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Parenting Teenagers: Sure It’s Tough Today, But It’s Not Impossible

Are you finding it challenging to live with your teenager? You’re not alone! It’s normal to experience conflicts and disagreements during this crucial period of your child’s development. But don’t worry, there are ways to navigate this stage without losing your sanity. Let’s share some tips and tricks on how to maintain a healthy and positive relationship with your teen. Together, we can make this journey a little bit easier.

The blogs that will follow this first one will share seven principles, they are much more like proverbs than promises, they are not guarantees. Children don’t come with guarantees (I think it’s because if they did too many would get sent back) but there are these principles in parenting that if you apply them will help you avoid mistakes and succeed as parents.

SETTING THE SCENE: To quote a teenager “But why?”

Adolescence is now and always has been a tough time. In fact, it’s about the most difficult stage of change in life. Unfortunately, at the same time children begin to progress through their adolescence, their parents move through their new stage in life in which they begin to experience new and bizarre things. Things like partial memory loss! And the thing they most commonly forget is their own adolescence.

As a parent you reflect on being a teenager and remember the thrill of new discovery, the wonder of it all, the excitement, the anticipation, the hopes, the energy, the adventure. You forget the pimples, the awkwardness, the gawkiness, the lack of motivation, the self-doubts, and the fears.

I want to remind you of that a bit here. I want to remind you that it is now, and it always has been difficult to be an adolescent. I’d also like to remind you that it is now, and always has been, difficult to live with an adolescent.

Well over 100 years ago Mark Twain said “When a boy turns 13 you should put him in a barrel, nail it shut, and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns 16 you should plug up the knot hole. They’ve been a problem for a long time!

This blog, and the book that it will grow into, provides information, ideas and encouragement to help you navigate the smoothest possible pathways and achieve the best possible outcomes for your teenager – and you.

This begins with answering the question: What is your most important role as a parent? Is it to provide unconditional love, freely expressing and receiving affection? Is it to provide for the physical needs of adequate food, clothing, and shelter? Is it to do everything in your power to maintain your child’s health? Is it to provide the fundamentals of your child’s education: the power to read, write and count? Is it to ensure your child has a sound moral and spiritual view?

All the above are incredibly important, but they all lead to the same desired outcome: to prepare your child to be a capable, confident, and successful adult. The underlying method to achieving this (and this may not be a popular way of expressing it) is control. As the parent, you set the rules and timetables – what to wear, when to eat, how to play, where to go or not go. These controls change as a child gets older, but they are crucial elements in the preparation for adulthood because you are both setting the best path and keeping your child on it. Of course, exercising control leads to conflict: from the toddler tantrum in Kmart to the teenager’s violent slamming of a door loudly narrated, “I hate you! I hate my life! I hate living in this family”. This conflict is the most significant contributor to the difficulty of raising a teenager; minimising it (without sacrificing your values and wisdom) will make your life better and your teen’s growth and development easier.

By the word control I do not mean that absolute authoritarianism associated with families in the Elizabethan era or strict religious communities, but rather a daily interaction between you and your child that leads to the development of patterns of thinking, choices, and behaviour that give your girl or boy the very best chance to become the best person he or she can be.

Perhaps a more palatable word for this process than control is levers. Using levers is not about coercing your child to act and think for your good, but processes by which you can gently adjust the progress of your child’s life.

This began the day that child arrived in your life. Think of all that you did to get that baby to feed and sleep, have that toddler wear warm clothes and avoid dangerous situations, encourage that primary schooler to eat politely, do homework, and shower. Oh, please shower! The levers you used for your pre-teen are losing their effect on your teen, principally because even before the physical signs of adolescence appear the shift in attitudes arrives.

A drive to independence and questioning marks adolescence; the teen will regularly challenge the logic of the parent’s instructions and rules and increasingly choose to act on his or her impulses.  The clever parent, you, then adjusts the levers accordingly. This job is tough and has been since time immemorial, but today it is harder because of the way our society has changed.

In the space of just 3 generations Western society has moved from one with largely homogenous values, beliefs, and cultural mores, all derived from a strong sense of tradition coupled with a general belief in a Divine power.

Parents were not alone in directing their teens successfully and safely through adolescence because a whole range of authorities existed that compelled children to behave in certain ways. Teens didn’t always follow the authorities, but the authorities were everywhere, reinforcing the values and behaviours of their parents.

