How to Stop Struggling with Your Teen: 4 Practical Tips

Raising a teenager can be a harrowing experience that leaves parents feeling at their wit's end. Setting boundaries, taking some time for yourself, and giving lots of love (even when you want to scream with frustration) will help you connect with your teen in meaningful ways.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #612

If the teen in your life is giving you angst, don't fret. These four practical tips can help you redirect your teen's negative ways.

Set firm boundaries and impose consequences

Most kids have one thing in common, they crave structure and routines, and that includes teens! When kids are younger, if they know what to expect throughout the day, they're better able to cope with rules because they know what's expected of them. If you're dealing with a disrespectful teen or one who feels it's OK to break the rules, it's time to reestablish firm boundaries.  

Include your teenager in the setting of your boundaries. Making him a part of the conversation will help him understand why you've set your boundaries so he has a clear path to follow. For example, respect is something I hold in high regard in our family. It's essential that my kids don't mock, roll their eyes, belittle, or use backtalk when I'm communicating with them. Likewise, they know they can expect the same from me in return. If my son does get flippant when I'm explaining why he can't borrow my car for a weekend ski trip with his friends, he's testing the boundaries we've agreed on. And that means there'll be consequences for him.

There's no point in having a boundary without a consequence. QDT's former Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, shared three helpful tips for imposing practical consequences:

  • Choose a consequence that motivates him. If hanging out with his friends after practice is something he enjoys, losing this privilege for a week would be more upsetting than taking his cell phone away.
  • Add an incentive for adhering to the rule. Put a carrot on the end of your behavior stick! If your teen knows that positive actions on his part may yield a reward, he'll have more reason to stay on task. Dr. Hendriksen recommends including your teen in the conversation so he can tell you what incentives would be meaningful to him.
  • Write it all down! Write your list of boundaries, consequences, and rewards, and then post it in a common area that your teen will see. By doing this, you're making the agreement official. When a rule is broken, you must be consistent and stay the course. Don't get heated; instead point to the written notice that you both agreed upon, and firmly impose the consequence. 

RELATED: 5 Ways to be a Less Angry Parent

Give yourself a "teen" time-out

Time-outs have been a part of my parenting toolbox for years. They were mostly successful because they gave my child a chance to cool off and return a few moments later with a better attitude and a clear head.

The use of time-outs to discipline kids remains controversial. Time-outs can be isolating, and research shows that exclusion and physical pain trigger similar responses in the brain. But an article in TIME suggests we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the time-out as a parenting strategy, concluding that time-outs are safe and effective when done right. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry also back time-outs as a form of discipline.

But what would happen if you gave yourself a time-out?

Raising eight teens has given me plenty of opportunities to experience the frustrations of being overloaded and overwhelmed. I've even been brought to tears because the situation seemed so daunting. (No parent likes to get a call at 2 a.m. from the campus police about their kid's frat life shenanigans!) So when I'm at wit's end, I give myself a "teen" time-out. Basically, I take a break from my teen.

These time-outs give me a chance to clear my mind so I won't say anything I'll regret.

Sometimes, my time-out is just leaving the house for a walk around the block. Other times, it's a scenic drive to the beach. Even removing myself from the situation and retreating to my bedroom is cathartic. I know my limits, so when I feel I need more time, I take it. These time-outs give me a chance to clear my mind and not say anything I'll regret. I can return with a better mindset and tackle whatever the situation is with fresh ideas and a calm perspective. 

Find ways to connect, not nag

Last week, my 15-year-old daughter got up late for school. She had less than ten minutes to get herself dressed, organized, and out the door. When she got in the car, she was in full-blown cranky mode because she didn't like what she was wearing. Halfway to school, she realized she had forgotten her laptop and, naturally, had a biology test first period. Things weren't going well!

This wasn't the first time this had happened. In fact, it was the third time in the past few weeks. As a person who strongly believes in routines and getting ready for school or work the night before, it's always painful to watch my teen struggling.

My first instinct was to quip that if she hadn't stayed up so late binging a show while on the phone with her best friend, she would've had a chance to get ready for school as well as remember to set her alarm. But I refrained from adding insult to injury. Instead, I encouraged her to put the rushed morning behind her and to enjoy the rest of the day. I gently reminded her that she could borrow a laptop from the computer lab. When she got out of the car, she gave me a half-hearted smile and hurried into the building. Later that morning, I sent her a text with a funny GIF, and she replied with a smiley face. At dinner that evening, she announced she would take a shower soon after and get a head start on her homework.

My episode, 5 Effective Ways to Connect With Your Teen, shares tips on how you can navigate teen moods. My first tip was to check in with your teen every day. I'm talking about stopping whatever you're doing and giving your child your undivided attention. Finding five to ten minutes each day to show your child that you're interested in her life is essential for both of you. This is a fantastic opportunity to be a great listener. Our teens need to feel validated and heard. Tuning in, whether it's to listen or to offer a supportive shoulder to lean on will help your teen know how much she means to you.

Check out this informative and helpful video from John Gray, Ph.D. on Communicating Effectively with Your Teenager.

Show them the love—often

Remember when your surly teen was a baby? Your heart melted every time you saw him wake up from a nap. Holding and rocking him when he needed soothing was pure joy.

Take a look at your teen today. That person is still your baby and will always need your unconditional love.

In my episode What Your Teen Wants You to Understand, I saved my most valuable tip for last: "Tell me you love me." Your teenager may drive and not hang out at home much these days, but teenagers need to know they're loved consistently. Whether it's sharing a warm smile when she walks through the door at the end of the day or giving her a snug embrace as she leaves for school in the morning, your young adult yearns to feel love from her parents.

Your teen is still your baby and will always need your unconditional love.

I refer to one of my favorite parenting gurus, Dr. Laura Markham, for her heartfelt explanation of love for your child:

Unconditional love isn't just what we feel. It's what the object of our love feels: love without strings attached. That means our child doesn't have to be, or do, anything in particular to earn our love. We love her exactly as she is.

Dr. Laura Markham

Every morning when I leave for work, I hug my kids and tell them I love them. When they leave to go to a friend's house or practice, they tell me they love me. I try never to take that for granted. It doesn't have to be a corny, mushy exchange as long as it's genuine and you take the time to let them know how you feel as often as possible.

RELATED: 15 Ways to Show Your Family You Love Them

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.