Dr. Tobin Talks about the Age Old Battle Between Parents and Teenagers

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin
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I must confess. I, too, was once a teenager. So was my older sister. I owe a lot to her.

I would sit on the stairs and watch her and my parents go at it. They would scream about her boyfriends, her grades and the late hours she would come home. But what really made them foam at the mouth was when they would invariably find a new pack of Marlboros hidden in some forbidden corner of her room. My father would accuse her of throwing her life away and she would snarl and snort and scream that living in their house was like having two prison guards for parents. 

After four years and some 1286 insane battles my sister had so totally wasted my parents that by the time I had reached 13 they had no fight left for me.

All of this theater was great training for my later years when I became a parent of two strong-willed teenage girls and a family therapist who specializes in parent-teen relations. In that role, I spend a good deal of time negotiating peace treaties between parents and teens.

So, why is it that kids and parents fight so much? You would think that after thousands of years of parent teen conflicts we would have learned something by now. You would also think that we parents, who ourselves were once teenagers, would have the sense to avoid the same stupid power struggles that trapped our parents. Yet, sad to say, we sound just like dear old dad and mom, and, predictably, you guys sound just like we did when we were your age.

Is it something genetic? Are teens and parents hard wired to be in conflict? Well, the answer is yes and no. Some of the disagreements between parents and teens are necessary and healthy. A teen should push for more freedom and a parent should recognize when his or her teen can handle the responsibility that freedom demands. Yet, some of us parents are so scared of all the things that you guys can get into that we try to impose all sort of rules on you. Of course, many of you secretly break them or openly rebel against them. The result of all this is that your parents are convinced they have a monster living in the house and you feel like you’ve had the very bad luck of landing in an army boot camp.

So what’s the answer? Is it possible for teens and parents to have an open and loving relationship? Call me an optimist – my vote’s “Yes!” My only hesitation is this: you have to want it. If you want to have a good relationship with your folks, I encourage you to read on.

Okay, here goes – Dr. Michael Tobin’s Eleven Prescriptions for Healthy Parent-Teen Relationships. The following prescriptions are for teens only. I have a different list for parents. These prescriptions work for the overwhelming majority of parent-teen relations. However, there are exceptions. If you believe that your family situation is beyond repair, write to me and we’ll see what we can do.

  1. Believe it or not, your parents are human. With that realization you can now understand and perhaps forgive them for their occasional unreasonable behaviors.
  2. They love you. It’s almost impossible for parents not to love their children. They may not be real good at showing it, but you can be sure it’s true.
  3. Your parents are scared. You guys deal with a lot of stuff that we never knew about when we were teens. When you go out the door your mom or dad can’t help but worry. The problem is that they don’t know how to talk about it. So, instead, they make rules. See if you can get them to talk openly about their worries.
  4. Strange as it may seem, your parents were once teenagers. They, too, fought with their parents. Ask them about their teen years, especially their fights with their parents.
  5. Parents love it when their kids seem interested in them. If you’re feeling especially open, ask your parents questions about something they’re into.
  6. Most of your parents’ bad moods have nothing to do with you. So, don’t take them personally or seriously. Usually, they’re about work, money, their parents or each other – if your parents are married. Not too long ago I had a few hours when I hated the world. In that space I yelled at my 16-year-old daughter who looked up from her book and said, “Why are you in such a bad mood?” She then returned to her book. It broke my bad mood.
  7. There will be times when you will need to act more maturely than your parents. They may yell, shout and carry-on like infants. Try not to react. Consider it a personal challenge.
  8. Make a list of all the ways you drive your parents crazy. Experiment with cutting a few of the obvious ones out and see what happens. I’m not suggesting that you make some kind of New Year’s Resolution in which you promise to be a good boy or girl. Do it for a short time and watch the results. It’s kind of like a psychology experiment.
  9. Your parents want to forgive you. If you did something you know was wrong, write them a letter or tell them you’re sorry. It can go a long way toward creating peace.
  10. Try walking in your parents’ shoes. Imagine what it would be like having to deal with you. Would it be easy? If the answer were yes, then I would suggest you advise them on how to improve their performance. If not, try to be more understanding.
  11. For better or worse, they were, are and will be your parents. Learning to get along with them is infinitely better than fighting with them. You may have to trust me on this – understanding and accepting your parents are two of the main ingredients in creating a happy life.

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