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September 2004
10 Tips for Improving Parent-Teen Relationships

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

Now that school has been in session for a month, I’m sure things are in full swing at home. As parents you’re right there in the trenches with:

"Be there for your teens. Be honest, set clear expectations, be consistent with praise and consequences, and let go, little by little. That's how to encourage good judgment in your teens and create a family dynamic that supports and nurtures everyone."
  • The morning rush (“Got your lunch?”)
  • After school schedules (“I’ll pick you up after practice. Remember our meeting place?”)
  • Dinner scramble (“We’re all hungry… but if you eat that now you’re not going to want dinner!”)
  • Homework hassles (“If you knew you had math homework why didn’t you bring home your book?”)

Many of the challenges of parenting include setting clear expectations and being willing to let go, little by little. Some of the chaos and lack of organizational skills is a maturity issues. (You probably weren’t as organized when you were a kid as you are now.) So be patient, let them know what you expect of them and what the consequences will be if they mess up. Also make sure you notice when they’ve “gotten it right.” Reinforcing positive behavior really does work!

Here are the 10 tips:

  1. Remember that you are the parent. You’ve got the Big Picture.Being a leader and a compassionate teacher is more important than being your teen’s friend.
  2. Remain calm. Nothing gets resolved while stress levels are making it impossible for you (and your teen) to think clearly. Can’t respond calmly? Then take a break until you can.
  3. Talk less and listen more. Be a "safe" person to talk to. No one wants to open up if all they get is lecture and criticism.
  4. It’s a balancing act. The challenge is to remain emotionally involved while granting them more privacy and autonomy.
  5. It's all about 2-way trust. If you want your teen to be responsible and keep agreements make sure you're role-modeling the same in all aspects of your life.
  6. Make your values and expectations clear and be consistent with your follow-through. If they know the consequences of their actions ahead of time, they're more likely to make healthy choices.
  7. Catch your teen in the act of doing something right. Praise helps develop good judgment and self-esteem.
  8. Be real. Share your feelings. Admit your mistakes. Father/mother does NOT always know best. Show your teens that just like them, you are “a work in progress.”
  9. Tell them and show them how much you love them. Then it will be easier for them to come to you when they need you.
  10. Lighten up! Humor is a great de-stressor. Remember, no one stays a teen (or the parent of a teen) forever!

Letters From Parents

“How do you motivate an unmotivated learner?”

Dear Annie,

My 12 year old daughter has for several years now demonstrated an extreme laziness, unwillingness, and hatred towards homework. We’ve had her tested for learning disabilities (none). We put her in professional counseling (no issues). She has weekly tutoring (no help). We’ve tried positive reinforcement, We’ve tried restrictions. Nothing works. But if she thinks she is going to get in real trouble or if there is something she really wants to do she suddenly knows how to do her work.

Fed Up Father


Dear Fed Up Father,

The most telling part of your email is this line: “If there is something she really wants to do she suddenly knows how to do her work.”

It shows that your daughter has what it takes when she chooses to do the work. She’s obviously a kid who likes doing things according to her own timetable and set of priorities. When things are dictated to her, she spends all of her energy resisting them.

Talk to her, without any of the emotion or threats of restrictions. Tell her how her progress in school makes you feel. (Hopefully you can separate how you feel about her, your daughter, and how you feel about the choices she makes.) You love her unconditionally. And you’re worried that if she doesn’t learn to “play the game” (that is, go to class, participate in discussions, take notes, do the homework, study for the tests) - she will have very limited choices for her future.

Find out what matters to her. Is it being able to go out with friends, or talking to them on the phone?

Whatever it is, she has to EARN the right to do it. If she does her work, she earns the right to do the things that she loves. If she chooses not to do the work, she loses that right.

One more thing, and this is important. She may need help with organizational skills including time management. These can severely impact a student’s ability to succeed. Contact the school or the district office and talk to a learning resource specialist.

Part of this problem may be a maturity issue and part of it may be a power struggle. I strongly suggest that you get her the help she needs to succeed and try not to make it your battle. Engage your daughter in fun, non-school related discussions and activities. That will strengthen your relationship with her. She needs to hear much more from you than just “Did you finish your homework?”

In friendship,


Got a parent-teen problem you need help with?

Click here to Ask Annie


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