How to Ruin Your Relationship With Your Teenager

It’s not by refusing to buy the latest greatest something or keeping your child home from the party/concert/date…

One evening my sons came home with the same exclamation, “It’s amazing how many kids hate their parents!” We talked for an hour or so ascertaining WHY and I’ve interviewed several teenagers over the last few months for further clarity.

The good news: most teenagers are very forgiving of parental missteps; they recognize their own faults and readily forgive others. Even better, in a healthy relationship, teenagers love you for who you are. Yes, they might act embarrassed when you hug them in front of their friends or even drop them off in front of the high school. But they really don’t care if you’re overweight, frumpy or wear outdated clothes (actually they’re much more disturbed when adults try to appear too hip or young).

Even the best of us will recognize our own failings in the following list, but look at it as an opportunity to improve rather than berate yourself. All relationships take work, but your communications with your teenager can be lifesaving. The largest problems can be solved when you have a good relationship, but even the smallest problems can cause disaster when your interactions are filled with tension.

How to ruin your relationship with your teenager:

1. Don’t listen.

Years ago, I heard invaluable advice, “Once your child reaches the age of 13 or 14 they know your opinion of everything under the sun. Your job from now on is to shut up and listen.” I remember feeling a bit defensive the first time I heard this counsel. I had so much knowledge yet to share! And besides, things change– how would I offer my wisdom on future problems? But there’s the crux of it all. Things change. As adults, we think we know all about the teenage world, but our swiftly moving planet has spun beyond our intimate knowledge of the 70s, 80s, 90s… And here’s what I’ve learned: when you take the time to listen, truly listen, your kids will ask your opinion.

2. Criticize excessively. 

I think we all know the evils of fault-finding, but in parenting, criticism (to some degree) is a necessary evil. Parent to child is one of the very few relationships where you do need to offer correction. It’s our job to teach kids to comb their hair, take out the garbage, do their homework, etc. Censure should be given kindly and sparingly. No one can handle a barrage of disapproval; especially teenagers. And remember, kids are criticized all day from teachers and peers, home should be a haven of acceptance and love (as well as occasional reminders to trim your fingernails).

3. Grill kids with questions. 

Perhaps, this complaint sounds contradictory to the first. How can a parent listen without asking questions? But I think we all know there’s an enormous difference between asking and listening. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? Don’t you hate it when someone peppers you with questions without even waiting for your answers? Sure, ask one or two questions, but then just sit back and listen. Allow for pauses in the conversation. When teaching, I like to get a great discussion going in the classroom. I’ve learned to ask a question and then wait. As the moments tick by, I lean on the podium and say, “It’s OK. I can wait.” Without fail, I learn the most from my class when I’m willing to let the room grow silent. It’s the same when talking to kids. When the conversation lulls, simply say, “I’m listening.” That pause, the permission to gather their thoughts implies safety and leads to real conversation.

4. Tell embarrassing stories/complain about them publicly.  

I can scarcely go to any social gathering or social media without hearing someone trash talk their kids. They act like it’s normal to talk about how their kids have ruined their lives. More often than not, their child is listening to this barrage of insults. Can you imagine standing in the corner of a room hearing your parents talk about how terrible you are? People act the way we treat them and if parents handle kids like they are rotten they either will be, or they will cut their parents out of their lives. As one boy told Hans, “My parents’ house is just a place to sleep; why would I want to be in a place where everything I do is wrong?”

4. Stereotype their behavior. 

“Teenagers are all crazy/selfish/irresponsible/lazy.” Somehow, it’s socially acceptable to belittle teenagers. Yes, there’s that whole brain development thing going on, but most of the teenagers I know are doing an incredible job at managing complicated lives. I see kids putting in hundreds of hours in service, playing an instruments, creating computer apps, juggling AP classes, playing sports, performing in plays and dance… all while working a part-time job, nurturing their sibling and doing the dishes at night. So maybe we should cut them a little slack when they forget the dishes?

5. Fight the wrong battles.

We all know the stereotypical story of making a kid sit at the dinner table until they’ve finished their broccoli. Parents need to ask themselves before making a stand, “Is it worth it?” Teenagers are facing so many big issues, their choice of vegetable really doesn’t matter. In fact, most battles don’t matter. If kids are given the freedom to choose in many areas of their life they will be much more likely to listen to parents’ opinions on the big issues. Whenever I write about media, I get all kinds of accusations about my crazy strict parenting. But if you ask my kids they’ll tell you I’m an extremely lenient parent. As Hans says, “We don’t have many rules.” In truth, our rules are based on guiding principles and we let other things slide.

6. Expect instant compliance to your requests.

Too often, parents expect kids to jump up and comply to their requests in a way they’d never demand of their spouse or themselves. It takes a minute to wrap up what you’re doing and empty the garbage/put your shoes away/bring in the groceries. Unless there’s a fire, let’s give kids the same respect for their time we’d want for ourselves.

7. Maintain constant suspicion.

When we expect the worst of people, they usually comply. Yes, parents should be cautious and careful; we should all know the signs of depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity etc. But if parents create an environment of rigid rules, suspicion and distrust, kids are drawn to dangerous behaviors. Parents can keep safeguards in place without destroying relationships. At my house, we keep our two computers password protected and my kids know I regularly check the history. It’s not that I don’t trust my kids, it’s simply that I know pornography is readily available and especially tempting when kids are tired, lonely or bored. It’s like keeping guns in a cabinet– the lock exists to protect innocents who might be curious about something that could destroy their life.

Michelle Lehnardt
Michelle Lehnardt
I’m the kind of mom who drives through mud puddles, throws pumpkins off the roof and lets the kids move the ping-pong table into the kitchen for the summer. Despite (or probably, because of) my immaturity, my five sons and one daughter are happy, thriving, funny people. I’ll climb a mountain with you, jump into a freezing lake hand-in-hand or just sit with you while you cry. Founder of and

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