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Picking Your Battles: Strategic Moves for Parents of Teens


I have never met a teenager more dedicated to the art of being thirteen than Julia, whose mum brought her to my counselling office. Julia looked at me straight in the eye and announced, “Don’t make me mad!” Then she sat down in MY office chair and totally ignored me, ear plugs in place, thumbs texting one hundred miles an hour. 

“I’m definitely talking to a teenager!” I thought.

You might have a teenager who occasionally pulls a big, bold “you can’t boss me around” move.  If so, I need you to know that you definitely aren’t the only parent who faces these moments.  Julia was an A student.  She was well liked by her peers, but that didn’t make her an angel. 

“You can’t possibly hate me that much already,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood. 

“You want to bet?” she responded.

Mum quietly disappeared. There was silence as I considered my options. 

This was MY office and that was MY chair I argued with myself. I was in my right to say, “You either speak to me respectfully or don’t speak to me at all” or “This is my office and when you are in this office you abide by my rules.”  I had used both lines on several occasions with GREAT results.  Sometimes pulling out in-charge energy works a dream! But I knew that tackling Julia head on wasn’t going to work.  It was time to pick my battles and outsmart her.

I stopped to take into account what it meant to be a teenager. If you find yourself up against an explosive moment in your home, breathe – at least three times. With each breath remind yourself that the teenage years are TEMPORARY!

Teenager’s brains work differently than adult’s brains do. They are charged with massive emotions; they are best motivated by big rewards and they are wired to take risks (example: sitting in my chair!) They respond well to the unpredictable, as it engages their emotions.  And don’t forget their rapid social growth. This makes them much more self-conscious and driven to gain approval.

So, armed with this knowledge, I began….

“What is the worst thing about counselling centres? And people like me?”  I asked.  

Her eyes lifted for the first time since our meeting. 

“If you would be so good as to talk to me honestly, I’d like to take notes and include it in a book I’m writing,” I explained.

“Sure,” she said half intrigued. 

I concealed my smile.  I knew she was taking the bate.

“If you really want to know I think you all look like dorks,” she continued, hoping to get a reaction. “And I hate offices. My mum makes me come here. And people like you always ask me how I feel, and I don’t want to talk about how I feel.  It really irritates me when you all ask the same questions…..”   

I made sure I didn’t flinch.  I kept my head down, writing furiously, like she was sharing irreplaceable gems of gold.  “Tell me more,” I kept saying.

Julia finally exhausted herself and looked at me as if she wanted me to speak, so I started.

“If you really hate these places, what are we doing here? Let’s just get out of here.  Would it be better to get a milkshake or something?”

“Yeah ok,” Julia replied. 

Julia and I spend about six months having milkshakes. She pretty quickly grew into a mature and responsible young lady. I caught her in the depths of her teenage years! If you have a teenager who is the thick of being “teenager-ish” here are some take-away points to remember….  

Don’t Fix:  You can’t “fix” a teenager. Experience tells me that I may be able to curb a teenager’s behaviour, but I can’t make the teenage years go away.  Although they love their family, they are driven to establish close bonds with friends in order to forge their own path in life. They might PULL AWAY at rapid speeds. Accepting and working with this is a great start.  

Try the Unpredictable:  You can’t relentlessly correct a teenager. It’s too exhausting for both of you.  Try changing it up a bit. If they are expecting you to take things personally, try laughing it off instead. If your current pattern is “trying hard to connect”, try giving things space.  Be a little more unpredictable!

Look for Common Ground:  Common ground is a place where the arguing stops, even if only for a moment. Finding common ground can be as simple as a well-timed look, an in-house joke, a quick hug or a trip to the shops via a milkshake bar.  It can be doing something together that they enjoy and you can tolerate, like gaming or shopping. Finding common ground confirms, ‘I can still find something I like about you” even when you are totally annoying me.    

Big Emotions First:  The trick to communicating with teens is engaging their big emotions first. It is a gateway to their heart. When parents try and have logical discussions pre-maturely it usually only shuts things down, and teens say, “You don’t understand!”

Don’t Take it Personally:  Teenagers can turn on you within minutes, sometimes even before the milkshake is fully drunk; which may leave you feeling like saying, “You can’t expect me to take you out when you treat me like this!”  However, connecting isn’t a reward for good behaviour.  If you look at it like that you will be disappointed every time.

I really didn’t anticipate being able to have much of an impact on Julia, but I am grateful to say that I did.  The only way I did this way by recognising the nature of her age, and strategically allowing her to call the shots in MY office chair and then over milkshakes each fortnight.  Julia taught me so much about taking the high road, picking your battles and not misinterpreting ungrateful, bad or naughty for pubescent. Sometimes the strongest thing we can do it outsmart our kids.

RECOMMENDED READING: You might also like “Parenting Teenage Girls in the Age of a New Normal” available here

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