How to have more connection and less conflict with your teens. Three renowned experts offer advice on how to navigate these turbulent years
The teenage years can be tough for both teens and their parents. A panel of experts tackles common parenting questions from boundaries to responsibility to surviving the tumultuous years The way I see it, parenting goes something like this: First come these adorable babies who keep you awake all night and spit up all day. But because they’re so adorable, you learn to live with the sleeplessness and the endless laundry.
Then they turn into toddlers, who trash your house and throw tantrums, but they’re still adorable between episodes. Then comes a blessed in-between stage, where you can get some sleep, you can still tell them what to do, and they’re still kind of cute.
And then, at around the age of 12, everything changes. Those cute kids turn into aliens from outer space, making you feel like escaping to the Siberian steppes until they’re ready for the chuppah (and when you suggest that, they’re all for it — on condition that you leave them your credit card and computer password.)
But since that isn’t an option — and since I have six teenagers at home right now — I turned to three renowned experts for advice on how to navigate these turbulent years. I found their responses eye-opening and helpful, and I hope other mothers of teens will, too.
Mrs. Chana Silver is an international speaker and a popular teacher at several seminaries in Jerusalem. She has a background in psychology and over 30 years’ experience in Jewish education.
Mrs. Ilana Trachtman has an MA in psychology and has been working for many years in Israel as an adviser and counselor to children and parents. She lectures both in seminaries and to women.
Mrs. Chana Bromberg is a teacher in the Adass Yisrael High School in Melbourne, Australia. She’s a popular speaker on topics relating to the Jewish home and family and has over 35 years’ experience teaching and guiding teenagers.
Teens are constantly asking to do things that push the borders. How do we know when to stand firm and when to give in? And do we have to be consistent or we can we sometimes acquiesce to, and other times turn down, the same request?
Consistency would be great if we were dealing with robots. But people are complex, life is fluid, and dynamics shift. There needs to be consistency in the general values of the home and family, but too much rigidity doesn’t work. It’s a matter of “chanoch lanaar al pi darko.” We need to get the vibe of what this particular kid needs at this time — and not every kid needs the same thing at the same time.
Your question is really the answer. Yes, we want to be consistent, but on the other hand, the key to dealing with teenagers is flexibility. As long as what they want to do isn’t halachically or hashkafically problematic, we should try to say no as little as possible. And if we’ve already said no to the last three things they asked to do, maybe now’s the time to give way.
It also depends on the kid — we need to know each kid and where they’re holding right now. When we do say no, we should try, if possible, to make it up to them with something else.
As teens grow up, we parents have to relinquish some control over them. With that comes some exposure to risk. And that’s scary. We do need to say no sometimes, but we should think carefully before we do so.
Yet if you do say no, don’t be ambivalent. Be quietly firm. But you can — and should — explain why you’re saying no. They’re no longer kids but young adults. We can’t continue to control them, and we have to work on keeping them on our side. So always show them respect. Talk to them and explain your concerns, and explain that your “no” comes from a place of genuine concern for them.
The 80/20 Rule
That pesky 80/20 rule — that communication with our children should be 80% positive and only 20% negative — is really hard to maintain when we have to constantly tell these teenagers to clean up, get up, shape up etc., and there doesn’t seem to be much to praise. How do we do it?
Put on rose-colored glasses! You have to train yourself to see the positive — even when this doesn’t seem possible. You can find something positive in every situation. For example, if your teen tells you a story about how he got into trouble with the principal, even if he was clearly in the wrong from start to finish, praise him for telling you the truth.
Even when you reprimand, sprinkle it with positivity. Focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the negative aspect of what they did — but it will make it easier to deal with.
For teenagers, the rule isn’t 80/20 — it’s even higher on the positive side! Teens are extremely sensitive to criticism; they’re still figuring out who they are, so they’re very touchy. We have to treat them with respect and be really careful not to humiliate them. We can get the nice stuff in when they’re calm and relaxed. Praise them for cleaning up, for helping, etc. Rabbi Pliskin lists 100 positive character traits that we can use to compliment people — be creative!
And when you do have to criticize, never do it out of anger. Teenagers are so extreme in their emotions that they interpret criticism as you hating them. Criticism has to come from love and concern — and they have to feel that.
