Parenting Teens

Interview with Sharon Scott, Family Counselor

Parenting Books That Work!
By Sharon Scott, Family Counselor

Sharon is the author of eight award-winning books including four on the topic of peer pressure.

peer pressure help bookThe guide for parents/educators on how to peer-proof children and teens is Peer Pressure Reversal: An Adult Guide to Developing a Responsible Child, 2nd Ed.


pre teen book
Her popular book for teens, How to Say No and Keep Your Friends, 2nd Ed., empowers kids to stand out—not just fit in!


A follow-up book for teens, When to Say Yes! And Make More Friends, shows adolescents how to select and meet quality friends and, in general, feel good for doing and being good. More Information

School Age Childrens Books

Advice for Parenting Teens

parenting book learning schoolTips from the Teacher
by Jennifer Cummings, M.Ed.

A Parent-Friendly Guide of Teacher Tips and Useful Tricks You Can Use to Help Your Child Succeed in School Today


Helping Your Children Navigate Their Teenage Years:
A Guide for Parents

Handling Tough Situations

Teenage Brain: A work in progress

Teenagers, like all of us, sometimes need help and guidance, but it can sometimes be difficult for parents to recognize when to intervene in their teenager's life. You know about the challenges that today's teenagers face—some of which are different than those you experienced as a teen. Understanding these challenges, and knowing when and how to intervene to help your child overcome them, is an essential role for parents.

It is also a difficult role. Being able to tell the difference between normal teenage behavior and self-destructive, hurtful behavior is critical. The following examples are designed to help you understand some of the warning signs that your teenager may need help. Read through these examples and see if any sound familiar.

Remember, though, that every teenager is different and there is often no clear answer to your specific situation. If you are concerned, talk to your teenage children. At a minimum, let them know how you feel and tell them that you would like to talk. If you are still concerned, or if you think that your teenagers may hurt themselves or others, you should get help immediately.


I was called to my 13-year-old son's school today because he stole some money from another boy during lunch. This wasn't the first incident. A few weeks ago, the principal called because Keith made another boy take the blame for graffiti he wrote on the school bus. No matter what we tell him, he constantly seems to get in trouble. What can I do?

You certainly have reason to be concerned about your son's behavior. He is acting like a bully and needs your help to put on the brakes. The principal was right to call. The school can set a clear standard—no bullying— and make sure that your son understands the consequences for violations of this rule. You, too, need to make clear that you disapprove of bullying. You need to help your son develop empathy—which is the ability to understand how other people feel—and to care about others' feelings. You will probably want to impose consequences on your son for his unacceptable behavior. Be firm, but do it in a loving way. Right now your son needs your empathy, understanding, and love. By providing this, you can show the power of caring about others in a positive way.

This still leaves the bigger part of the problem—getting to the reasons for your son's behavior. You have to talk with him to determine why he is being a bully. What leads your son to behave in such hurtful ways?

With your help, or with the assistance of a professional, your son can understand his own motives for bullying. Some young people are bullies because they are bored and crave excitement; some do it to feel powerful; some engage in this behavior as a response to family problems; some do it for attention and to be popular with their peers. You need to ask him very detailed questions:

  • Did you plan to take the other boy's lunch money beforehand, or was it a sudden urge?
  • Why did you pick on that particular person?
  • What were you thinking when you did it? (Ex: I need the money; I'll look cool.)
  • How did you feel when you did it? (Ex: Excited, thrilled, frightened, powerful).
  • How do you think the other boy felt?
  • What's happening in your life or in our family that may be upsetting you?

When you understand the details of what happened, you can determine how to help your child. For example, if your son stole money because he saw it sitting on a lunch tray and had a sudden urge to grab it, he will need to learn to recognize his impulses, and to stop them. If he planned to steal money, preselected a victim and stole because he wanted to look important, he will need to learn positive ways to make friends and gain peer acceptance.

