Many parents that I have worked with have asked some variation of the same question at some point in the therapy: “Why is it so hard to raise a teenager?” Inherent in this question is the question ‘why is it so hard to raise OUR teenager?’ Parents want to know if there is something wrong with their own parenting, indicating that they have done something wrong, or otherwise, if there is something wrong with their teen. I can’t say that parents NEVER make mistakes, but I can say that having a hard time raising your teen is not a sign you did something wrong, it is a sign that raising a teenager is hard work. For most healthy families that I have encountered, arguing is part of living with each other. I also can’t say EVERY relationships is hard work.[i] I have met some people who make it seem easy to be flexible and compromising. Although, I suspect most of them had to work pretty hard to get to that point. But I suppose there are some people who are just more flexible in that way.

For the rest of us, relationships are hard work. It is not easy compromising and sharing your day-to-day life. For every decision, you have a choice that makes sense to you, a choice that is the ‘right’ way to do things according to your Sports playbook, but it may not according to your parent’s playbook. So a teen has to constantly live with answering to a playbook that may not always make sense to them. That means constant negotiations.

Family relationships get a misleading trailer. When watching trailers for movies, I have two pet peeves. One is a trailer that tells you the whole story and ruins surprises. The second is misleading trailers that alter or skew the tone of the film, so that if I go, I end up seeing a different movie than I thought I was going to see.

Although plenty of people say ‘raising a teenager is hard work.’ I don’t think that message is conveyed honestly enough. When we imagine having kids we often don’t ‘see’ the hard work involved.[ii] TV and movies make it look easy a lot of the time. TV shows present simplistic problems that are resolved in a half hour. Most movies end at ‘happily ever after.’ They rarely show us what happens after that, like the hard work of dealing with each other every day. Loving someone is the beginning of the work, not the end. You have to continue to foster and maintain love. The hard part is trying to remember that you love someone in the everyday disagreements or struggles. It is easy to remember during the good times.

To make any relationship work, you need to make it a priority like any other project in life. It is easy to expect your relationship to flow automatically, like some plant you put in a pot and leave on the shelf. But relationships need tending. They need the same contemplation and consideration for improvement and growth as any other project. They do not grow automatically. They need other things to be sacrificed so that there is time and energy to give to the relationship. If left unattended, relationships wither. You need to take the time to be with your teen not just when you want something or when it is convenient for you. You need to show genuine interest in their interests. You need to be available when they seek you out, and respect their space when they need that too. A delicate balance of genuine availability and interest that is attuned to their shifting needs.


[i] Yes even a healthy marriage involves arguments. For a more in depth exploration of this notion, see chapter 6 (the myth that Frequent conflicts are a sign that a marriage is in trouble) in Schectman, Morrie & Arleah. (2004). Love in the Present Tense. Boulder: Bull Publishing Company.

[ii] When people don’t know what an experience will be like yet, they have to imagine. Yet, according to research, when people make predictions about a future experience, they tend to forget that their mind is filling in unknown information with hypothetical ideas and imagination. They tend to be confident that their ‘sense’ of what the experience will be like is accurate, no matter how much it is based on assumption or imagination. So much so, that their imagined anticipation will dictate how they feel about that experience. Meaning that if they like what they imagine, they look forward to it, and vice versa. For more information, see pages 98-104 of Gilbert, Daniel. (2005). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books (Random House Inc.).


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