How to Raise Teenagers
by Josh Noem
Our family life is in a unique position this year — all three of our kids are teenagers right now. Our youngest turned 13 last summer and our oldest will be 20 in January. So this seemed like a good time to pull together some observations about what it’s like to be parenting teens.
I remember listening to a speaker talk about parenting teens back when our oldest was a toddler, and something she said shocked me. She said that a teenager’s job is to murder their parents.
That’s hyperbole, of course, but it points to something true in the dynamic of parenting. A teenager’s job in this phase of life is to separate themselves from the family system and begin to establish their own identity.
There’s a beautiful corollary to this dynamic as well, though. As they begin to separate themselves, you get a front-row seat to witness the people they are becoming. They are taking on a mature view of the world and are capable of adult(ish) conversations, and their own brand of humor starts to show. It’s a privilege to see all of this unfold.
All the same, there are plenty of times that don’t feel very privileged at all. Hormone swings along with changing bodies and social patterns put new pressures on a family. Here are four principles we are keeping close to during these teenage years.
Keep them close
If their job is to murder you, the parent’s job in these years is to let them widen their circles. They should be able to explore new social worlds and realms of opportunity — they need that kind of freedom. But they also need responsibility and accountability.
I think of my job in these years as giving them the ability to range farther away— both physically and ideologically — while still keeping them within reach. They shouldn’t be set loose to run wild — even if that’s what they say they want, it’s not what they need.
The trick is keeping them in orbit without being too confining. A good way to do that is to create a rich sense of home for them to come back to. They should feel at home in our house — like it’s a place of rest and connection, not a prison. We try to maintain warm emotional bonds by listening well, inquiring about their experience and friends, and continuing to pour concern and love into them (even as they seem to respond to it less).
We also try to structure recreational opportunities around their preferences and interests. We encourage them to invite their friends to spend time at the house, or we will empower them to take the lead in planning social outings.
Regularity and ritual help here, too. We stay faithful in our attendance at Mass and with prayer during the day. We try to make sure they know what a day or week will hold so that they are not caught by surprise. We do cleaning and household chores every week. There’s a clear rhythm to life that includes them.
We want them to feel like home is a welcoming, warm place where they feel grounded and like themselves.
Get them to talk — about anything
I was just telling a friend that living with teenagers sometimes feels like living with cavemen. They have a lot going on in their heads, but only about 1% of it comes out in words. Sometimes I’ll ask a question and the answer I get is measured in the quality and length of grunts.
So if I can get them talking and sharing some part of what they think about, I jump at the chance. That means I’ve waded into conversations about steampunk, and meme culture, and dungeons and dragons, and the multiverse more times than I can count. Rarely do I understand anything they are describing, but I can follow enough to ask the next question.
Don’t let them wrap themselves into a cocoon. They’ll try! Gently and consistently knock and inquire about things that are important to them. If they can continue to practice opening up and sharing their thoughts (and feelings, if we’re lucky), there’s a greater chance they’ll come to us when it counts and the stakes are real.
Be patient and consistent
It’s hard to know what’s going on inside a teenager’s head. Different parts of the brain seem to be expanding rapidly while others disappear entirely.
With all the changes in the way they are thinking and feeling, a key virtue for parenting is being consistent and patient. When they forget their lunch or basketball shoes, it means an extra trip to the school. When they break a rule around screentime, it means taking a breath and enforcing consequences as matter-of-factly as possible and without anger.
Consistency will help them know what they can depend upon from us. Our patience is a mercy at a time when they don’t always feel like themselves.
There are unavoidable times when we need to put on the parenting pants to hold a line or explain something important. But, for the most part, parenting teens is full of opportunities to show them how to be authentic and genuine.
Humor is a great asset here. I share with them things that make me laugh so we can appreciate them together. We play games that make us giggle. We watch funny movies together — and have started taking some careful steps beyond G- or PG-rated movies so that they start to encounter adult humor within a shared context. Seeing these movies together also gives us the chance to open up elements of the story that don’t quite jive with our family values.
Another asset is our affirmation. For teenagers, verbal and written affirmations are like sunlight to a plant — they soak it up and grow in that direction. Affirmations have to be grounded in the truth, so we can’t make up what we want them to be, but we try to make a point of seeing and acknowledging excellence and compassion in them.
One more affirmation is touch — they are our children, flesh of our flesh. We need to orient their expectations around physical intimacy and expressiveness. Sometimes when they are at their grumpiest, a hand on the shoulder or gentle touch to the back can diffuse emotions and intense situations. Snuggling while sitting on a couch, sharing a blanket, holding hands, or putting an arm around a shoulder during a walk, keeps us connected.
Just like when they were toddlers, the teenage years are a season of life. They won’t last long, and we won’t get these years back. What could be more important than cherishing them and investing in them?