Why Teens Terrorize Us

Despite our deep and abiding love for them, teens continue to terrorize us, creating the type of stress that scientists have now begun to measure. I have a teen in my house who is leaving in a few short weeks. Despite the fact that I know that it is only a matter of days until I will bemoan his departure, I am still surprisingly adept at flying into a rage at him. His need to assert his newly adult self and my need to control what happens in my home are too often on a collision course.

Despite our deep and abiding love for them, teens continue to terrorize us, creating the type of stress that scientists have now begun to measure.

One day your young person borrows your car, drives to a summer job and spends the day as an income-earning citizen fully capable of responsible employment. That very afternoon, your kitchen is trashed, there are dirty clothes carpeting the floor, and a well-established curfew has been dispensed with like it wasn’t even there. Your authority has been trampled. Your gas tank and refrigerator are empty, every inch of your car teems with discarded Gatorade bottles, beef jerky wrappers and trash that is simply beyond identification.

You remind yourself that this is what teens are like, alternately capable young adults and selfish self-involved children. You recall that it is the age, that they do not stay like this. If there are older children you throw your mind back to their transformation and then you turn around, willing yourself to be calm, and shriek, “WTF, that is the last time you borrow my car.”

I am alternately trying to figure out how to say goodbye to a child I love beyond reason and so apoplectic I cannot even speak to him. The seesaw that is raising a teen is a source of much stress. Some of it is undoubtedly my fault (or any parent’s fault) as we lurch around and grapple for steady ground as our children travel the rocky road to adulthood.

It is not me, it is the facts.

For any parent who thought the teen years were stressful, research has recently arrived to say just how right you were. A poll released this week by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that fully one-third of those adults living with one or more teens had experienced a great deal of stress in the previous month.

In the NPR broadcast highlighting this study and the trouble of living with teens, one mother explained, “I love this child more than I love myself, and I know what’s around the corner and I’m trying to tell him and he’s just ignoring me, and I really can’t say or do anything about it. I just have to let him experience it and hope and pray that it’s not a life-changing mistake.”

She continued,”Everything I demanded, he fought back. Advice? He didn’t need it. Conversation? He didn’t want it. It was hands down the toughest journey of my life so far….”

Dealing with Terrible Teens

In order to deal with their stress, Clinical psychologist David Palmiter suggests parents seek support from other parents, that they share concerns and decisions. Parents, dealing with their own teens can provide us with camaraderie, encouragement and constructive solutions. Sites like Grown and Flown can be a forum for just that kind of conversation about the Trouble with Teens!

It’s tough to retain your equanimity when teens lash out but University of Virginia Professor of Education and psychologist Peter Sheras urges parents to do otherwise. “What all this research really says to parents is, ‘Don’t freak out,’” Sheras says. “What you are experiencing, lots of other parents experience, too, so don’t take it personally when your child says, ‘I really hate you, Mom.’”

Teens terrorize us because:

They are neither one thing nor another. They are capable of being sane mature adults and petulant children, in the very same conversation. They have the bodies of grown ups and the emotional range of toddlers.

They are risk seeking missiles whose favorite phrase is “I got this” when it is patently clear that they’ve got nothing. Our protective urge is undiminished but our ability to assure their safety is vastly reduced. This alone can result in sky-high stress.

They routinely overestimate their competence in dealing with adult matters. Even in the face of bad outcomes teens can struggle to see either their fault or how they could have done things differently. As parents with a lifetime of experience, this is painful to watch.

They inhabit a world of very real consequences. Their missteps can have profound effects on their future (and on others) yet they struggle to understand the gravity of their attitudes and actions.

They live on an emotional rollercoaster and as Lisa Belkin pointed out, they want us to ride it with them. She so aptly explains that we do not need to climb aboard with them (although it takes parents a while to learn this) but this still means that there is a fairground ride operating in our homes.

It all happens so quickly and we can barely catch our breath. At age 14 only 13% of teens had used alcohol in the previous month by age 18 that number is 41%. Similarly before age 15, 16% of teens have had sex and four years later that number is 71%. By the time the leave for college 54% of kids have been sexting.  Much is changing in their lives, experiences and perspectives and as parents we can struggle to keep up.

It is just hard dealing with anyone, at any age, who already knows everything. This impenetrable fortress of knowledge is just one more battle ground in the fight between experience and the hubris of youth.

Adolescents confuse understanding with agreement.They think saying so, makes it so, according to Sheras, “They think if they explain something to you adequately, you will agree with them. So when parents say, ‘I’m not going to let you do that,’ adolescents almost universally say, ‘You don’t understand.’”