The homogeneity of society, the most powerful authority, meant that while all teens had different values and priorities from their parents (which is still true today), current Western teens live in a world where adults present a smorgasbord of attitudes, lifestyles, and morals. Where once the rebelling teen reluctantly knew that Mr & Mrs Walters, Aunty Thelma, the Zanettis, and everyone at church, agreed with mum and dad, today’s teens are reinforced in their rebellion because they know that the Hyde-Smiths next door, Uncle Ryan who they see at holidays, and @45andlovingit on Instagram would agree.

The next great authority was a commonly accepted set of values and principles by which all people lived. Not everyone followed them to the letter, but the vast majority believed they were absolute. That common set of values has now gone. There are no absolutes for kids anymore, everything is open to question and relative; they live in a world where an opinion is valid because it is held, not because it is true. Consequently, when there is a clash of views, the parent must work much harder to argue her or his case. And we’re not just talking about Climate Change, conservative versus progressive politics, or the morality of war. In fact, it is not usually those things; more commonly, it is clothes, music, make-up, social media and games!

The third great change in authority is that it wasn’t that long ago that if all else failed and you still couldn’t convince the kid by logic, you could convince the kid by the fact that you were to be heard simply because you were the adult, there was an inherent authority you held because you were the grownup. That basically, as you all know has gone, you no longer have authority just because you’re a parent.

When I was a boy, my father would say to me “Graham, do it.”  And I’d say, “why”. To which he would reply, “Because I said so” and I would do it, begrudgingly with muttered curses, but it would be done (usually slowly).

I tried it with my daughter. I’d say, “Do it”. She’d say, “Why” I’d say, “Because I said “so”, and she would reply, “Who said you can say so”. There is no inherent authority.

Ask someone who was a teacher a generation ago. That teacher would walk through a playground and ask a kid, “Could you pick up that paper?” The kid would grumble but pick it up. Today that kid will say, “Why, I didn’t put it there”. Say to a class, “Can you straighten those chairs?”  and they’d straighten the chairs, today they’ll say, “Why, the next class will mess them up anyway”. Everything is challenged, especially when it’s the big stuff of life.

As a result, when you come to debate those issues with your adolescent that are critical and create conflict:

  • you have no derived authority from a homogeneous society.
  • you have no authority from a standard set of morals and values.
  • and you have no authority because in the teen’s mind there is no such thing as an absolute authority.

Don’t be depressed! For every bad news story there is a good news one, and there certainly is here. When all of the traditional props to parenting are removed, we are left to rely on the one foundation that is most likely to work and always has: rules without relationships lead to rebellion.

The better the relationship you can develop with your teen, the greater the likelihood you have of positively influencing your teen and of being the rock on which that teen rests when he or she is being battered by the many negatives kids experience as they progress through adolescence.

The seven principles (or levers) we will explore in this series of blogs all work to build and maintain excellent relationships while functioning as the guide, educator, comforter, and motivator every good parent is.

They are:

  1. The key to good relationships is dialogue.
  2. Pick your battles wisely, or you’ll be battling all the time.
  3. Break the no-talk rule before it breaks your family.
  4. Don’t handicap teenagers by making life too easy for them.
  5. Catch your teenager in the act of doing something good.
  6. Remember – the Lone Ranger never had kids.
  7. Something is better than nothing.

Enjoying these posts? Then get the “prequel” –Understanding Your Teenager,  an eBook that reveals what changes are happening in your child – physical, social, emotional, intellectual – and equips you with knowledge and ideas to deal with them. Only $7! Click for more information

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The key to good relationships – dialogue

Mum, Dad, teen son, teen daughter, laughing on couch

Every family needs to have rules. Kids need to have rules, even if it’s only so they know which ones they are breaking, but it is relationships that are the glue that hold the family together. And the key to good relationships? It is not solving all your kids’ problems, giving them money, or being the coolest parent on the block. The key to good relationships is dialogue.

This is good news and bad news. It is good news because dialogue is cheap and easy. It is bad news because dialogue is the one thing that has suffered most in modern homes and families.

Stephen Glenn, an American family educator, wrote:

 “We have moved from living rooms filled with dialogue to family rooms filled with television sets. Interaction within families has been reduced to only a few minutes a day. And of these few minutes, over half are issued in one way negatively toned communication. Parents are issuing warnings or reproaching children for things done wrong.” And note this book was first published 30 years ago – before the invention of smartphones, tablets, social media, and streaming video, which all make it so easy for every member of a family to live an individualised experience in the group space.

