Parenting/Releasing Teenagers


Teenagers are halfway to adulthood, and have unique needs as a result.

They’re older and can do more, so enforcing rules with them will change dramatically.

Either you’ll release your teenagers, or they’ll find a way to rebel.

Now that they’re exploring new freedoms, your relationship with them will change.

Set adult-level standards with them.

Never do for your children what they can do themselves.

They may sever ties with you, but it’s not uncommon for it to be temporary.

They’re going through a difficult time and disagree frequently with you, but you can still lead by example.

How are teenagers different from smaller children?

Every parent struggles to adapt to the same changes:
  1. Parenting an infant or toddler requires micro-managing their entire day.
  2. The parents’ roles adapt to managing a barely independent, unskilled child.
  3. At some point, the parents must release full control of their barely skilled child to the rest of the world.

Children are almost biologically adults at approximately age 12 or 13:
  • Starting around middle school, you will have to share your influence with their peers.
  • They never stop physically developing until about age 25, but puberty draws a hard developmental line where they care more about their peers’ opinions than their authority figures.
  • The variety of biological changes they’re experiencing means they need much more sleep than before.
  • Obviously, this doesn’t mean they’re qualified for adulthood, but they have adult desires, thoughts, and expressions.
  • As children, they needed rules, but now they need freedom.
  • The legal hard line of adulthood (age 18 in many countries) gives teenagers freedom to make many mistakes early without permanent consequences, but most parents don’t adapt to those changes and tend to waste their opportunity.

A teenager’s priorities change compared to when they’re children:
  • Children still hear what you say, even if they don’t look like they do, but now care more about their peers’ opinions than yours.
  • While you’re still their legitimate authority, you’ll never be their final authority again.
  • To the degree you don’t adapt, your teenager now sees their parents as the barrier to their freedom.

Enforcing rules

You should have some sympathy for them:
  • You were once in their position, at least partly.
  • Their body is going through a variety of dramatic and sometimes painful changes
  • Their entire philosophy on life has been turned upside down from all the questions they have.
  • Often, when they say “I hate you”, they simply don’t know how to be angry at someone they love.
  • At one time, you were in their position trying to assert your freedom.
  • Most parents, however, don’t want to relate for a few reasons:
    1. They suspect their teenager is trying to manipulate them.
    2. They don’t want to accept their child is becoming an adult.
    3. They don’t want their child to live through what they endured.
  • Respecting their (potentially disastrous) wishes or stepping aside for them to make their own decisions will go much farther than caring for their needs.
  • Tell them articulately why you don’t like something, then let them decide.

They’ll try to assert their independence:
  • They’ll question long-standing conventions like bedtime or meal selection.
  • They may speak disrespectfully or rudely.
  • Spanking, grounding, and taking away privileges usually won’t work at all anymore.
  • The only discipline or correction you should ever give at this stage is over decisions with legitimately life-long consequences, the same way you’d treat an adult:
    • Defuse their rude behavior with a combination of humor and emotional vulnerability.
    • There are no adverse lifetime consequences from getting drunk or trying most illegal recreational drugs.
    • However, there are often permanent consequences from inhaling paint, a sex change, or committing suicide.

Instead of managing details, give them general expectations:
  • Beyond your love for them, the dynamic will feel more like an employer/employee relationship than a parent/child one.
  • Discuss large long-term goals instead of small ones.
    • Keep them informed about their stress and sleep (about 9.5 hours a night).
    • They need the freedom to fail, so only hold them accountable at the deadline, never beforehand.

Disciplining teenagers is complicated:
  • After childhood, discipline requires creativity that usually leverages public shame:
    • From about ages seven to sixteen, you can threaten to sing loudly in public to keep them in line.
    • If your daughter is wearing ridiculous or scandalous clothing, wear it with them with a sign on your back saying “ask my kid if they still think this outfit is sooo cute”.
  • Whether you like it or not, slowly lighten the limits you’ve placed on them from childhood.
    • Once they’ve reached the age of majority, you legitimately have no more control, so you must give that control slowly to them if you don’t want them to experience an overwhelming deluge of adult responsibilities and risks.
  • Call a family meeting by unplugging the Wi-Fi router and waiting in the room with it.
  • Assume the absolute best of them, even as they start testing your limits.

Letting them live

Even when you don’t want them to, they will break from you if you don’t release them:
  • When parents don’t fully release control, children are forced to adopt a few possible responses:
    1. Develop major mental disorders (e.g., unhealthy codependency).
    2. Break free from their relationship entirely until the parent changes their role.
  • Sadly, most parents never fully release control of their child and fail to gain from the successes of their adult children.

You probably won’t like their new assertions for independence:
  • Those formative years go by quickly, and you probably will feel you hadn’t taught them what they needed to know.
  • While you can sometimes stop them from what you see as bad decisions, they’ll likely find a way (since they’ve seen your approach for over a decade) and may despise you for trying.
  • Most of the time, they’re still terrible at communicating their needs and desires, now with the extreme flow of hormones from puberty instead of simply not having words to describe their feelings.

To maintain their innocence, inform them as much as possible about everything in the world:
  • It’s counter-intuitive, but they can preserve their innocence when they’re educated without the awful experiences that usually come with that education.
  • They should know about sex and sexuality, including consequences for actions as well as why people still do it.
  • Make them aware of the types of recreational drugs, how they feel, and their long-term effects on career and happiness.

