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Why Do They Act That Way? - Revised and Updated

A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen

About The Book

This anniversary edition—revised and updated—goes beyond raging hormones and peer pressure to explain why adolescents act the way they do and what parents and teachers can do about it.

Why Do They Act That Way? was the first book to explain the scientific, brain-based reasons behind teens’ impulsive behavior, lack of focus, self-consciousness, territoriality, fatigue, and their quickness to anger and take risks—to name just a few common teen problems.

Now, award-winning psychologist Dr. David Walsh has updated this classic with the latest research into the adolescent brain and the new challenges that they face with social media and the 24/7 online world. With practical advice and reassuring guidance, Walsh provides realistic solutions for dealing with every day and major challenges. As a parent, psychologist, coach, and trusted expert, Dr. Walsh offers the best advice to help adolescents thrive and parents survive.


One: Making Sense of Adolescence

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.

Socrates, Fifth Century BC

Probably the best way to describe adolescence is to say that it begins at puberty and ends...sometime. That may sound silly and unscientific, but it's the most accurate description of adolescence that I've come across. It is vague precisely because adolescence is an in-between stage determined not so much by what it is but by what it is not. Adolescence is not childhood, and it is not adulthood; it is the period in between those two stages. And because today's kids get through childhood faster than kids did in the past, their transition to adulthood now seems to be taking longer than ever before.

The gap between teens and adults seems to be growing too. Three teenagers I spoke with not long ago told me that adults move away from them on the bus when they get on. "Why do you think they do that?" I asked.

"Because they're afraid of us," offered one boy.

His friend disagreed. "I think it's because they don't like us."

The proverbial generation gap is fast becoming a chasm. It's not easy being an adolescent. Just consider some of the things they face.

  • They have to handle sexually maturing bodies that give rise to strong urges.
  • They have to try to figure out and manage volatile and powerful emotions.
  • They have to fit into a complex social network.
  • They have to deal with immense peer pressure.
  • They have to deal with wildly changing moods.
  • They have to decide how they are going to respond to the temptation of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.
  • They have to figure out what their values are going to be.
  • They have to renegotiate relationships with their parents.
  • They have to get through school.
  • They have to figure out how to get enough sleep.
  • They have to begin to plan their future.

This list can get a lot longer. Any way you look at it, adolescents have a lot of balls in the air, and because they can't always handle their juggling acts with the utmost grace, the people around them -- especially their parents -- bear the brunt of teens' frustration. Over the years I've come to understand that the adolescent years are the most difficult for parents and their teens.

Two years ago I received a call from a friend. "Do you have time for a cup of coffee?" he asked.

"Sure, when would you like to get together?"

"Right now?" was his instant reply.

Thirty minutes later we were sitting down in a neighborhood coffee shop. With tears in his eyes Steve unloaded the worry, sadness, and anger he was feeling about his fourteen-year-old son, Kevin. A particularly nasty argument over a curfew had erupted earlier in the evening, capping several days of simmering conflict. "I called you because I'm at my wits' end. I don't understand what's happening, and I don't know if we'll be able to get through whatever comes next."

I have known Kevin since he was born. He grew up a bright, energetic, happy kid who loved doing things with his mom and dad. He was friendly, cooperative, talkative, and always game for some adventure. As I drank my coffee, Steve described Kevin's personality transformation. Almost overnight, Steve explained, Kevin had gone from happy to sullen, from talkative to quiet, from easygoing to hostile.

"Now it seems like everything turns into an argument. The chip on his shoulder is huge."

His eyes dropped to his coffee cup, where he was fiddling with a spoon. Finally he said, in a shaky voice, "This is so hard. I don't know what to do."

Adults from Socrates to my friend Steve have been perplexed and challenged by adolescents for thousands of years. Even the most mild-mannered kids pose difficulties for their parents, from needing to stock the pantry to meet their growth spurts to figuring out what to do when they sleep until noon. For the adults living and working with the adolescents who take a more volatile course to adulthood, the situations that arise -- dangerous accidents, teen drinking, drug use, and run-ins with the police, to name a few -- can inspire hair-pulling anger and head-shaking bewilderment. Adults talk about each new generation of adolescents as evidence that the world is falling apart.

When you think about it, the rift between adults and adolescents is strange because every adult was once an adolescent. Everyone who has made it to adulthood remembers (if he or she wants to remember) how hard it can be to deal with the peer pressure, the physical changes of puberty, and worries about the future -- who you are and what to do with your life -- that are so characteristic of adolescence. You probably recall your own confusion and discovery, excitement and frustration, happiness and heartbreak during your teen years, but you and other adults are still no doubt surprised by each new generation of adolescents. They seem lazier, angrier, less capable of thinking through the consequences of their actions, and more willing to drive the adults in their life insane.

"I would never have done that when I was her age," we parents think. Maybe you wouldn't have, but a few of your friends probably did. Insolence and door slamming are not new inventions. The world is not getting worse; it's staying exactly the same. Adults and adolescents have always had their difficulties getting along with one another.

Adults have so much trouble with kids on their way to adulthood because adolescents are such a bundle of paradoxes. They are fun, idealistic, energetic, altruistic, and enthusiastic. They are excited by new things and often willing to try new activities. They are curious about the world and eager to interact with new people. They may have serious, informed, adult conversations with you, but they are also prone to angry outbursts, defiant acts, foolish risk taking, and inexplicable plummets into despair. They can become fire-breathing dragons in the blink of an eye, just because you said something about their hair. They can stay out until late at night without warning and lie about where they've been. One moment you can feel connected and comfortable with your teen, and the next you may wonder who replaced your child with a demon. Just when you think you've got an adolescent pegged -- he's too timid, he's too aggressive, he's just right -- he'll prove you wrong. Knowing what a teen will do next is like knowing the sound of one hand clapping: it's impossible. Most confusing of all, they do all of these things in the course of a single year, week, or even day.

Because of the challenging nature of adolescence, many parents and teachers find it easy to think the worst about teenagers. Years ago when my son Brian was in high school, he and several of his friends were in the alley behind their friend Mark's house playing basketball, horsing around, acting rowdy, and generally having a great time. They were all nice kids, although some of them looked a little rough around the edges. As they played basketball, one of Mark's neighbors, Alice, noticed them. The whole block probably noticed they were there, with all the noise they were making, but Alice had just realized her wallet was missing, and she knew whom to blame.

It happened like this. Mark's father, Jerry, was in the house reading the paper after work when the phone rang. It was Alice.

"Your son and his friends stole my wallet," she said.

"They stole your wallet?" Jerry said. "What do you mean, Alice?"

"I just came in the back door with my groceries, and then I went upstairs for a moment. When I came back down, I noticed I'd left the door unlocked and my wallet was gone. I remember setting it on the kitchen table when I came in the door. One of them stole it."

Jerry was taken aback. To his knowledge these guys hadn't caused any serious trouble before. Had she seen one of them take it? No, she said, but it was there one moment and not the next. They had stolen it. What's more, she said, she was calling Phil, another neighbor who worked for the police department, and she was going to get him involved. Then she hung up.

Jerry went out back to talk to the boys. He told them about Alice's call and asked to hear their side of the story. Boiled down, their side was that Alice was crazy, they'd been playing ball the whole time, they weren't thieves, and none of them had taken the wallet. They were angry at the insinuation that they had stolen and indignant that Jerry might believe the story. He assured them that he didn't think any of them would do such a thing, then went back inside to call Phil.

"They say they didn't take it, Phil. I believe them," Jerry said.

"Well, let me talk to Alice again," he said. "Maybe there's something she forgot to tell us." Jerry hung up and tried to go back to the paper, but he was too worked up, so he paced around the house, checking the back window to make sure the boys were still out there.

A few minutes later the phone rang again. It was Phil. Alice had just received a call from the grocery store. She'd left her wallet on the checkout counter. When Jerry went out back to tell the boys they'd been exonerated, they were relieved to hear that the wallet had been found but still smarting from the accusation that they'd taken it.

Alice was wrong to jump to conclusions about Brian and his friends, but it's hard to blame her for suspecting a rowdy group of adolescent boys. The concerns adults have about adolescents are not without basis. The news media are filled with reports about youth crime, gangs, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drugs, and other unsavory adolescent pastimes. I have to admit, when I walk alone down a street at night and see a group of adolescent boys walking toward me, I sometimes get a little nervous. They're probably good kids out for a stroll, but that twinge of fear can still creep in on occasion.

Adolescence is a lot like the terrible twos, when children also get volatile, impulsive, unpredictable, and frustrating to deal with. The mood swings, the temper tantrums, the infatuation with the word no, the foolish risks -- sound a lot like adolescence? Of course there are a couple of big differences. First, adolescents are bigger, stronger, and smarter than two-year-olds. This means they're harder to deal with. Second, the stakes are much higher for adolescents. The trouble they get into can be a lot more serious than screaming in a restaurant or falling off a couch. The push and pull of this time of life can fray anyone's nerves, regardless of age, and may cause even the most mild-mannered adults to think occasional dark thoughts about adolescents.

The purpose of this book is to prevent and cure those dark thoughts and to help you see more clearly what your teenager is going through. Adolescent behavior is linked to big changes going on in the brain, and once you know what these are, you can help your kid navigate the common dangers and challenges in his or her life. You can keep your own sanity and composure in the face of teenage emotional and behavioral upheavals.

The Parent Survival Kit: Appreciating Adolescents

To help you get started, in many chapters you will find a "Parent Survival Kit." It contains the knowledge, attitudes, and skills you need for the adventure of raising teenagers. The more items you find you already have in the survival kit, the better prepared you'll be to cope with your kids' teen years. A well-stocked kit will also help you maintain perspective, balance, and peace of mind, and you'll be better able to help your adolescent sons or daughters survive the many conflicts and contradictions they'll face.

The "Parent Survival Kit" asks a set of questions to help you assess how well prepared you are in a particular category. The more you answer yes, the better equipped you will be. If you don't answer yes very often, you'll find out later in the chapter how to get to yes.

Here's the first set of questions to help you evaluate yourself in the first survival category: understanding and liking adolescents.

Parent Survival Kit: Appreciating Adolescents

Yes No

1. I like to meet and talk with adolescents.

2. I look forward to spending time with my kids.

3. I understand that some turmoil during adolescence is normal.

4. I know I need to be flexible and patient when my child is a teenager.

5. I understand that adolescents face many challenges.

6. It's not easy being a teenager today.

7. I'm confident that I can be a good parent for my teenager.

If you found yourself agreeing with the statements in the survival kit, you already have the empathy that is a key attribute for parenting teenagers. If you found yourself answering no to some items, those answers may change by the time you finish this book. If you return to these questions after reading the following pages, which explain why adolescents act the way they do, you may find yourself saying yes. I think you'll find yourself developing appreciation and understanding of your teen, which will help you see how you can be flexible and patient in your reactions to them.

I actually like adolescents. I always have. Maybe it's because I've been lucky enough to spend tens of thousands of hours with them. I was a high school teacher for ten years and a coach of both boys' and girls' sports for more than twenty. I coached basketball, track, and cross-country at the high school level, and I coached baseball, soccer, and softball at the youth level. When my own kids' park teams couldn't find a coach, I was often recruited to fill in. Sometimes I coached sports I didn't completely understand. I remember asking my son's summer soccer team, "Okay, one more time. What is offsides?" The kids I coached were full of energy and life, ambition and hope. They played hard and mostly well with each other, supporting and encouraging fellow teammates.

I've also worked as a high school counselor and, after I received my doctorate, as a psychologist. For more than twenty years I directed inpatient and outpatient mental health and chemical dependency services for children and adolescents at Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis. Eight years ago I founded the National Institute on Media and the Family. As the president and main spokesman for the organization, I have contact with thousands of kids, teachers, and parents every year.

I'm also the father of three children who made it through adolescence and into adulthood. Some of the lessons I learned helping my own three kids through adolescence were the result of trial and error, which this book, I hope, will help you avoid, but you may need to make some mistakes before you get things on the right track with your own kids. Sometimes you may even need to give your kids tough medicine -- because you love them.

I have worked with all types of adolescents in all types of settings. I've spent time with straight-A students headed for the best colleges and with altruistic, dedicated kids involved in service projects. I've also been the counselor with whom kids are sentenced to serve time after they make a mistake or run into some bad luck -- troubled and court-ordered kids who were up to their ears in drugs, crime, and violence. And of course I've worked with tons of kids who were somewhere in the middle.

One of the toughest students at the school where I worked was a girl named Mary, who had committed a series of offenses including truancy, drinking at a school-sponsored dance, and arguments with teachers. Her accumulated transgressions put her at risk of expulsion. In April of her junior year she was told that to stay in school she had to meet with the school counselor every week. I was that counselor, and though I met with Mary weekly, I got nowhere with her for almost two months. Despite my best efforts she was stonily silent or barely tolerant in her answers to my questions. June rolled around and toward the end of our final meeting, I figured I had nothing to lose and risked telling her my real thoughts about her instead of trying to get her to open up.

