Why you shouldn't try to be your teen's friend

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Middle daughter slams the door. "I hate you. What sort of mother are you?" she screams as I take her phone off her late at night.

It's the night before I'm due to interview the teen whisperer, psychologist Michael Hawton. I hold my fists tightly behind my back.

Parenting is the hardest job I have ever done. On a good day, I would ignore my darling's rudeness. But tonight, I hit back. "I'll send you to live with your father, or to boarding school!" I yell.

"At least he's nice!" my 14-year-old strikes back.

And what does Hawton say in his new book, Engaging Adolescents? My frustrated teen has spat an insult my way. I should look her straight in the eye and come out with this: "You must have had a pretty bad day to feel the need to say something that nasty to me when we are trying to work out a solution to a problem. I hope you feel better."

Instead, I'm guilty of what Hawton calls "volcano parenting", putting off my reaction to her misbehaviour until I'm so irritated I snap.

Another metaphor from Hawton, who has reached about 100,000 Australian parents through his Engaging Adolescents programme: I should think of my teen daughters as boats that have their own onboard navigation system (more sophisticated in a 15-year-old than a 13-year-old) but that also need my offboard guidance to help them steer clear of the rocks.

In the same way a pilot facing an engine fire must stay calm while flying the plane to safety, parents should ditch their "fly-by" reactive responses, and engage in a calm, measured way while keeping themselves grounded.

"Keep a lid on your emotions," he says on the phone from his home in Byron Bay.


"People dealing with adolescents need tools to defuse their own reactive responses, learn how to slow down and be better prepared to hold important conversations with their kids."

Well put, but it's hard, I say.

Hawton understands. Parenting teens is way harder than it was a decade ago and it's "getting more complicated", the child psychologist with 30 years' experience declares. Don't try to make friends with your teenager, but instead let them know you are boss.


Hawton has worked with the United Nations in Seychelles and has prepared more than 1000 child welfare reports for the Australian Family Court. He has seen parents who have lost control of their 12- and 13-year-olds.

Feeling afraid of our kids striking back, he says, creates a common parental struggle.

"It appears many more parents want to be liked by their teenagers than a generation ago. I certainly know that my parents did not worry about whether or not I liked them as much as many parents do these days."

I do want my daughters to like me. And, even though I remember crossing the street to avoid being seen with my parents as a teen, when my own 14-year-old refuses to be seen in town with me, I feel hurt.

I see Hawton hitting the red buzzer. Wrong! They love you, they're attached to you, don't take it personally.

"We have had 30 years of positive parenting, which replaced the idea of tough love. We've been raised on the notion of positive parenting, and sometimes we've been sucked into that."

He points to one study by an American psychologist, Jean Twenge, who says that our praise culture is potentially breeding a generation of narcissists.

"The research is very clear about the kids that do best. Mums and dads are warm and firm. Goof-off time; going out walking the dog. Sometimes I need to be strict about a few things that really matter."

Hawton is a master of the script, having written so many reports for the Family Court. And he advises parents to write things down, and plan any difficult conversations on paper.

"If your teen gets angry, call the conversation off.

"Lots of teenagers think that their parents will back off, and they're relying on that. You have to say that you need to have a conversation with them about X and Y. And it needs to be fairly structured. You need to plan what you will say."


Our third big parental job is to protect our kids' wellbeing. Teens need eight-and-a-half to 10 hours sleep a night, controlled use of screens and social media, good food and nurturing.

"They're more likely to rear up when they're not sleeping well and they're on edge. The part of the mind that can be more flexible and tolerate frustration needs to be rested."

Otherwise, he says, it's much harder to have the ability to realise that today is not a good day, but tomorrow will be better.

For those who think the horse has bolted in terms of social media and the pervasion of technology, he shakes his head. We need to control it.

"You can say, 'I'll have the phone and it can stay in the kitchen overnight'. Your kid's wellbeing is at stake. And their ability to tolerate frustration is to some extent predicated on them having a well-rested frontal vortex," he says.

The night after talking to Hawton, I walk into my daughter's room. "Hey, it's bedtime," I say, as she stares at her screen. "Darling, you really need nine hours' sleep so you feel good tomorrow. I'll take your phone in five minutes when it's 10pm."

I sit on her bed. "I'm doing this because I love you and care about you. Your body needs rest. You can see your friends tomorrow."

Looking up, she leans over and plugs her phone into the charger, handing the enemy over. "Night," she says, holding her cheek towards me for a kiss.

Engaging Adolescents: Parenting Tough Issues with Teenagers, by Michael Hawton, of Parentshop. Exisle Publishing, $29.99.

- Stuff