Entering the Teen Years: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Like many parents you have probably spent the last thirteen years deliberately investing into your child’s development.  From the moment they entered the world, parenting became your priority.  You may have taken time off work, existed without sleep, laboriously supervised homework and monitored piano practise.  You may not have been perfect, but you worked hard, understanding that your child needed you.  

And then before you know it - they are a teenager! 

Parent’s rarely know what to expect during the teenage years so they understandably cross their fingers and hope for the best.  Although few parents would expect to see their teenager wake up at 13 “all grown up”, they may hope to start seeing a responsible young lady emerge.  They may hope to see progressive signs of maturity.  Unfortunately, these hopes rarely unfold simply.

The teenage years often bring a regression in behaviour, when parents are subconsciously expecting a progression.  Most teenage girls produce more tantrums than a two year old, give their parents more sleepless nights than a new born baby and have more mood ‘swings’ than they could ever experience on a playground.   And if parents are really lucky they might sometimes see brief glimmers of maturity!  

I often hear parents say things like, “She is supposed to know better.  She is supposed to be responsible.  She is not a child anymore we should be able to trust her.”  Theoretically you may be right.  Development, like a good investment account, should be steadily moving forward.  However, the reality is that your daughter is more likely to represent the ups and downs of a volatile stock market.  There is nothing steady about most teenage girls.

There is a common misconception I have noticed amongst parents.  This misconception is that as a child gets older, and gains more independence, parenting should become easier.  In my experience, anything is further from the truth.  You can expect to find parenting a teenager the most time consuming, challenging and draining stage of your life so far!  You can expect to hear yourself say, “Who is that girl?” when you would prefer to be saying, “I am so proud of you.” 

The Journey Forward

I would like to explain a child’s journey to adulthood by dividing it into three distinct stages – dependence, independence and interdependence.  Parents who have a realistic understanding of what to expect in each stage have a far better chance of dealing with each phase constructively. 

STAGE ONE – Dependence

In this stage babies and young children rely predominately on their parents.  Parents are the sole providers of their basic needs including food, clothing, shelter and comfort.  Parents also filter the external relationships and learning opportunities that shape their future.  

In return, parents are appreciated in endless childlike ways.  A warm hug, an excited smile when their dad comes home, an enthusiastic, “I love this lasagne mum!”  And although this stage is very physically draining it is also filled with the joy of seeing your child progress because of your input!  

What to expect:-

  • A child centred relationship

  • Lots of hard work

  • Physically tiring activities

  • Small rewards that make it all worth while

  • The joy of seeing a child grow and develop

STAGE TWO - Independence

This stage of the journey can be seen lurking on the horizon for several years before it fully arrives!  The first time your child slams the car door as they leave for school (and doesn’t look back) you know things are on the move.  Parents of 10 year olds regularly tell me, “They are acting like teenagers already.”  I reassure them that there is more to come!

During this stage young people desire to have a ‘life’ independent of their parents.  They are looking for their place outside of the security of their home.  They often want to discover their own view of the world and are questioning what they have been taught by their parents. However, they lack the maturity and character to fully embrace independence.  There is often a huge gap between what they want to do and what they have the maturity to handle.   They still need guidance in order to ensure they eat well and sleep enough!    

It is really easy to identify a teenager who is in this stage.  They have an atmosphere that says, “I don’t need you” and an attitude that says, “I already know it all.”  They are repelling authority like it is the plague.  One of the biggest shocks to parents is their ability to distance themselves from the advise, love and protection that they have previously embraced. 

The stage of Independence appears in different degrees and for different lengths of times. Some young people reach this stage later in their teenage years or even early twenties.  Others pass it so quietly it is hardly noticed.  I have found that when a young person reaches the stage of Independence early in their teenage years, it usually hits hard.  If your child is between thirteen and sixteen years of age, in this stage of development, you will have your hands full. 

It is easy to criticise, judge or even reject young people who are in this stage.  However, I encourage parents to realise that this is a normal part of development.  If teenagers feel “wrong” for going through this developmental stage they can carry resentment and it can fuel their negative choices.   Although the behaviour is not always right, the struggles and feelings are not wrong.  They are a genuine part of growing up.

What to expect:-

  • A child centred relationship

  • An unpredictable, emotionally draining daily experience

  • A challenge to your authority and opinions

  • Increased work load

  • Greater need for deliberate parenting

  • Little immediate reward commonly leaving parents feeling inadequate and unappreciated


STAGE THREE - Interdependence

During this stage young people are able to consistently take care of their own basic needs and function in the adult world.  That means they don’t rely on their mum to wash their clothes and get them up in the morning!  They are no longer expecting their parents to pay their way in life.  They have learnt how to take responsibility for their own wellbeing and future.

However, they also know that there are times when it is appropriate to reach out and ask for help.  Real maturity comes when a young person is able to accept that they have an inner circle of people whose support they need.  Interdependence describes a young person’s ability to rely on their parents (and others who have proven their love for them) during the difficult times in their life.  Young people in this stage realise that they have an impact on others and consider this carefully when making decisions.

Parents should be encouraged by the thought that Interdependence is on the other side of Independence.   I have found that Interdependence slowly develops over time.  It is more likely to appear if the right support is available to teenagers during the Independent Stage.  

What to expect:-

  • Two way relationship

  • A responsible adult who is able to care for their own basic needs

  • A young person able to initiate communication and ask for advise

  • The reward of seeing a young adult emerge

It is so important that parents get their expectations right from the beginning.  I can guarantee that if your child is in their formative teenage years, they need you now more than ever before.  They need you more than when they relied on you to feed them, tie their shoe laces, cut their sandwiches or walk them across the street.   If you consider having a teenager as intense as bringing a new baby home, then double it, you might be close to understanding the effort it will take to see them mature into an adult.    

After thirteen years it is very common for parents to feel tired and ready to ‘let go’.  I’d like to encourage you to hang in there a little longer, pull out the reserves and run the final leg of the race.  Your teenager still needs you so much.  It is not time to exit yet.  If you need to re-adjust your thinking or your schedule, do so.  It is too early to expect to see a young adult emerging, you have a teenager.  There is a huge difference between the two.  

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You can find more on this topic in my book 'What Teenage Girls Don’t Tell Their Parents available from michellemitchell.org


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Michelle Mitchell