Additionally, our lives have become so busy and insular that there’s no time left to have dialogue. We parents are so busy doing our work thing, our social thing, our parenting thing while our kids are equally busy doing their school, sport, and friend things; and the computer, smartphone, tablet or TV is doing its thing to isolate all of us. The result is that some Australian families are so busy that people only get to spend time with each other outside the microwave. One is waiting to take a dinner out; the other is waiting to put one in.

The consequence of all this busyness and distraction is the loss of incidental time – people happening to be in the same space at the same time with nothing much else to do. That is the context in which dialogue will most naturally arise, and because that context is being eroded, we need to re-create it strategically.

For all of my 2 children’s teen years, my work required that I travel a great deal, in 2 to 14-day trips, usually totalling between 4 and 6 months each year. Consequently, when I was home, I had to think very seriously about the time I spent with my wife and kids because if I didn’t choose to spend time with them, that relationship-building time wouldn’t happen. It also meant that when I was on the road, I got to do what I like to do, which is to watch television, and being the man I am, what I watched was news and current affairs.

When I was home, I watched hardly any news, not because I am some instinctively brilliant father, but because my wife gently suggested to me (as only wives can “gently suggest”) that perhaps it was inappropriate for me to be sitting watching TV at the only time of the day family was together at the same time. From that conversation, I learned it was far more wonderful to find out what had happened on my daughter’s day than on the Australian Prime Minister’s or American President’s day. That it was much more fun to go to the nets and practice cricket with my son than it was to find out how the Australian Team was performing.

The other thing I noticed was about sports and exercise. While on the road, it was just too inconvenient (a very convenient excuse!) When I was home, if I were to have a 4-hour round of golf or an hour in the gym, that would be time not spent with my wife and kids, so for all of my children’s teenage years, my sport became going to their sports events. The spectator dad bounced from swimming to cricket to netball and back to swimming again, midday to 5 on Fridays, all day Saturday and much of many Sundays. At the end of those events, other parents would arrive for the child collection and give me looks that seemed to say, “He’s here again; doesn’t he have a job? Doesn’t he have anything better to do?” And the reality was that the answer to their question was that I didn’t have anything better to do because as much as I enjoyed watching my children’s sport, what I was actually there for was to build a regular context of the ordinary in which exceptional dialogue could take place – more on that later.

Some simple things can be done daily to build this context, but they have one thing in common: to put yourself into your child’s world rather than forcing the child into your own. In the early evening, when all you want to do is sit and unwind in front of a screen, choose a screen or show the teen wants to watch it with him or her. Choose YouTube Fails over the news! Do this for three days, and they’ll notice that you’re there. Do it for a week; it won’t be hard because you will be addicted. After a couple of weeks, you’ll find your kids start to talk to you, during the ads, but they’ll talk to you.

As the mother, and this is stereotypically still true, you are the only person in the home still working after six at night. You find yourself stuck in the kitchen saying to yourself, “How come I’m the one packing dishes, making lunches, getting ready for tomorrow?” When you feel like that, put down everything, take up your cup of tea, a glass of wine, or a sensitive, new-age mug of healing hot water, go to your daughter’s bedroom where she’s pretending to study, and lie down on her bed. When she looks at you and says, “Mum, what are you doing here?” you reply, “Nothing, sweetheart, I just wanted to be close to you.”

The first time you do this, it will be like the Antarctic has moved into your house. The second time, the thaw will have begun, and by the third time, you’ll find you start to relax, to fall asleep. The moment you get that relaxed, your daughter (or son) will say, “Mum, what do you think about …”, “Mum did you know”, and suddenly, from this child from whom you’ve recently only had grunts, you’ll now receive sentences.

Another way of looking at this is that dialogue, especially with teens, is something that only ever happens by accident when people are comfortable with each other. You can’t program dialogue, you can’t sit down with a teenager and say, “I’ve got time; let’s talk”. It won’t happen.

If you want to have significant conversations with your teens, you need to spend lots of time on the insignificant. If you’re too busy to talk about the ordinary, you’ll never hear about the extraordinary. If you want to deal with the serious, you must first spend time with the trivial.

This becomes particularly important when we understand that most kids are reticent to speak about serious issues. Almost invariably, teens who have something important they want to discuss with their parents will first test to see if their parents are listening, and the way kids test their parents’ listening skills is to try them out on the trivial. If a teen’s experience is that their parents are too busy with the trivial, that teen won’t even trying to raise the important.

You need to spend time on these ordinary conversations, to put yourself in a position where dialogue is easy for your kids. All those hours you spend listening to your child’s latest obsession (friends, sports, electronic games, clothes, pop stars, TikTokers, and the like – the list is as endless as it is mindless) work to convince your child that your ears are open to them.

