Parenting Teens: Stick With What Works

When our children become teenagers, it can be hard to know how best to respond when they make poor choices.  Many of the strategies we use with younger children lose their effectiveness as children get older and it can be challenging to find consequences that truly influence teen behavior.  That said, there are some tried and true parenting strategies that work throughout the life span and relying on our “old” parenting tools with teenagers can provide a good boost to our parenting morale.

The strategy that has been most helpful in parenting my children (from toddlers to teens) is to, “Catch them being good.”  Although teenagers are notoriously irritable and less interested in their families than their social world, they still very much care what their parents think of them.  So, when we notice our teens behaving in ways that are responsive, responsible, mature, thoughtful, etc., make a point to say something about it!  “Nice work remembering to turn in that permission slip.” “Wow, your studying paid off!” “I like how you picked up your dirty clothes from the bathroom before I asked you to.” “I know you probably wanted to go straight to your room so thanks for chatting with me for a few minutes.”  Even if they don’t overtly acknowledge this feedback, “catching them being good” is a surefire way to increase positive behaviors in teenagers.  

Another useful consideration when responding to our teen’s poor choices that is similar to what we do for younger children is to ensure that the consequences we impose are reasonable, enforceable, and able to be followed (by us and them).  While certain poor choices might demand a “stiff” consequence, the consequence loses meaning and impact if parents don’t hold to it.  Thus, parents are strongly encouraged to avoid setting specific consequences when they are angry/upset because we are prone to making punishments too strong when we’re emotionally charged.  Also, it is important to think through whether the consequence can be upheld.  For example, if you take your teen’s phone but then they need it for school or if you say they can’t drive for a while but then they need to take themselves somewhere, the consequence loses its effectiveness.  

Lastly, a parenting strategy that actually has the potential to increase in effectiveness as children get older involves natural consequences.  Natural consequences are outcomes that develop “naturally” or automatically as a result of your teen’s behaviors.  For instance, if your child does not study appropriately for his math test, then a bad grade is the natural consequence.  If your child misses a deadline for a summer job application, the natural consequence will be the child having to find a less-preferred job.  Natural consequences often motivate teens to adjust their behavior moving forward (e.g., study better the next time; pay more attention to deadlines).  Parents can then spend their energy helping children problem-solve for how to avoid these consequences in the future rather than imposing an arbitrary punishment that may not be effective.  

Raising teens can be challenging, overwhelming, and unpredictable but it will be easier to appreciate the “parenting ride” if we stick to parenting strategies that are tried and true even as our children become teenagers. 


Kelly Theis, Ph.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist