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10 Tips To Effectively Parent Difficult Teens

5 min read

By Debbie McGauran

Teenagers can be extremely challenging to parent. They are neither child nor adult but somewhere in between. At this stage of development the rational part of their brain takes a back seat to the more primitive, emotional and reactive part of their brain. In fact, the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. Add to this an increase in the production of growth and sex hormones and you have a recipe for labile moods and difficult behaviors.

Some teens sail smoothly through these years. Others need more guidance. One helpful technique in dealing with these behaviors is called Emotional Regulation Training. This involves activating your child’s pleasure seeking drive by rewarding them with something they want and value. Let’s take a closer look at the steps involved…


1. Clearly Identify the Problem

First you need to identify and describe the problem behavior. Then write it down. Go into as much detail as necessary to paint a clear and concise picture of exactly what the problem is. Use non-judgmental and descriptive language.

For instance if your child is a slob that description is derogatory and too vague. Instead you might say he leaves his dirty clothes and underwear on the floor in his room and tracks mud into the kitchen because he doesn’t take his shoes off when he comes in.

Mother and Daughter

2. Eliminate Unsubstantiated Problem Behaviors

Once you have made your list of behavior problems you need to have a closer look. Cross off any problems which you did not observe and which have not otherwise been verified. In other words, delete any problems you can’t be sure actually occurred.

For example, lying and stealing can’t always be verified. You can however include behaviors that have occurred at school or elsewhere as long as they can be proven.


3. Establish a Baseline

Write the behavior onto a tracking sheet which denotes how bad or how often the behavior has occurred over the past two weeks.

You can use a scale from 1-10, with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best. In addition you can count how often the behavior has occurred and write it on the tracking sheet.

Parents and Teens

4. Describe What You Want Them to Do

Describe in detail what you expect your teenager to do. For example, no swearing, cursing or yelling. All discussions will take place using a calm and neutral tone of voice.

Their dirty clothes will be in the laundry hamper, bed made, room tidied by 6 pm every night. Be precise in your description. This will help provide clarity and ensure everyone is on the same page.

Teenagers Room4

5. Pick a Reward

Choose a reward that has value and is important to your teen. It must be something they can’t get freely on their own but you can give them. This could be privileges, spending money, a phone card or permission to attend extracurricular activities. Make sure it’s something that matters to them. Then write out what they need to do and what they will receive in reward.

For example, every hour that you are in the home together and you do not hear them swear, they will receive…For every day that you do not fight, argue or swear at your sister, you will get… Make sure that the rules are crafted in such a manner as to allow your teen to earn 50% or more of their reward quickly. If earning the reward is too difficult they may throw in the towel and give up.


6. Explain the Rules

Be sure to give your child a thorough explanation of the rules, expectations and rewards. Then post them somewhere they can be seen. Remind your teen about the rules and the benefits they stand to reap. If you see them getting upset with their sister, a gentle reminder of the reward before they engage in undesirable behaviour may be all the encouragement they need.

Rewards can be connected to specific behaviors. For example, rewarding completed homework or chores with Facebook or TV time or the absence of swearing with a later bedtime.


7. Start the Following Morning

Restrict or control access to rewards the next day and implement your new rule system. Taking control of the reward may mean you have to take the remote, put a password on the computer, hide their iPod, or any number of things.

The important thing is for you to take control of the award and for your child to have to earn it back. Remove any possible interfering or competing rewards and begin tracking and recording your child’s behavior. Have the results visible and posted right beside the rules.

Parent Control

8. Adhere to the Rules

You have to make a commitment to strictly enforce your rules. No deviation or leeway allowed if you want to be successful. For example, if your plan includes hourly monitoring of your child’s behavior, then set a timer which goes off on the hour.
This keeps you on track and lets your child know you’re serious.

If your rules indicate that your child must have their room clean and tidy by 6 pm, have a clock set to go off at that time. If they have their room clean at 6:01, then they haven’t earned their reward. Stick to the rules! No bending at all! This is probably the most important step if you want change their negative behaviors.


9. Track Progress

Keep track of their behaviors. If you skip this step you’ll have no means by which to determine whether or not your program is working. Every two weeks rate the behavior in question on a scale of 1-10 and compare it to the baseline rating.

Count how many times the behavior has occurred and compare that to the baseline. This will give you a good indication of what is and is not working. Share the results with your child. This will empower them to take ownership. After all, you are both partners in this program.

Mother Checking-In

10. Reassess and Close Loopholes

If things are not going according to plan, use your tracking sheets to analyze the problem. What loopholes are they using to sidestep you? Close those loopholes. Is the reward something that you can control and is it something they really want? If not, fix it and find a reward they value.

If you follow these steps and don’t bend the rules you should start to see an improvement in your teen’s challenging behaviors.

Teenagers (2)

Debbie McGauran


Debbie has been a registered nurse for over 25 years with experience in geriatrics, medicine, surgery and mental health. For the past four years, she has practiced as a crisis nurse in the ER. Debbie lives on a farm with her family, two dogs, a cat, and four horses.



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