Conversely, suppose your child’s lived experience is having to fight your other priorities in order to be heard. In that case, your child will gradually slip into the belief that her or his thoughts and issues are not important and will stop raising them.

Your children are more important than the drink with the girls or boys after work, the correspondence course you are doing, the social media you scroll through on the couch, the news and current affair shows on TV, the sport, and chatting on the phone to friends. If this seems to suggest that parents must make sacrifices you are reading me correctly, for two reasons.

Firstly, if you already have teenagers, you haven’t got them much longer; this is the last hurrah. At best, you have five years left to set this stuff up.

Secondly, in this story, you are the grownups; if you don’t make the sacrifices, no one will.

This doesn’t mean you have to make your life totally available to your children; that can be equally damaging. It simply means that where parents make a serious effort to lay the groundwork for open and good communication, the usual outcome is a dialogue that promotes the most desirable relationships.  

Enjoying these posts? Then get the “prequel” –Understanding Your Teenager,  an eBook that reveals what changes are happening in your child – physical, social, emotional, intellectual – and equips you with knowledge and ideas to deal with them. Only $7! Click for more information

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How to Increase Dialogue by Focusing on Everyday Conversations


While it is easy to see that building good relationships relies on dialogue, making that a reality can be difficult when children move into adolescence because their communication style is part of the suite of changes that occur.

Most commonly, they either become secretive and monosyllabic and any attempt at conversation is stifled by grunts, harrumphs, or if words are used, they are a weaponised question: “What’s this, what do you want now?”

Alternately, the teen is incessantly chatty where there may be many words used, often of a seemingly foreign language, but not much sense is made.

Talk, Don’t Just Communicate

The result of either of these is that conversation, the bedrock of dialogue, dries up between parents and their teens. Instead of conversing frequently and easily about many things, parents fall into the pattern of only talking to their teens when they have something important to communicate to them. To tell them about what they need to do tomorrow, should have done yesterday, or shouldn’t have done today.

To overcome this, you need to practice talking to your teens the way they talk to “normal people”, to talk to them about things of everyday life and so forth, things of common interest and so forth. This lays a foundation for casual and frequent conversation. When you make the effort to talk to your children about things beyond what they did in school today, what they need to do at music practice, or how they really ought to clean their rooms, you achieve some very important outcomes.

Some of you have tried this without success. Day after day you have this conversation:

“How was your day”

“All right”

“What did you?”


“You were there for 6 hours, you must have done something?”

“Just stuff”

“What sort of stuff”


Long silence

You have experimented with dipping into their entertainment – music, movies, influencers, etc. – to find conversation starters, only to fail miserably, being derisively dismissed by getting it totally wrong (like when I called Smashing Pumpkins Broken Watermelons when trying to sound relevant to my 13-year-old daughter.)

You have tried to enforce family meals being taken at the table together, only to have the mood go cold faster than the food.

If this is where you find yourself, then there is little method that might help: Gossip. Gossip with your children. This is not to say you seek salacious information to share about their friends and peers, rather, you make third parties the focus. Instead of asking your daughter, “How was your day?” you ask, “How is your friend Wendy, I haven’t seen her in a while”.

If your daughter’s reply is something scandalous, it is time to change the subject! But far more commonly, it will be along the lines of, “She plays soccer now, so I don’t see her much”, or “She’s moved to another school”, or, “She’s turned mean, and I hate her”. Suddenly, from this child from whom you’ve recently had only had grunts, you’ll now get sentences.

Another element to consider in normalising conversation with teens has to do with the kinds of topics you choose for casual conversation. Many parents chat with their children in a different way than they do with their peers. Casual conversations between parents and teens tend only to happen when the parents have something nice to talk about: the good things that have happened today, the positive expectations for tomorrow. Casual conversations with adult peers, on the other hand, tend to be dominated by trivialities like sports and politics or by anxieties, fears, concerns, and worries.

The result of only sharing your perfection with your children and your frailty with your friends is that your children will not find it easy to be empathetic, or even understanding, when you are frail.

This scenario may be familiar to you: You have one of those horrible days at work, the boss has been bad and the clients worse. You fight the traffic home, clear the letterbox because no one else ever does, and all you have received are bills. You walk into the house and every light is on, the air-conditioning is at full blast, set to 22 degrees even though it is a balmy 23 outside. The kitchen shows no signs of meal preparation, just the detritus of teenage after-school snacking on the benches, sink and floor.

