How to keep your cool when your teen is challenging you

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

The teenage years are legendary for their turmoil and conflict. It's a time when personas are toyed with, tried on, discarded and honed, and as much as there is to love about your older child, chances are they will present some challenges too.

The teenage brain has a lot going on. While the female brain reaches full adult size around 11 and the male brain at around 14, they don't reach full maturity until the mid-20s. So all those frustrating behaviours such as lack of impulse control and forgetfulness are actually down to the fact that some critical connections haven't yet been made in the brain.

The scientific process (Myelination) for making links between the area of the brain that controls emotion, to the prefrontal cortex which controls decision-making, planning and self-regulation is in full swing in the teenage years, and explains the behaviour adults are most often baffled by. Completely forgetting an exam until the night before, impulsive, risk-taking behaviour can all be explained if we know a little about what's happening with the teenage brain.

Dr Karen Phillip
Dr Karen Phillip 

Knowing this doesn't make the day-to-day of dealing with it any easier, but the key is for parents is to try to keep their cool most of the time. Many teens are not able to think far enough ahead to determine consequences and it's our job to enable them to form those more mature pathways in their developing brains.

Essential Kids sought the advice of counselling psychotherapist, Dr Karen Phillip to help parents understand where their energies are best spent.

Identifying some of the most common frustrations in many homes, here's what she has to say:

The attitude

Teens have a developing brain, they are not yet capable of making adult or mature choices and decisions. They see themselves as grown and take the attitude they are, however, most have 50 per cent to go before full brain development occurs.

All teens believe they know everything. When parents can accept this, they are usually less stressed. You may not like it, but it will pass – eventually. Smile, simply say, thank you for your insight or opinion and leave it there. Arguing the point is ineffective, so save yourself the stress. 

The mess

Tidiness takes effort. The teenage mind is normally focused on other things so they often do not see the mess around them.


It's not always deliberate, so close the door on the mess, spend time with them tidying up and stop being confronting about the issue.

The forgetfulness

Girls and boys process different amounts of information, with boys processing much less than girls. One or two points or directions is often all they can manage when there's other competing brain activity occurring during adolescence.

Learn to expect less to avoid disappointment and break directions down to one or two only.

Not wanting to spend time with the family (in favour of peers)

Often teens avoid family social situations because they feel more understood and connected with peers of similar age. Teens also tend to feel that parents and older family members do not understand them, nor relate to their feelings and desires.

Encouraging them to attend may result in an agreement, but not always. Accept they will ostracise themselves for a while, keep them informed of all events, continue to ask they attend, knowing that eventually they will usually return to the fold.

Sleep (late to bed, late to rise)

Teens require more sleep due to the rapid development of body and mind. Let them sleep more. A tired teen is a cranky teen and one you do not want to be around.

Teenagers should be getting 8 to 10 hours sleep per night so make sure those devices are placed in common areas to charge and establish a healthy routine around getting to bed.


The teenage years are challenging for both parents and teenagers. It is a time of rapid change and development and they are experiencing feelings and emotions never felt before.

Choose your battles wisely and never try to win them all - you simply won't. Patience, time and acceptance for those few years can save considerable stress for all. You will most likely come out the other side with stories to share and laugh about.