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How to Handle Teenagers: It Takes More Than Sheer Dumb Luck

Recently at a dinner party, a dear friend pulled me aside and asked, “How did you raise your kids? They’re so good!”

The first image that popped into my head was of Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagal in Harry Potter and I said, “with sheer dumb luck.”

My rules on how to parent a teenager

That must have been exasperating for my friend to hear, but as I thought about it more, I realized it wasn’t right. My three semi-decent functioning teenagers weren’t raised in a vacuum and over the years I have developed some parenting skills, particularly with teenagers. Here are a few of the do’s and don’ts of how to handle teenagers when you live with several of them.

Do

Make them feel safe emotionally. Are you likely to scoff at your kids’ remarks in front of others? Would you interrupt them when they’re talking to their teacher? Are you standing on the sidelines cheering too loudly? Do you find yourself acting extra goofy in front of your kids’ friends to look like the cool mom? Your teen may not feel safe around you if you do these things. Your presence becomes a liability to their reputation when they can’t rely on you to be predictable, boring you. They won’t feel safe to have their friends or classmates around you because they’re afraid you’ll embarrass them—or yourself.

Do

Distract and disarm. A teenager will never just stroll into your room to have a conversation. They want something, and it usually happens when you’re busy. “Can I have my PS4 time now? I finished my homework.” “Is there anything to eat?” Take these opportunities to distract them with a chore.  “Let me think about it while you finish cutting these carrots for me.” Or, “Tell me what you’re playing while you set the table.” Soon they’ll learn that they have to do something in order to get something from you. Or, in my kids’ case, they’ll figure out my strategy and simply stop approaching me when I’m busy.

Do

Give them time to make the right choices. It seems like all video game systems slow down to the lowest possible speed when everyone is already in the car and your child has to “save their progress” or “has to die” first. Or there might be a text that needs to be sent, or a file that needs to be uploaded to the teacher. By giving them those extra few minutes they ask for, you’ll spare yourself a teen tantrum. But do follow through if they don’t make the right choice after a reasonable amount of time. If you’ve warned that you’ll turn off the game system or take away the phone if they don’t wrap it up soon, and they make no effort to do what you’ve asked them to do, the next thing to do is follow through on your warning. Whatever you said you’d do, do it. Otherwise, they’ll think you’re bluffing the next time it happens.

Don’t

Scream. Remember those times when you let your inner Carrie loose at the sight of a messy bathroom, a spilled bottle, or a fridge left wide open? You let it all out, made everyone and yourself cry, and scared the crap out of them. That doesn’t work with teenagers. Yelling and screaming makes you look maniacal, even comical. You confirm their belief that you’re insane, and therefore wrong. The fact of the matter is that yelling is counterproductive. At this age, they’re rational enough to see that maybe you had a rough day and are taking it out on them, which is often the case. If you feel the scream rising in your throat, it’s best to give them fair warning before impending doom. “If you don’t die in Fortnite in the next five minutes, I swear that I’ll kill you myself.” Once they know you’re serious, you’ll hear, “Guys, I think I’m going to get off now.”

Don’t

Stop being a parent when your child turns thirteen. How often have you heard, “All of the kids are watching Game of Thrones. If I didn’t let him, he would watch it anyway.” Or, “Well, they’re going to download those apps whether we let them or not. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.” There’s a difference between knowing that your child might sneak to do something you’ve forbidden versus letting them do whatever they want. Keep setting boundaries for your teens and holding them accountable when they break the rules.

Don’t

Assume you’re the strictest parent, just because your child says so. Imagine yourself as a sheep that sticks with the flock of other strict parents. When you’re dealing with multiple teens, you might find yourself straying from that flock, only to have your parenting values dismembered and eaten alive by a pack of wolves. (Yes, my references come from violent video games.) Teens want you to doubt your parenting values so they can get what they want. Don’t assume other parents are not as strict about their kids’ phone and video game usage as you are. Your teen will only tell you what their friends have gotten away with, not the actual rules set down by their friends’ parents.