Rule Number One: Look away a lot! “Teenagerdom” is a real phase of life, not something imaginary, and it’s tough. Praise them for their help, name their strengths — determination, kindness, etc. They often don’t even realize that such traits are values. But don’t be “gushy”; teens can’t stand gush!
These teens always want stuff! Some stuff they need and we pay, some stuff they want and we sometimes pay, and some stuff we’re not sure who should pay. How to navigate this?
Purchases have to be weighed for each kid. Do they really need this? How much do they want it? If your budget doesn’t allow for it, we need to be careful not to convey a sense of poverty and pressure — that affects teens negatively. It’s okay to be truthful and explain in a loving way, “I wish I could get this for you, but right now we can’t afford it. Maybe next month…”
Ask them on a scale of one to ten how important what they want is. If you see that it’s really important for them, tell them, “If it’s important to you, I’ll find a way to get it.” If you can’t afford to pay for it all, you can ask them to contribute — a quarter, half, according to their finances, or give them jobs to (partially) earn it. But sometimes, even if you think what they want isn’t important, get it for them just to show them you love them.
Don’t discount what they want as silly, immature, or self-centered. Understand that it’s important — to them. Once you’ve acknowledged that, then you can decide whether or not to buy it, and to pay for all or part of it. But you don’t want to have your arm twisted into buying something really silly. And keep an eye out for those teens who don’t usually ask for things; make sure they have their needs met too.
The Chores Challenge
Some kids get jobs to earn money to buy what they want, but then they’re never available to help out at home. How much should kids be helping out — and should they get paid for it?
Kids need to learn responsibility and they must chip in with household chores. But it has to be age-appropriate. Some kids, by nature, tend to help more, and they can end up being taken advantage of. Make sure chores are measured out as evenly as possible, and try to give each teen the chores they like.
And remember: It’s the parents’ responsibility to keep the home running smoothly. If you can’t manage on your own, maybe you need to get household help from elsewhere, rather than rely on the kids.
As for paying for teen help around the house, it’s better not to. It’s preferable to give them an allowance so they have a bit of financial independence, and not pay them for work they do.
Your teens have to be respected, so you should discuss chores with them before allocating. Decide which chores, whether they should be done before or after homework, and how many times a week. If they’ve discussed it with you and agreed to it, there’s a much better chance they’ll actually do the chores.
Most people won’t like hearing this, but the bottom line is: You decided to have children, and they’re not your built-in babysitters or cleaning help! You can’t expect your kids to naturally want to help out on their own — especially teens.
You do have the right to ask for help as a chesed, and if they do it, thank them. Certain family chores such as setting and clearing tables should be done by the kids as a matter of decency. But don’t force it.
And if they want to work a little to earn their own money — let them! It builds character and prepares them for the world.
When to Punish
How do you punish teen misbehavior? Must it always be a “consequence” i.e. does the punishment have to fit the crime (for example, if he comes home half an hour late, he has to come home half an hour earlier the next time)?
Often, punishments are given out of anger. It’s all about our ego, that feeling of, “How dare they!” We have to get beyond that and be adults. Punishments/consequences need to be issued calmly.
We need to say, “This is the rule. If you break the rule, this is what is going to happen.” And we need to make it clear that we’re not doing this because we hate them but because we love them and care about them.
What punishments can we give teens? Preferably (but not always) the punishment should fit the act. For example, if your teen damaged something, he should pay for it or get it fixed; if he acted irresponsibly with the car, his driving privileges should be taken away for a while. All privileges — phone or computer time, going out, visiting friends, etc. — can be limited and even stopped for a short time.
Rules have to be laid out firmly and clearly. Tell them what’s expected of them. Once they know the expectations, there’s less chance you’ll actually need to enforce punishments/consequences. When you do have to give a punishment or consequence, it should be as minimal as possible — only what you need to achieve the desired effect. Exactly what it should be depends on what the teen likes. Usually we’re talking about taking away privileges — visiting or inviting friends, computer or game time, etc. It doesn’t always have to be a middah k’neged middah consequence, although that works well as long as it doesn’t come over as a “tit-for-tat” revenge punishment.
First and foremost, we have to realize that we cannot use punishment or consequences to coerce our teens into compliance. And we shouldn’t be trying to. The most important thing is the relationship, and we need to try other methods first before resorting to punishments.
