Parenting The Older Child & Adolescent

This section deals with common behaviour problems of the school aged child and early adolescent and outlines a framework that will help parents negotiate these challenges. The temperament of the child, the environment and how we respond as parents are all factors that impact on behaviour.  Children learn by experience and will push the boundaries as they negotiate life’s hurdles. Our role as parents is to ensure safety, educate, and integrate them into society.

From the Child’s perspective

As children become independent, develop socialisation skills, and negotiate their peer groups, they will develop self evaluation skills that can affect their emotions and self esteem. Many older children will find these emotions difficult to manage, and this can lead to behaviour challenges. Home should be a place to recharge the emotional battery, feel safe and secure with parental guidance.

As their cognition and awareness develops they develop internal reward systems, realising the ‘payback’ they get for completing a task, but will battle constant distraction which have become more intrusive in the electronic age. Regulating emotions can be difficult in certain temperaments and dealing with this is challenging.

When is behaviour considered abnormal ?

It is important to establish whether the problem exists in all areas of the child’s life, such as home, school, community and extended family or only at home. If he or she is functioning well at school, and does not pose any problems for other carers such as relatives and friends then it is unlikely that there is a significant problem that requires a more formal assessment and diagnosis.  However, if there are the following concerns then an assessment from a paediatrician or child psychologist is  recommended.

  • Where there is difficult to manage behaviour in all settings clearly. For instance the school is having a number of problems, and there may have been internal or external suspensions.
  • Where the behaviour involves damage to property, stealing, or violence
  • Where there is significant learning difficulties.
  • Where anxiety is a possible diagnosis – see Anxiety Disorder
  • Where you or other people are concerned about safety due to the behaviour of the child

What are the most common difficulties experienced by parents ?shutterstock_57416044

This list can be long but in summary arguing, non compliance with requests and general oppositional behaviour are common concerns that happen in all families as children negotiate their boundaries. Oppositional behaviour generally means deliberately doing the opposite of what is acceptable. This can be particularly frustrating for parents. In most instances parenting is by instinct and this is obviously fine if the family is functioning in a reasonably healthy way. However if you find that home life is difficult, and the adults are also arguing over how to manage these situations then a change of direction may be required.

Brief Background to Parenting this age group.

As mentioned in the parenting discussion  the ideal parenting is a mixture of warmth and control.

  • Control refers to the level of direction, boundaries and limits that are placed on a child’s behaviour.
  • Warmth implies guidance, understanding  and affection.

Children need attachment to an adult, need to feel safe, secure and protected. This is the basis behind warmth. Catching children behaving well, some spontaneous fun, affectionate hugs are extremely important and there should be a time each day where this can be delivered. However consequential parenting is also required where limits or boundaries have been crossed.

Talking to a frustrated child

It is human to sometimes want to vent. The adolescent will become frustrated and sometimes this will come across in conversation. As parents we will become upset at the ‘tone’ or content and soon an argument or stalemate occurs. One very useful trick is to acknowledge his or her frustration or annoyance and this may result in improved communication. The technique here is to side with the emotion. This is a form of active listening and sometimes that is all that is needed.  For instance here is a conversation that could go one of two ways.

Inflammatory Conversation

13yo boy

” Why do I have to always unpack the  dishwasher. This sucks…I have to do my homework.”


“Don’t speak to me like that. You will do the dishwasher and apologise. ”

13yo boy

“Why should I. I do more than my little brother. I hate him sometimes. It’s so unfair”


“That is untrue and you know it. I think you need to go to your room and calm down once you have finished that. ”

13yo boy

“Stuff this. I hate this house.  ”


“I do not want to see your face until you are ready to apologise”

Siding with the emotion

13yo boy

“Why do I have to always unpack the  dishwasher. This sucks…I have to do my homework.”


“You sound  upset”

13yo boy

“Yes well you would be too as I have heaps of homework. You don’t understand how many assignments they have given me and here I am doing the stupid dishwasher.”


“They’ve given you multiple assignments ?  Which subjects ?”

13yo boy

“Maths for starters, then an English assignment on some shitty novel”


“Sounds like a lot ….Well after you finish that maybe I will be able to help you ?…”

13yo boy –

” Yeah right.  As if. It’s so unfair how they all give assignments at the same time”

Parent –  

“I know. You’d think they would spread them out …”


So on the left things don’t go well as the parent takes up an equivalent defensive position and is ready for a ‘fight’.  However on the right despite the boy verbalizing and venting the parent acknowledges his feelings and pretty well repeats what the boy says in a slightly altered way, showing that the parent is listening.  Note how the parent is not trying to fix anything, or offer solutions, simply acknowledging the difficulty of having a number of assignments at once. This is active listening and allows the conversation to flow. Sometimes acknowledging these emotions is all that is needed.

This is difficult to do at first and takes some practice. Other tips include ignoring the small stuff (not mentioning the language) and even using humour,  as a mature way of handling situations. Next time your child comes out verbally swinging see what happens when you acknowledge his or her emotions. Remain calm,  and actively listen. The emotional roller coaster in this age group will be trying to pull you into a battle or argument. But it is important you do not engage as this will guarantee a negative outcome. If things suddenly get worse then disengage the conversation and whilst taking stock follow some consequential parenting guidelines.

Using Consequential Parenting

What is it ?

This is as it sounds. For difficult behaviour there are negative consequences and for acceptable behaviour there are  positive consequences.   When you think about it we live in a consequential society.  For instance parenting can be viewed as similar to road rules.  The rewards of staying within the boundaries of the rules are freedom to use the roads.  It is human nature to ‘push the boundaries’ and so when we lose concentration or deliberately ignore road rules we expect a simple negative consequence such as a fine or demerit points.  As adults we are given a ‘fresh start’ with similar consequences if we repeat offend. In addition the police are trained to be neutral, calm and efficient in their delivery of fines. They will be matter of fact and will not lecture, reason or cajole. They simply deliver the consequences. This is very much how parenting should be delivered. This shows the child that they are still loved but their behaviour was not acceptable.

Managing the emotional rollercoaster

Children learn from their parents, their peers, their education facility, and extended family. Much of their learning is dealing with emotions. Letting emotions get the better of us often results in behaviour that can be explosive, and regretful.  Consequential parenting ensures that the child learns that this behaviour is not effective in any circumstance, and in addition if the parent is clearly in control of his or her emotions (similar to the policeman above) then they are acting as a role model. If parents become emotional, angry and ‘lose control’ then this does help the child develop their own temperamental control.

There are a few guidelines regarding consequential parenting.

  1. Ensure consequences are age and child specific.  A young child will respond to a small toy. An older child may respond to access to a video game or the internet. Some children will be collecting cards such as pokemon. These are examples of the kinds of positive consequences that can be used depending on your child’s interests and temperament. For example a 10yo who enjoys a computer game called minecraft, if his behaviour has been acceptable he is allowed access to this game for a period of time during the evening after his chores or homework etc have been done. If the behaviour was not acceptable then he is unable to play minecraft for that evening. 
  2. Negative consequences should be short term, followed by a  ‘fresh start’. This means that the next day should be viewed as a fresh chance. Many parents will often remove toys/games/priveleges for prolonged periods such as a week or even a month. This means that the family dynamics are skewed to the negative and the child will react badly making the situation worse as they assume the  ‘What’s the use’ attitude. Often parents tell me their child’s room is bare as they have removed ‘everything’ to try and improve behaviour and he or she does not appear to ‘care anymore’. So keep consequences short term. Next day is a fresh start. Try hard to find a positive everyday.
  3. Avoid lecturing/discussing/reasoning when discussing negative behaviour.  It is natural for parents to be exasperated and try and find an explanation behind a particularly challenging behaviour. Generally this is not particularly successful strategy. Keep the discussion very short and simple and be specific about behaviour and consequences so the child(ren) are fully aware of the boundaries.

Improving parenting takes time. One of best books I have read on parenting this agegroup is called ‘Its A Jungle’ and is written by Dr Brenda Heyworth, a child psychiatrist. In her book she talks about emotions and the rules of the ‘jungle’ and explains simply how to manage children who provide very challenging behaviours. One of her tips inolves the 5 or 24 solution.  When it is clear emotions are boiling over or particular behaviour has occurred the child has the choice between time out for 5 minutes in his or her room or losing ‘something of value’ for 24 hours.  The key to this is the delivery being analagous to a soccer referee. Non negotiable, calm and when the time is up there is a ‘fresh start’.

Some Dos and Don’ts and some current guidelines.

  • Ensure a fresh start.
  • If you say or do something you regret – apologize, explain why (you were upset) but reaffirm the appropriate boundaries
  • Let the small stuff slide.
  • Learn to negotiate with a teenager about a specific boundary – for instance curfew times can be slowly extended on the proviso they are adhered to.
  • Remember to be a calm role model.
  • Homework is not for you. Let consequences of not doing homework occur. This is part of the learning process
  • Limit screen time. It is easy not to put a television in a child’s room. It is hard to remove it.
  • Electronic gadgets should be turned in at night.
  • You are a parent. Do not confide your personal worries and concerns to your child. If you require support, seek this from another adult.
  • Exercise is just as essential for a child as it is for an adult.
  • Spend some time just being in the vicinity of your child to allow any discussions to materialize




Print Friendly, PDF & Email