How to Love Your Teen When They Act Unlovable

Teen Behavior and Substance Abuse

I just had the privilege of working with some parents in one of our local school districts. Eighty five parents answered a brief survey about the top things they struggle with in parenting teens. The results are in. Parents struggle with their teens disrespectful communication, homework hassles and discipline (like doing chores on time). Combine these issues in a hormone-ally charged teenager and the package might not be so lovable.


Over the next several blog posts, I will write about these three issues, one at a time. Let’s start with tackling disrespectful communication. The key to getting respectful communication from your teen, is giving it.


If you want tweens and teens to hear you and what you counsel, you must make the investment in time and energy to listen to them. Youth development research reveals that many at risk behaviors can be prevented by having a positive relationship with a caring adult.  Rather than bark orders, the first step is listening. You can actively listen to your teens which will help them open up to you. Then you can share how their communication makes your feel.


Active listening: Restatement of last word or phrase – Passive listening is simply hearing what your tween has to say without a response from the parent. Active listening involves reflecting back the feeling of what your child is communicating to you, like a type of conversational mirror. Tweens feel valued when adults actively listened to them.


When there is a natural pause in her conversation with me, I simply repeat the last few words of her last sentence. It may feel mechanical at first but it shows your tween/ teen that you are really listening to them and are trying to understand their meaning. Active listening also sends the message that you are interested in learning more.


Re-state or rephrase again to check meaning.  Don’t assume understanding.  Check it out. This step requires a little bravery because I risk rejection and if she is particularly hormonal or in a rebellious or angry mood, it can hurt. Being willing to check out my interpretation with Ashley requires vulnerability.  Over the years, I’ve seen her respond by opening up more.


Summarize – When the conversation starts winding down, summarize the essence of the conversation to confirm meaning and build trust.  This may be the hardest part of active listening but with practice skills grow.


Here is sample conversation that put the steps together.


Mom:  “Tell me about Amy?” –  Conversation starter with an open ended question

Ashley: “She’s okay but she’s always with her new boyfriend Matt now. (Ashley rolls her eyes.) He’s cool but they are just so in to each other.”

Mom:  “So, they are really into each other?”  – Active listening

Ashley: “Yeah, I feel like the third wheel on a lopsided tricycle.  It sort of makes me mad.”

Mom: “You are angry because you feel left out?” – Confirmation of meaning

Ashley:  “Yes, especially at lunch.” 

Pause in the conversation. Mom resists the temptation to fill it with words.

Ashley:  “I guess I could go eat at Abbie and Maddy’s table.

Mom:  You feel left out because of how Amy and Matt relate to each other, especially at lunch.  But you are willing to eat with other friends. – Summarizing

Ashley:  Yes, but I really miss Amy.

Mom:  I know you miss your private time with Amy but I am really proud of you for trying new things. – Affirmation

Ashley:  Thanks Mom.


A multitude of studies have shown that teens still view their parents as their primary role models. Talking to your kids about school, healthy habits, peer pressure, sex, drugs, rock and roll as well as making positive choices is a lot to tackle during the tween and teen years.  The simple practice of developing discussions with open ended questions, active listening and I-messages can be the key to the kind of communication that keeps our children safe.  And isn’t that what every parent wants?



Click here to read more about Parenting Teens.