What we’re trying to get across is the message that certain boundaries can’t be crossed — and he crossed them. It needs to be coming from a place of respect, not from revenge. Whether a punishment or consequence, it should be the minimum sensible option that gets this point across.
For example, last time there was a sleepover, the parents were kept awake all night. So this time, you can go to your friend’s house, but you must come home to sleep. Be clear, quiet, firm, and respectful — no mussar shmuess required.
Teenagers have a lot of hormones boiling inside them and sometimes they lose it. Should we insist on kibbud horim, or do we need to be more forgiving?
There have to be some boundaries. For example, your teen needs to know that yelling isn’t appropriate. At the same time, we need to understand that teens have very intense feelings and haven’t yet learned how to express them respectfully. We need to let some things go — for now. We have to behave as parents and not as kids, and not lash back at our teen because they hurt our ego by speaking disrespectfully. We have to be bigger, and forgive. Later, when they’ve calmed down, we can talk to them about their behavior.
Don’t respond! Don’t feed into the chutzpah. Finish the conversation and simply walk away. Often, in the middle of a “teenage tantrum,” they don’t even realize they’re being chutzpahdig — they think they’re standing up for justice! You can try to give them a way out by saying, “I’m sure you’re not aware that what you’re saying is chutzpah.” Tell them you can’t talk to them now, but you’ll be happy to talk to them once they’ve calmed down.
And don’t take it personally. Even if your teen tells you, “You’re the worst parent ever!” odds are that he doesn’t really mean it. He’s just upset. Once he’s calmed down, you can try to find out why he feels that way.
Are we ever in a bad mood? For sure! And how do we want to be treated then? With quiet understanding. Don’t try to teach a teen (or anyone else for that matter) in the middle of a meltdown. Wait for a teachable moment. And even then, keep it short. Skip the mussar shmuess or the devar Torah on kibbud horim — they’ll seethe with resentment while you’re saying it. Instead, state quietly that you expect people to speak to you in a civil manner.
When teens behave irresponsibly, such as by leaving their rooms a total mess, sleeping late, or leaving for a trip at the last minute, do we nag them to act more responsibly, or let them face the consequences of their own actions?
Some gentle nudging is necessary, up to a point. After that, the responsibility becomes theirs. Yes, you could force them by yelling, etc., but it’s not worth it. You have to teach them that their actions have consequences and to accept those consequences. Only then will they learn responsibility.
Parents have to admit that they cannot physically force their teens to do anything. For example, you cannot physically eject your son from bed (actually, you could, but the consequences would be worse than letting him stay in bed…). Admitting this empowers the teen to act responsibly and liberates parents, which decreases tension all around.
If a parent treats a teen like a child, he’ll act like one. On the other hand, if you treat him like an adult and leave him alone, he’ll sleep all day. So we have to do a little of both. Show him that you expect him to take responsibility, and offer to buy him an alarm clock. But don’t ignore him — that’s abandonment in a teen’s eyes.
Ignore the messy room, don’t be a nag. If their room is a mess, so be it — it’s their problem, not yours. Getting up on time? Ask them if they’d like you to help them. If the answer is no, then leave it. Halachically they’re adults. If they don’t get up, it’s their problem.
We have to always be aware of the consequences of making their problems our own. Educationally, that’s not a healthy situation. As for helping them out when their bad decision-making means they need a shirt ironed or a sandwich made at the last minute — if you can do it, do, but not beyond your comfort zone. If you can’t do it, calmly tell them so. They need to understand that you have your own needs.
Join in or Ditch?
Over vacation, the family wants to do some activities together. Half the time the teens grumble that it’s boring and they want to be with their friends instead, or they simply don’t come. Should we force them to participate, persuade them, bribe/blackmail them, or just let them do what they want?
It has to be a compromise. Sometimes you can let them grumble and not come, but sometimes they should come. Family time is super valuable. If there’s a positive atmosphere, the kids will have memories of it all their lives. Of course teens want to be with their friends — that’s natural. We have to make it clear to them that they’re a valuable part of the family and we really want them to be with us. But forcing won’t work — they’ll end up grumbling, and no one will enjoy the activity.