We have to help our children learn healthy and socially acceptable ways to cope with urges and anger, and to satisfy their emotional needs appropriately. A big challenge? Yes. But it's part of growing up and becoming a good citizen.

Drug Use and Failure in School

Our 16-year-old daughter, Julia, was caught drinking at a party. We suspect that she has smoked marijuana, too. She has been doing poorly in school— in fact, now she's neglecting her school-work and failing one subject. We set up required study time, but it hasn't helped. She misses curfews and hasn't been doing her chores. We've talked with her about alcohol, drugs, and sex, and we've been clear about the rules and consequences when she has broken them. Obviously, it hasn't worked. She says I'm a nag. What else can I do?

Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Julia's drinking and possible drug use may be the tip of the iceberg. Alcohol and other drug use often occur along with other serious problems.

First, you need to talk to Julia and find out what drugs she is using and how often she is using them. Don't confront her when she seems to be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Wait until she is straight and sober. Then discuss your suspicions with her calmly and objectively, as you begin a dialogue. Bring in other members of the family to help, if necessary.

Second, impose whatever discipline your family has decided on for violating the rules, and stick to it. Don't relent because she promises never to do it again. Make sure that she knows that her use of alcohol and other drugs is a serious problem and that she is harming herself.

If Julia has developed a pattern of drug use or has engaged in heavy use, you should get immediate help. If you do not know about drug treatment programs in your area, call your doctor, local hospital, or county mental health center for a referral. Your school district should have a substance abuse coordinator or a counselor who can refer you to treatment programs, too. Parents whose children have been through treatment programs can also provide information.

Many young people lie about their alcohol and drug use. If you think Julia is not being truthful and the evidence is pretty strong, you may wish to have her evaluated by a health professional experienced in diagnosing adolescents with alcohol- and drug-related problems.

Listed in the box at right are signs that may indicate problems with alcohol or other drugs. They could also indicate other problems, not related to drugs. In either case, if you observe significant changes in your teen's behavior, something is wrong. Start a dialogue with your teen about the problems. If you are still confused about whether alcohol or other drugs are part of the problem, or if you recognize that a substance abuse problem exists, get professional help.

School Failure

Failure in school is another serious issue, but nagging is the wrong approach, and enforcing study times usually doesn't work, either. Parents often assume that school problems are caused by lack of effort, and that making kids study more will improve their performance.

Usually there is much more to it. For example, children may be having trouble with academic work and need tutoring. They may have a learning disability or they may need help with study skills (understanding how, when and where to study). They may also be upset about something at home, at school, or with peers, that is interfering with their concentration. Even when the amount of effort invested in schoolwork is deficient, usually the underlying cause is discouragement, rather than laziness. The remedy is support, not more pressure. We need strategies to get teens thinking and solving problems for themselves. Dialogue is the most effective way to get them started.

How long ago did Julia start slacking off in school? What do you think has been holding her back? You need answers to these questions to determine how to correct the problem. Encourage Julia to consult with her teachers or the school counselor, and offer to participate in these meetings. If need be, you can consult with the school or get other professional help. Using all available resources, you and your daughter should be able to determine the causes of the problem. Once you know the causes, the solutions should become clearer. Your daughter will still have some obstacles to overcome, but at least she will be headed in the right direction.


Sarah has never had much confidence. High school is harder than she expected. My husband and I are divorced, and this has been very hard on her. Now, she looks and acts absolutely exhausted, doesn't sleep, and just sits in her room crying with her door closed. When she goes out, she dresses all in black clothing and wears heavy black eye shadow. I have tried to talk to her, but she acts angry and won't say a word to me. I can't tell if Sarah is just "going through a phase or is truly depressed.

The teen years offer new experiences and challenges that can be exciting, but also stressful. The stress of adolescence is one of many factors that can make young people unhappy. Teenagers are also experiencing hormonal changes which can affect their mood. Some sadness and mood swings are a normal part of life. But when the "blues last for weeks, or interfere with school, home, or other activities, your teen may be suffering from clinical depression. Depression, a mood disorder that is a real medical illness, is often unrecognized, but can be effectively treated.

