Alyson Schafer is a Toronto-based therapist, columnist and author whose books include “Honey, I Wrecked the Kids” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. She spoke with Katherine Reynolds Lewis about the ups and downs of parenting an adolescent.

Q: As parents come into the teen years, what are they thinking or expecting?

A: There’s generally a negative perception. The expectation that parents have is that it’s going to be a challenging time and they’re nervous about it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think that all teens are going to have a negative attitude, they’re going to hate you and they’re going to get into sex and drugs, they will live up to your expectations.

Q: What are the particular challenges of the adolescent years and how should we see them differently?

A: Part of what happens is that it’s not linear. There’s a sharp turn in development. We see them as wanting to mature too quickly and we get frightened. “They’re our babies – what does all this mean?” When they want access to adult things, our knee-jerk reaction is to redouble our efforts to control. As we know, external control does not work well.

Instead, we need to be more Zen and get excited about the changes: “Who are you turning into? I want to see how your values are different from my values. You’re becoming someone new in front of my eyes.”

When our kids are little, our primary role is very much as an educator: coats go on the hook, shoes go on the mat, wash your hands before eating. As our kids get older, it shifts and we have to become a facilitator. They don’t care what we know; they want to share what they know.

Be curious. Ask: “What do you think makes certain girls so popular?” Why is it that vaping is so popular now, and it didn’t exist 10 years ago?”

When you ask them questions like that, you’d be amazed. They love to have philosophical talks. They love social justice, which is why they’re so angry when parents oppress them. They have a great sense of fairness, so if we treat them with respect, they’re incredibly receptive.

Q: How do you draw those bright-line boundaries, like no drinking?

A: It’s not so much the boundaries, it’s the style and approach we take. When we get to the middle years, we want to talk about having some respectful agreements to get to win-win. In an adolescent’s life you only have three no’s, so use them judiciously. Don’t say, “You can’t wear that because your bra strap is showing.” Use it for, “You can’t drop out of high school.” You want a cell phone, great, let’s talk about what’s required to have a cell phone. It may take two years for them to meet all the criteria, like if they have to get a part-time job to pay for it.

We’re working together to meet both of our needs: my need as a parent to keep you safe and your need as a teen to get out in the world and grow. You have their back and you’re just being reasonable. If it’s reasonable, they know it.

You can also go to an outside third party: The American Academy of Pediatrics says a teenager of this age needs a lot of sleep, so if your school starts at 7:30 a.m., you should be asleep by 10 p.m. Maybe you don’t want to be doing the hockey practice with ice time at 11 p.m.

More than ever in the adolescent years, the tool you’re going to be using is your power of influence. That comes from having a healthy relationship. When we ask kids, “Why didn’t you drink, why didn’t you sleep with your boyfriend?,” they’ll say, “I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.” It means they actually want your high opinion of them because they trust you as someone whose opinion counts. If you fight all the time they’re going to think, “Mom thinks I’m a jerk anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

Q: To build that healthy relationship, are tools like special time still useful in these years?

A: Special time is still important but you’ve got to be willing to change what it looks like. Maybe they don’t want to do family game night. With my kids, they loved going shopping at the mall, they loved going to get their nails done, they loved eating out, going to art galleries, family vacations. You have to change the formula, you have to be willing to forego your interests and adopt your children’s interests if you want to stay close.

Q: What about for the younger kids, how do you go from conflict to cooperation?

A: I would rather have a child willing to assert his will than get walked over. Strong-willed children are a pleasure. They are the future Nelson Mandelas and prime ministers of the world. What we have to convince parents to do is see the beauty in that and understand it’s not something to take personally.

When you let go and disengage, you actually gain ground or move closer to the goal you were hoping to get to in the first place. If I go outside and wait for them rather than getting angry because they’re dawdling, they come along faster

You’ve really got to have this fully rehearsed to the point where you’re almost excited – it’s going to happen tonight, I’m going to try my new thing tonight. You have to feel like you’ve got a strategy so you’re not sweating it in the moment.

Alyson Schafer will present two talks for D.C.-area parents in November: “The Joys and Fears of the Teen Years,” Thursday, November 17, 7:30-9 p.m., Landon School, 6101 Wilson Lane, Bethesda; and “Moving from Conflict to Cooperation,” Friday, November 18, 9:30-11 a.m., location TBD. For registration and information, visit PEPparent.org or call 301-929-8824.


Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a journalist, mother of three and parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2 and 1/2 to 18. PEPparent.org.