Navigating the “Terrible Teens” – How Parents Can Help

"Adolescents are not monsters. They are just people trying to learn how to make it among the adults in the world, who are probably not so sure themselves." - Virginia Satir

"Adolescents are not monsters. They are just people trying to learn how to make it among the adults in the world, who are probably not so sure themselves." - Virginia Satir

Navigating the “Terrible Teens” – How Parents Can Help

It is no secret that the teenage years can be a tumultuous time in a family system. Many parents find themselves bewildered and unprepared when their formerly sensible child becomes a scatter-brained, risk-taking teen. Parents are often at a loss as to how best to support their teen through wild mood swings, peer conflicts and poor decision-making. In years past, it was thought to be best for parents to take a step back and let their teen navigate their own way. However, new research indicates that teenagers do best when their parents stay attentive and emotionally connected during each phase of their development in this difficult decade. Most teens will experience the following phases of development during which they master critical intellectual, social and emotional skills:

Ages 11 to 12

This stage, often called pre-puberty, is a time when an adolescent’s skills development often has not kept pace with the demands that are placed upon them. Parts of the brain responsible for memory, reasoning and spatial learning are still developing, which may explain why your soon-to-be teen acts forgetful and irresponsible. Parents can be most helpful during this stage by assisting their son or daughter to improve organizational and decision-making skills. Encourage your child with memory cues, such as placing their backpack by the front door or helping them locate a user-friendly task-manager app for their cellphone. You can also help your child make important decisions by reviewing the pros and cons or discussing the viewpoints of others. The research indicates that by remaining positive, supportive, and nurturing during this stage, parents may be able to positively impact their child’s brain development such that they experience greater self-discipline and lower rates of depression and anxiety.

Ages 13 to 14

This stage is often a painful time in a teen’s development as they become highly sensitive and reactive to the opinions of their peers. Unfortunately, because their social skills will not be fully developed for several more years, they often experience high levels of social stress. And because the brain regions most vulnerable to stress are still developing, teens will often react with wild emotions that result in slammed doors, tears, and isolating from others. Parents can best support their teen during this stage by teaching or modeling coping skills and coaching them to develop healthy interpersonal skills. Introduce your teen to mindfulness meditation or discuss the concept of compromise. The research indicates that teens whose parents provide such support are less likely to experience depression, even under severe levels of stress.

Ages 15 to 16

At this stage, the reward receptors in a teen’s brain are flourishing, which intensifies their response to dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and gratification. As a result, a teen’s fear of danger is suppressed, which often results in reckless and dangerous behaviors. Research indicates that the quality of a teen’s relationship with both peers and parents during this stage can impact the level of risk in the chances that they take. Teens who maintain friendships with good friends who are supportive and consistent engage in less risky behaviors, as do teens with parents who respect them and problem solve in a healthy and effective manner. Parents can help out by facilitating their teen’s interactions with emotionally healthy peers and keeping in-home arguments and yelling to a minimum.

Ages 17 to 18

At this stage, your teen is nearly an adult! Though some executive functioning skills, including problem-solving and planning, will continue to develop into their early to mid 20’s, prefrontal cortex development associated with judgment and decision-making has made great strides. Thus, you may see a decrease in unpredictable emotions and risky behaviors around this time. Also, even though your teen’s social skills are still developing, they are now more adept at noticing other’s feelings and experiencing empathy for them. Parents can be supportive by providing positive feedback to their teen and being available for conversation and emotional connection.  

Hang in there parents of teens! You’ve got this and the rewards of your years of hard work and conscious parenting will pay off before you know it!

Leesa Varela, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, received her B.A. in Political Science from Loyola Marymount University, and her M.S. in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy from California Lutheran University. A retired probation officer, she has a long history of working with adolescent clients and their family members, helping them to create a family environment that is healthy and functional for all. In her free time, she enjoys yoga, hiking, body surfing, and traveling. 


Carolyn Hallteens