The influence of their peers outweighs ours. It is excruciating when you child values the insight of a peer (a mere child) whom he may have known for weeks or days, over the person who loves him the most and has his interest at heart (and BTW is an adult). It is hard not to wonder where their critical thinking has gone.

The balance has shifted. When our kids were small and we were unhappy with them or disciplined them, they got angry or contrite but they were not indifferent. If, in doing our jobs as parents of teens we make them unhappy, they may now withdraw. Punishing our kids always felt bad, but the silent treatment or their physical retreat makes it even worse.

I have long subscribed the U shape theory of parenting which suggests that the most challenging days are at the beginning and the end and that the sweet spot of parenting lies in the middle. I once told my brother that I would do a deal with the devil if my then 6, 9 and 10 year olds could stay little forever. The devil wasn’t buying and my kids became teens.



  1. says

    I’m so glad others vacillate between such powerful love and anger in the same day. It’s amazing how many emotions teens can create in me!

  2. says

    Isn’t the silent treatment the worst when the don’t agree with you? Your essay describes my current life so accurately, and it does give me comfort knowing that my husband and I are not alone. There is no way that I could manage without my posse going through the same thing, but my son would never speak to us again if he knew that we shared our parental interactions with them.

  3. says

    All of this is true. And as you know, when they turn the corner to adulthood, it all gets so much easier!

  4. says

    This post completely resonates with me so thanks for all the assembled insight. I’m grateful that the stress and terror of parenting teenagers is being acknowledged- I do feel less alone and that helps a lot. On a personal level, learning to resist escalation when dealing with our kids has been enormously helpful. You are the ultimate role model as a parent and I try to keep that front and center as much as humanly possible!

  5. arkiegal says

    I loved this article. It expresses very clearly EXACTLY what I am going through and feeling right now. I thought I had a struggle with my oldest, but my youngest is a whole new sort of pickle. I am happy the author shared not only her insight and experience but the quoted studies as well.

  6. Stella88 says

    I completely agree with all said. When my daughter turned 13 I swear an alien came and inhabited her body. It has been a long hard road, but I see glimpses of the girl I know is in there somewhere at 19. My 21 year old son tells me I was too protective because I monitored his comings/goings, didn’t let him drink etc. If he thinks he is getting an apology for that he will be waiting till hell freezes over. The worst part is that sometimes they make me question my judgement with their arguments and I hate that they can even get me to that point sometimes. A roller coaster ride indeed-all we can do sometimes is hang on tight and know it will end at some point!

  7. says

    I found with both of my kids that right before they left for their freshman year (of college or grad school), was when we were at our greatest odds. I really do think it’s their way of pushing us away so that they can go away. But, it’s awful when we’re going through it. P.S. I tried making the same deal with the devil, didn’t work for me either.

  8. says

    I’ve always felt that the teen years are so difficult to help us deal with letting them go – can you imagine sending a sweet little four year old off to college? I don’t think any mom could survive! It’s a little easier to part with the surly teenager – but just a little easier :). Thanks for another great post! So informative, and it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  9. says

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

  10. says

    This is all so true and it feels so good to hear that a mother whose parenting skills you respect can blow up at their kids just like you do! I think they terrify us because they can hurt us so more easily now. They can stop speaking, stop calling/texting/communicating and we really cannot do anything about it. The more we pull, the more they pull away. They have this infuriating power over us and they know it, and that angers us. And yet, we can’t stay angry too long, because we are the ones who lose in that arena. We are damned!

  11. says

    I’m cringing to this about what awaits me! My 10 year old already argues (well, we do encourage him to be forthright and express himself), so I can only see this ramping up in the next few years. I will definitely be using this forum then!

  12. says

    I never thought about how stressful it is to have teens in the house but it totally makes sense. My poor parents had both of us and we were only 2 years apart. Naturally, I was an angel but my brother was a terror. They must have been excited for us to leave for college….and then they cried about it for weeks.

    It’s a true conundrum.

  13. says

    I must admit that I am relieved to know that I am not the only one flying into an occasional rage or making statements like, “WTF, that is the last time you borrow my car.” Yep, I get it! Parenting teens is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and I have learned so much in trying to find the “sweet spot” with my 19-year-old and 17-year-old. But the sweet spot doesn’t exactly exist. It changes by the minute. I agree that the way in which the teens retreat emotionally and or physically is excruciating to deal with, because we as parents do want to hold them close even when they drive us crazy! Thanks for this, Lisa!

  14. says

    Oh my goodness, you read my mind. Why isn’t THIS part of parenting in What to Expect When You’re Expecting?!

  15. says

    It’s almost like you have to iterate through picking your battles, year-after-year. Even as grandparents, you have to do this as my parenting style is very different than my sons .. so we had to declare we would stay grandparents & not babysitters.