The conversation in these situations often ends up being negative, along the lines of, “Don’t you care about the family?!” We need to reverse the talk, make it positive, tell them, “We really want you to be there with us.” Involve them in the decision-making process about where to go, and make sure that you plan activities that are also fun for active teens. We have to be very flexible, even allowing them to bring a friend, if that’s what it takes.
And if it isn’t working, find alternative activities that the family can do together: go out for pizza or play Monopoly, for example. It’s all about compromise, finding solutions that will make everyone happy.
It’s very important and healthy to do some family activities together during vacation. But it has to be negotiated with your teens. Perhaps you can agree on certain days for family trips and the other days they’re free to do what they want.
If they’re still grumpy about it, challenge them. Tell them it’s understandable that they might feel grumpy and that it takes maturity to act differently. That may help them step up to the plate!
Halachically, teens are adults. If your teenage daughter wants to wear a skirt that’s borderline, or your son doesn’t get up for minyan — is it your job to force them? Or is that counterproductive? Should we try to guide them and then leave the final decision up to them?
We want to give our kids the gifts of emunah and love of Hashem, and it’s very painful when they aren’t so interested. But we have to let them take responsibility for their own actions.
We have to show them simchas mitzvos. After that, it’s up to them. You can’t force anything, and especially not avodas Hashem, down the throat of a teen — they’ll eventually throw it back up.
Whatever you say to teens, you have to say quietly, politely, and respectfully, or it won’t work. You can only educate and influence them if you first accept them for who they are. That may be hard, but they need to know that you believe in them and think that they’re wonderful — even if they didn’t turn out quite how you expected or wanted. Only then do you have a chance of them listening to you.
If you see a radical departure from the family’s religious values, that’s a worrying sign. But often, it’s just a phase that will pass. We need to show a spirit of genuine interest and concern — something like, “What’s going on lately?” But not heavy! No, “I love you so much, I’m so worried about you!” Teens don’t like heavy! Ask them if they’re willing to share their thoughts. No judgment, stay unemotional, just express curiosity in understanding them.
Any tips for parents trying to survive the teenage years? Humor? Trying to be friends with your teens? Not to take their crazy behavior personally?
You can be friends with your teens — up to a point. You can have fun with them, giggle together, shop together, or share an ice cream, but you need to hold onto the boundaries. You shouldn’t be on the same level as them. But the “kind of friends” moments will help you build your relationship with your teen as they become adults.
And that’s one super-big and powerful thought to hold onto: at some point these teens will actually become mature adults and the parents of your grandchildren! Hold on to that and any other similar thoughts that will help you see the larger picture. For example, “This too will pass,” “Look at the forest not just the trees,” etc. Remind yourself, “I love this kid even though right now he’s driving me crazy.” And believe it or not — it will pass!
I find that a sense of humor is really important. It can take you out of a tense situation with your teens and lighten things up. Be kind to yourself — don’t take everything your teens do personally. You need to let off steam, look after yourself, find a support group if necessary.
And let go! We have to realize that our kids are not a reflection of us, and accept them for who or what they are. It’s a real test in tolerance but one we have to pass.
Don’t try to be friends with your teens! When a mother says her daughter is her best friend, that’s codependence. Find a friend your own age! You can do fun, crazy stuff with your teens, but you need to understand your place.
Bottom line, if you want to survive the teen years, you need to step back and not get so emotionally involved. You cannot control everything that’s going on in your teens’ lives, so accept that and keep a healthy distance. Self-care is vital. You have to be a lot of things to many people; keep your battery charged.
After answering the questions above, the panelist asked us to emphasize some general, all-important rules to keep in mind when dealing with teens. Not surprisingly, they all said almost exactly the same thing. To sum up in three words: love, love, and more love!
Teens are in a fragile emotional state, trying to figure out their self-identity, and they need, more than ever, to feel their parents’ unconditional, non-judgmental love. Sprinkle that unconditional love with generous doses of respect, positivity, and simchah, and you have a steady foundation on which to build your relationship with your teens.
And for the sake of our sanity, we need to remind ourselves that it’s not all up to us. Parents have to do their best, whatever that may be, with whatever tools they have. Yes, the hishtadlus is up to us. But the results are up to Hashem.
Disclaimer: The advice in this article applies to regular teenagers in regular situations. If there’s serious struggle going on with a teen, or if he/she is suffering excessive mental or emotional distress, professional help should be sought.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 674)