You can’t stop them from experiencing what they want:
  • Your adult child can fully explore every risk and danger, but a teenager is still legally under your care.
    • You can either prevent them from doing it until later (beyond your control), or give them freedom to explore with supervision.
    • Often, trying to stop them will motivate to explore bad lifestyle decisions more.
  • Expose them to alcohol and legal drugs in the safety of your home.
  • They will consume whatever media they want, no matter how you lock it down.
  • Get rid of curfew, but clarify hours where they can’t enter or leave the house.
    • e.g., they can stay out past 10 p.m., but can’t come in until at least 7 a.m.
  • They’ll likely become addicted to social media or electronic games, but the only thing you can do is hold them to requirements in their environment (e.g., chores).
  • Give them complete freedom to explore (especially if the adverse consequences of an action aren’t permanent), and constantly affirm your love for them.

Adapt your relationship

Let them discover life beyond your control:
  • They aren’t interested in what you want for them anymore.
  • Only give advice if they ask it
  • Accept who they are and not what you wanted them to be.
  • Honor their decisions the way an older friend would.

Keep yourself savvy on popular culture:
  • Even if you don’t care, you’ll publicly embarrass them.
    • With social media, you may become a humiliating meme if you’re oblivious enough.
  • Since their preferences move around, ask about what they like instead of presuming.

As your children need you less and less, redirect your efforts to other endeavors:
  • Your life doesn’t end when your children move out.
  • Find new hobbies and interests you enjoy.
  • Look for other people who may need your help, especially with troubled children or by mentoring other young adults.
  • Meet new people and get more involved in your community.

Setting new standards

When an adolescent asks for anything, always respond simply and clearly with “yes”, “no”, or “convince me”.

They need a paying job, preferably sooner than later:

Once they have a job, they must contribute to the household’s costs:
  • You must clarify beforehand your criteria for your continued financial support:
  • Some teenagers will voluntarily pay for household needs, but you may need to charge rent for others.
  • Require them to pay expenses like driving school, cars, and gas.

Don’t pressure them about how to handle money:
  • You should have taught them when they were younger about budgeting and saving money.
  • As much as they want to learn, teach them about investing.
  • Often, they will need to learn the hard way about money, especially about debt.
  • While they probably won’t care, emphasize the importance of insurance.

Don’t push them toward a specific vocation or schooling:
  • College is a purchase, not a right.
    • Don’t cosign a loan with them unless you want to expose your financial wellness for decades to the risk of their decisions.
  • Clarify what you expect, what’s available to them, and let them freely decide.
    • They must make career decisions without your intervention.

Don’t pressure them about their relationship decisions:
  • Share your opinions, but don’t give advice.
    • If you don’t like one of their relationships, they’ll likely have to learn why on their own.
    • You can’t know the issues they’ve been scared to disclose with you.
  • They’ll marry whomever they please, and your approval may not matter by that point.
  • Their family plans are their business, so don’t expect grandchildren.

Eventually, your child will know more than you:
  • By the time they’re a teenager, they know everything you’ve taught them, even if they’re not as experienced as you or care to listen.
  • If you gave them a better life than you had, you’ll have to defer to their superior experience once they take their life farther than you.

Avoid paternalism

Never do for your children what they can do themselves:
  • Functioning families tend to let their children go.
  • Carefully examine everything you do for them:
    • Fighting their battles for them at school or with their friends.
    • Consistently offering your home after they’ve made poor lifestyle decisions.
    • Loaning money they never seem to pay back.
    • Taking your resources without considering how much you sacrificed for it.
  • This will become more difficult and destructive as they reach driving age, need auto insurance, and face legal consequences alone.

Your children probably know you more than you know yourself:
  • They’ve lived with you since they were born.
  • They know what to say to trigger your most severe feelings.
  • They understand the precise limits of your hospitality.
  • An adult child without morals will take advantage of their parents.
  • If you act on impulse, you’re likely enabling bad behavior.

They will rise to the expectations you place on them:
  • If you expect them to do nothing, they will have no reason to do anything.
  • To the degree they know they can succeed by their definition of success, they will try to succeed.
  • Some civilized societies treats teenagers as incompetent, so they will often underachieve as a result.

They may sever ties with you

Sometimes, you’ve severely damaged them, and they’ll have to figure it out on their own.

If they’re resisting you, letting them learn earlier is far better than later:
  • If you forestall the experience until after they’ve made decisions in their career and college, they’ll suffer far worse in general.
  • In the USA, all juvenile court proceedings and case records are confidential and not public information, so they get a “free pass” to explore the consequences in the world at large if you’ve legitimately failed to teach them how to live well.

If they want to cut you off, you can’t stop them:
  • Many parents are afraid of permanently losing their children and enable their adult child’s destruction to prevent it.
  • Unhealthy enabling creates bitter codependency which, ironically, damages the relationship.
  • There is only one solution to enabling:
    1. Stop enabling for at least a few months.
    2. When they’re ready to talk, openly apologize.

If you did an adequate job, they’ll come back:
  • An adult child who cuts off a parent is enforcing boundaries they don’t know how to express any other way.
  • If they do come around again, take personal responsibility for how you failed them.
  • When they come back around, don’t obsess about their life.
    • Both you and them should have moved on.
    • If your point of view is right, they’ll eventually come around to it, but you could possibly have been wrong all this time.

Enjoy the transition

A child’s teenage years are filled with tumultuous change, which is their rite of passage into adulthood.

Your leadership through self-satisfaction and individual successes will gain more influence with them than any of the guidance you’ve been accustomed to giving.

If you release them well, they can feel free to explore the world and find a meaningful life for themselves on their own.