parenting teens

5 Reasons Parenting Teens Is So Hard

The president of the organization I work for stopped by my office and struck up a conversation about our kids. He shared about a soccer tournament his teenage daughter was in during which she, as the goalie, had to defend against penalty kicks to win the championship game. He said, “My hands were sweating, and my heart was pounding in my chest the whole time!” I responded, “That’s probably more nervous than you ever get in your role here.” “Oh, absolutely,” he said.

This got me thinking: Why is parenting teens more stressful than leading a large, complex organization? After all, it’s not just soccer tournaments that get your heart racing as a parent of teens. It’s dating and college searches and mental health and so many things. While there are lots of factors to consider, here are 5 reasons parenting teens is so hard.

1. What helped you then won’t help you now.

We all think of our teens through the lens of our experience as teenagers. The problem is being a teen now is just different. While hormones and insecurity existed when you were a teen, the internet didn’t. Neither did a global pandemic, frequent school shootings, and social media. There are things they face that you just don’t understand. What helped you as a teen won’t help you now. As the saying goes, you need to build the plane as you’re flying it.

So what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Find some friends for the journey. Parenting teens is hard with or without a tribe. But the support of others will be critical as you go and grow.

2. The tighter you grip, the worse your hold becomes.

When we begin to lose our hold on things, we instinctively tighten our grip. It’s natural. It’s also the exact wrong thing to do with teens. What this looks like is doubling down on control. We try to control what they wear, what music they listen to, the friends they have, etc. I’m not saying we shouldn’t say no. Of course we should. But there’s a very challenging dance we have to do between setting up rules to take care of them and setting up rules to control them.

So what do you do when you can no longer control your teen? Learn to listen to him. Ask questions. Learn about why he does what he does. Tell him what you think and why. Parenting teens requires less control and more conversation.

3. She needs to be different from you, but she doesn’t know how.

Differentiating herself from you is a developmentally appropriate and necessary move for your teen. The problem is she doesn’t know how to do it. She just knows she needs to. This means she’ll likely push back on things she once happily acquiesced to. Maybe it’s going to church with you or spending time with the family. Sometimes this can be unsettling, especially when the things she decides to shed are things you hold dear.

So what do you do as she becomes her own person in ways that make you uncomfortable? Figure out which things are up for negotiation. The answer can’t be “nothing.” Some things have got to give. Allow her to make as many of her own choices as she can, even as you draw the line where you need to.

4. Mistakes are inevitable.

Because being a teen is so different now than it was when you were a kid and because you are so emotionally invested in your child and because you’re human, you will make mistakes. You will say something or do something that in retrospect was absolutely the wrong thing. You know this. You just don’t know what that wrong thing is before you do it (if you did, you wouldn’t do it). Part of why parenting teens is so hard is because you know you’re doing something wrong (maybe lots of things)—you just don’t know which things yet.

So what do you do when you know you’re going to mess up? Stay humble. Be quick to acknowledge mistakes and ask for forgiveness. Allow your teen to hear you say you’re sorry. You might be surprised how gracious he is.

5. This isn’t about you.

Many of the things your teen does and says feel like personal attacks. In some ways, that’s because they are. Because she needs to differentiate herself and because you are safe, you will often be the unfortunate recipient of her frustration, anger, and confusion. It’s not always, maybe even not often, about you. It’s about the storm that’s raging inside her. It’s about her projection of you. But it’s not always about you.

So what do you do when parenting teens feels like a personal attack? See a therapist, journal, talk to your clergy, whatever you need to do to let go of the hurt your teen causes so you don’t respond in kind. Your job is to love your teen. To do so, you’re going to need to learn to let go.

Sound off: What else makes parenting teens so hard?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What do you think makes it so hard to be a teen today?”