When teens, or anyone, are very upset about things, they need to talk with someone who cares and can help. Parents should be concerned and talk with their child about his or her unhappiness, whether it is a temporary state or a case of clinical depression. We should set an example of confronting problems, head on.

It is sometimes hard to tell when teens are depressed, because the symptoms may be hard to read. For example, you may mistake a sleep disturbance, which can be a sign of depression, for a late-night television habit, or your teen may only reveal her sadness in writings that contain morbid themes. Teens may say they are "bored when, in fact, they are depressed. In addition, signs of depression may vary among cultural groups: Teens in some groups experience sadness or guilt; while others experience more physical symptoms, such as headaches and nervousness.

Clearly, Sarah is unhappy and may be suffering from depression. What is going on in her life to make her feel this way? Think about past and present problems. When did this crying begin? Did it coincide with family tension, or the divorce, or problems in school? How is she getting along with friends? How are things in your family, now? Are there any other problems or symptoms? The answers to these questions provide clues about what is wrong and how to help her.

Depression does increase the risk of suicidal behavior. Many teens think about suicide, and some of them follow through. Parents should be especially concerned and get professional help immediately if additional warning signs are evident, such as when a child has a history of previous suicidal behavior, hints at not being around in the future, expresses a desire to die, gives away prized possessions, has experienced a recent loss, or makes threats of suicide. Sarah needs to talk with someone who cares and can help. Give her an opportunity to discuss her feelings and what is causing them. If she won't find an adult with whom she can talk, such as a family physician or a mental health professional.

Anger and Violence

My 16-year-old son, James, is failing in school. He is often angry, has no interest in our family, and sometimes doesn't come home until 4 a.m. I have no idea what he's doing and worry he might get into trouble. At home, he spends most of the time in his room playing violent video games and listening to music with violent lyrics. I've heard him plotting "revenge with friends, and he seems to always be talking about different weapons. This worries me, but I don't really believe he would hurt anyone. What can I do?

You are right to be worried. Although it is difficult to predict who will become violent, there are certain risk factors that may warn of possible danger. It is important to keep in mind that the presence of these signs does not necessarily mean that a person will become violent. These risk factors include: a history of violent or aggressive behavior, carrying weapons or access to weapons, the use of alcohol and other drugs, isolation from family and/or peers, poor grades, and trouble controlling anger. The more of these warning signs we see, the more we believe that children are "at risk for violent behavior. No single factor indicates a problem, but if we see a pattern of several risk factors, it's time to take precautions. James exhibits many of these warning signs. He is isolated from his family, failing in school and staying out much too late at night. He has discussed weapons, has a problem with anger, and you heard him plotting revenge. Has James been bullied, or excluded, or teased by peers or family members? Children who have been bullied, mistreated by others, or feel they have been mistreated, are also at higher risk for being violent than those who have not. The same is true for children who feel rejected or alone.

As you consider various risk factors, bear in mind that these are "red flags, not predictors of violence. They are warning signs of possible trouble. After some of the recent high profile shootings in schools, the media has publicized lists of warning signs. These lists can be used to unfairly label nonviolent youth as dangerous, because many adolescents who will never become violent will show some of the red flag behaviors.

Still, parents should recognize these warning signs and use them as a cue that something is wrong and a child needs help.

When parents see a serious problem affecting their child and can't seem to resolve it, they should connect with someone who can. To help James, you should look for a child/family mental health professional who is well-respected in your community and experienced in working with adolescents and their families. When a teen exhibits a number of warning signs for violence, as James does, parents should act promptly—for safety's sake. As a precaution, they should make sure their children do not have access to firearms, and remove other dangerous materials or objects from the home.

Next Managing Anger: Theirs and Yours


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