an assault on their very essence.
Orders just create resentment and resistance. Instead, describe the problem. “That music is really loud.” They’ll get the hint. They might offer a solution that could be acceptable to both of you.
But probably not, so…
2-Instead of Attacking, Describe What You Feel
Oh, you really want to go into demand or lecture mode, don’t you? Yes, I know you’re “right” — but that isn’t going to help. Your kid doesn’t think you’re Buddha with a mortgage; they think you’re an obstacle between them and eternal Snapchattery.
If you attack, they counterattack and then it’s mayhem. Instead, describe your feelings.
“The music hurts my ears.”
Less likely to provoke World War 3. And then…
3-Instead of Threats or Orders, Offer a Choice
Teens want autonomy. So give them a choice where either option meets your needs.
“What would you rather do—turn the volume way down or lower it a little and close your door?”
This gives them a say and makes them feel respected. Or you can brainstorm a solution with them if you want.
This often works. But if not…
4-Instead of a Long Lecture, Say It in a Word
Don’t lecture. They will tune out faster than viewers did during the last season of “Game of Thrones.” Your words will become the equivalent of background radiation: always present, faintly detectable, but not enough to warrant attention.
Instead, use a single word that gets their attention, communicates your point and doesn’t escalate things: “Volume.”
And if that doesn’t work?
5-Instead of Pointing Out What’s Wrong, State Your Expectations
Don’t attack. Just state your expectations without criticism or a lecture: “We all need to respect each other’s tolerance for loud music.”
You’re keeping cool. Unfortunately, with more rebellious teens, this can still provoke a fight…
6-Instead of Angry Reprimands, Do the Unexpected
Again, we need to be indirect. Instead of being a dictator, be a human being. Be funny instead of combative. Put your hands over your ears, grimace in pain, and make a motion of turning the volume down. Then place your palms together, smile, and bow in a gesture of gratitude.
Being playful is how we get off the merry-go-round of resentment.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up. And we’ll learn how to handle more positive moments — like the best way to praise your teens…
When they’re freaking out…
And when you need them to do something:
Teens have fragile self-esteem and moods that shift faster than Boston weather. Sometimes even praising them can lead to conflict. Or they might just be dismissive. How do you let them know they’re doing well and you’re proud of them?
People tend to push away praise that evaluates them. An honest, enthusiastic description is easier to accept.
So, instead of evaluating (“You’re so responsible!”), describe what you feel and what you see: (“You were busy with your friends but you still texted me to say you’d be late. That saved me a lot of worry.”)
That gets past their self-esteem issues and goes straight to their heart.
Despite all the chaos, here’s the punchline of this cosmic joke we call parenting: You love them. More than you thought it possible to love anything. They’ll break your favorite vase, decimate your sleep, and drain your bank account. But you’ll look at their sleeping faces and think, “I’d do it all again.” It’s a madness, a delirium, a love so potent it’s probably illegal in several states.
And parenthood bestows upon its members the greatest gift of all: the ability to finally forgive our parents for their litany of mistakes. After all, who can blame them when we’re now staring down the barrel of our own miniature genetic mutinies?
So listen. Don’t attack. Talk feelings. Be playful.
And if all else fails, tell them if they don’t wash their dishes, you’ll change the Wi-Fi password.