On Parenting Teens with Intense Emotions

One of my favorite books, as both a professional and a parent of teenagers, is “Parenting a Teen Who Has Intense Emotions” by Pat Harvey and Britt Rathbone.  In their book, Harvey and Rathbone present dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) strategies that parents can use to help teens navigate challenges in their lives.  They present the importance of finding a “balanced approach to parenting” that helps to lessen power struggles and allows us to move forward when we feel stuck.  Balanced parenting reduces the impact of all-or-nothing, rigid thinking and opens us up to thinking dialectically.  To be able to engage in balanced parenting, it is critical for parents to prioritize self-care.  

According to Harvey and Rathbone, self-care as a parent entails treating ourselves in much of the same ways as we intend to treat our children.  For instance, it helps to utilize strategies for reducing judgments, validating ourselves, and balancing the demands of our children with our own wants and needs.  Validation and acceptance are two core tenets of balanced parenting.  Validating ourselves as parents when our children are having a difficult time involves remembering that we are “doing the best we can under difficult circumstances”.  Another way to validate ourselves as parents is to allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have imperfections, we make mistakes, and we don’t have to hold onto “should’s”.  Acceptance, which means accepting the situation as it is, also can bring a sense of calm to parents.  Acceptance does not mean giving in or giving up.  It means we recognize the problem at hand (i.e., “it is what it is”); once we do this, we can often find a way to problem-solve about it.  Lastly, it is important for us (not anyone else) to determine how well we are balancing our children’s needs with our own needs.  Consider how you feel and then observe your own limits.  For example, if your teen asks for help at 11 pm the night before a test, it is up to you to determine whether you can do so effectively.  If you are too tired and may not be able to communicate well with him/her, then it is ok to say that you are not able to help at that hour.

Learning how to approach parenting from a “balanced” perspective is useful not only for teens with intense emotions but for all kinds of teens as they navigate the road to independence.  Thus, for more guidance on this process, I recommend that all parents read Harvey and Rathbone’s book, “Parenting a Teen Who Has Intense Emotions.”


Kelly Theis, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist