10 ways to fix a rocky parent-teen relationship
By Dr Justin Coulson |
Parent-teen relationship problems

One of a parent’s toughest jobs is to be responsive to our children’s emotional needs. The most important and influential theory of child-rearing – attachment theory – describes how children thrive when they feel safe physically and emotionally because we are responsive to them. Because they feel safe, they are able to explore their world, knowing they can return to us if anything frightening or uncomfortable happens.

When our children are young, much of their exploration is physical. They explore the park as toddlers. They explore the school or neighbourhood as they get older. And if they feel afraid, those emotions ideally drive them back to us. We are their ‘secure base’. We respond to their emotional needs.

But teens’ exploration is more socially oriented, and can also involve alcohol, drugs and sexuality. Research tells us that when parents and teens are closely connected, these activities are likely to be delayed much longer than when relationships between parent and child are in turmoil.

With the consequences of our relationship with our teens so clearly linked to their attitudes towards exploration of things we might prefer they not explore at all (or at least, not yet), it is imperative that we get our relationships with them ‘right’. Below are 10 tips for rescuing your relationship with your teen.

Accept the change

How many of us have heard our teenagers say, “I’m not your baby anymore, mum!”?

It’s hard to accept because for many of us, they’ll always be our baby. We want to protect them, nurture them and guide them. And we should. But we can’t do that effectively while we treat them like they’re still under 10. They’re starting to make up their own minds about things. They don’t want to be told what to do or think. And they need us to accept that they really are becoming their own person.

Be available

Ironically, the more we accept that our children are changing, the less they’ll resist us. What we most need to do is be available if they want to talk.

Our teens rarely want our advice, and they will push against it when it comes uninvited. You’ll see them getting quiet, clamming up or getting moody.

Instead, be there if they need you, and let them know it. “If you feel like chatting, I’ll be in the kitchen.” They know you’re available. They’ll chat when they don’t feel compelled. And remember the old advice works well – we have two ears and one mouth. We should use them in that proportion, especially when we communicate with our teens.

Limit judgement

If your relationship with your teen is on eggshells, telling them why they’re wrong – or how your view of things is ‘right’ – is guaranteed to push your teen further away. Judgement is a surefire method to see them zip their lips and stop communicating.

Remember, it’s not you

When we have moody issues with our teens, research shows that we parents take it much harder than they do. A blow up seems to get under our skin a lot more than it does for our teens. They get over it faster than we do – although they don’t always make it look like that.

If we can let it go and move on, in many instances our teens will too. But we should look for opportunities to repair the relationship when we can.

The relationship matters most

Sometimes our teenager’s moods can last for days, and maybe even weeks. This can be agonising for us. We want to snap them out of it. We want to give them a piece of our mind. We want peace and kindness and happiness.

At these times, it’s really up to us to put the relationship first and find ways to strengthen it. Reminding them of our availability can help. Or suggesting the two of you catch up for an ice-cream or sundae at a nearby cafe because you’ve forgotten how to talk about normal stuff. Making attempts to connect (without being forceful) can strengthen your relationship, even when things have been rocky.

Drop the agenda

Our teens know when we’re talking them around to our way of thinking. They can sense when we’re under pressure and not focused on them and their needs. The know when we have an agenda.

What works best is us listening to them. Whether it’s 10.30pm and we’re exhausted, or they’re doing something dumb and want to be heard rather than judged. When we lose the agenda, we’re more likely to gain our teen.

Acknowledge your teen

Sometimes things can be really rocky between us and our teen. So go right back to basics. When you see them, say hi and look them in the eye. When you or they are leaving the house, say goodbye. Basic acknowledgement rights relationships.


Studies have shown that touch strengthens relationships. Sports teams who touch more win more. There’s a camaraderie. Families should also look for appropriate ways to reach out and touch one another. Hugs, an arm around a shoulder, a squeeze of the knee … touch shows you care.


Once your teens are around 14-15 years, they’re wanting to make their own decisions. So talk about things and tell them you’re willing to leave it up to them. You know they’re sufficiently wise. You know they’ve been taught well. It’s their call. Reasoned deference supports teens’ autonomy and is shown to promote better decisions around peers, schoolwork, drug and alcohol use, and mental health (which is counter-intuitive but really cool).


Find ways to laugh together. Whether it’s through watching a movie, or sharing a joke, laughter is often the best medicine for making a relationship strong again.

Nearly all teens are moody. Nearly all parents have moments with their teens where they believe their relationship is headed over a cliff. These tips are simple to say, but harder to do. Try them and see how they can build your relationship.


This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson - child psychologist, parenting writer and author, and father of 6 daughters.

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