You don’t want to dump this on your teens because they are just kids, so you pretend everything is all right. Your kids will see right through this, but they won’t blame your horrible day, they will just mutter amongst themselves, saying, “Watch out, mum’s all hormonal again”.

Instead, try a little honesty and say to your kids “I’ve had a bad day, be gentle with me”. There is little guarantee that you will be overwhelmed with sympathy and offers of help, but if you are consistent with this, and are sure to equally share being genuinely joyous, over time you will set patterns of open, two-way conversation.

Conversation about the trivial and the ordinary, and even the baring of our frailty, lets your teenagers know that you value their listening and enjoy their company. When you spend time in casual conversation, where there are no emotional undertones or hidden agendas, you are creating the tools that make real dialogue work.

You are creating familiar patterns of conversation that are templates for when important things need not be shared.

You are establishing a common vocabulary so that you and your teens have a familiar set of words to access that have the same meaning to each of you.

You are learning to read each other’s body language and understand the qualification that intonation and posture bring to words

More than all of these, you learn to be comfortable with silence so there is not an urgency to fill the spaces in your teen’s conversation with your own words. These spaces are critically important to thought processing and proof of listening, especially with teens who will often struggle to find the right words, and the right direction for their argument, and will need silence to formulate them.

Listen, Don’t Lecture

It is self-evident: if you want to be able to talk WITH your teenagers you must resist the temptation to talk AT them. But beyond that, you must actively discipline yourself to listen to them. This is made very difficult by the fact that teenagers frequently don’t talk to their parents, and when they do talk, they talk dribble, and when they don’t talk dribble, they use a language you don’t understand. Is this a mission impossible?

There are some teenagers who happily chat to their parents about everything. If you have one of these, give thanks. The other 90% have busy social calendars, and personal secrets they want to protect. Talking to a parent is the lowest rung on the ladder of their social priorities.

With these kids, the most successful strategy is to find something the child cannot do without you and make it happen regularly. It may be monthly breakfast at McDonalds on a school day, or horse riding in the hills, or shopping in THE place, or surfing and skiing trips. The key here is to make the focus the event, not the conversation you hope will arise. This is not the time to talk to the teen about what he hasn’t done, or what she should do. It is the time to enjoy the meal or the experience in a silence that is interrupted by comments and questions about the décor, the weather, or the badly behaved children on the playground.

I have a friend who was a youth worker, and what I have described here is a simple youth work technique. When Tim’s daughter hit high school he thought to himself, “If this works for me with other kids, it should work for mine”.

On Jenny’s first Wednesday at high school, Tim turned up at lunchtime, found her at her classroom and said, “Jenny, I’m taking you to lunch”.

She replied, sheepishly, “It’s OK Dad, Mum sent stuff.”

Tim said, “No, I’m taking you to lunch.”

They went to lunch and Jenny only spoke to say, “Dad, it’s time to go back”

One month later Tim turned up at the classroom and Jenny just looked at him and said “I guess it’s lunch”.

They went off to lunch and again all Jenny said was “Dad, it’s time to go back.”

One month later, first Wednesday of the month, Tim turned up at the school again. He didn’t get to the classroom because Jenny was waiting for him in the car park. She said, “Dad, you wouldn’t believe it. All my friends said that you’d be here today. How come your dad comes and takes you to lunch when my dad’s not home for dinner most of the time?”

Jenny finished high school many years ago, but in all the time she was there they only missed a few of those lunch dates. Sometimes they’d go to restaurants, sometimes to fast food outlets, most times he’d just bring sandwiches for them both. The food was not the big deal. The big deal was that once the food was eaten they’d just walk, sometimes with arms linked and bubbly conversations, sometimes not touching and with hardly a word said, but they’d walk and talk. As Tim told me, the lunches were not always great and the conversations were not always sparkling, but every significant thing Jenny ever shared with him through those years started on those walks through parks. Tim took a risk and made a breakthrough. What risk do you need to take to make a breakthrough of dialogue with your teenager?

The principle? Find something your child and wants to do so badly it will be willing to do it with you and make it happen.

Find what works for your child, fit in with that, and keep in mind that this developing relationship will be the foundation of what you enjoy together for the whole of your life.

Enjoying these posts? Then get the “prequel” –Understanding Your Teenager,  an eBook that reveals what changes are happening in your child – physical, social, emotional, intellectual – and equips you with knowledge and ideas to deal with them. Only $7! Click for more information