"Do you know what I think is going on, Mary?" I asked.

"What do you think is going on?" she replied, bored.

"I think that beneath all the tough stuff, you're really hurting and scared. Scared that no one cares about you. You keep everyone at bay with your tough act because if no one can get close you can't get hurt." By then I'd learned that it's always the toughest kids who are hurting the most.

She sneered, unimpressed. Our time was up and she left my office without looking back. I thought, "I lost on this one." The school year ended, summer came and went, and the new school year began. Since I was no longer part of Mary's sentence, I wasn't having my weekly meetings with her. I always went out of my way to greet her in the hallway, and underneath her tough exterior she actually seemed pleased that I did. It was in October that she came by my office. She stood there for a moment in the doorway. She clearly had something on her mind, so I invited her in and closed the door.

"I've been thinking about what you said last year," she said. "Maybe you're right."

That was the beginning of our first real conversation. Over the following weeks Mary told me her story. Her mother had died when she was only eight. Worse, she was convinced her father could not care less about her. I had met her father once during parent conferences. He was a very successful businessman and had seemed like a friendly, decent guy. I thought some counseling with Mary and her dad could really help the situation. She reluctantly agreed to come to a meeting if I would schedule it with her dad. I reached Mary's father on the phone that night and he seemed open and friendly. Of course he could make it.

"Mary isn't in any trouble, is she?"

I assured him that was not the case. We scheduled a time for an afternoon later in the week. The meeting was set for after school hours so that Mary wouldn't have to worry about being embarrassed by someone's seeing her father meeting with the school counselor.

On the afternoon of the meeting, she was in my office fifteen minutes early, as nervous as a cat. As the hour arrived, she started to shake her head and speak her thoughts out loud.

"He's not coming," she said. "He's not going to make it."

I assured her that her father had said he would be there.

"No. I know him. He's not going to show."

Sadly, she was right. He didn't show. And as the minutes passed, Mary's tough shell began to reappear. The vulnerable girl I'd been talking with for the last few weeks was being replaced by the distant one I'd sat with in silence the previous spring.

When I finally caught up with her father by phone that night, he was as affable as ever and apologized profusely. "I am so sorry. I got caught in a meeting and it completely slipped my mind. For sure, we will reschedule." I told him how disappointed Mary had been. He said he would talk with her and call me with a good time to have the meeting. I stressed that I thought it was very important that he and Mary meet with me.

He never came in for the appointment, despite my repeated requests.

Mary was right about her father, and I think I was right about her. Her father's neglect had taught her that she had to shut everyone out to protect herself. Mary's father was probably unaware of how much he was hurting his daughter and that many of her behavior problems were caused, in part, by the fact that he wouldn't pay attention to her. Mary and I met intermittently during her senior year and we had some good conversations, but as far as I know, the important talk with her dad never happened. That's too bad, because a better relationship with her father would have made adolescence a lot easier for Mary. Hers didn't have to be as hard for her as it was.

News about the Teen Brain

In this book I offer a number of ways to help adolescents, particularly by setting up new, better ways of listening to them and communicating with them. Throughout I stress three principles of parenting -- connection, guidance, and love. Mary's problems, her father, and her behavior were neon signs that spelled trouble, but adolescents aren't always so easy to read. Until recently we had no idea why adolescents sometimes act the way they do. We still can't explain everything, but thanks to the latest discoveries in neuroscience, we can explain adolescence better than ever before. The findings of brain research help us understand adolescent behavior. Seemingly unrelated behaviors, like sleeping late, acting territorial, bursting into tears for no reason, and taking risks, make much more sense when you know what's happening inside the adolescent brain. Better yet, this new understanding of the adolescent brain can help us see how to be more helpful to the teens in our lives.

I have been sharing this groundbreaking research with parents and professionals in seminars and conversations over the past three years. Every single time I begin to explain the adolescent brain, teachers are empowered by this new information and parents are relieved and hopeful. Most importantly, everyone gains a new understanding and empathy for adolescents.

Stories about real adolescents illustrate how the science of the brain works in everyday scenarios, how it comes to life in common situations that you're likely to recognize. Having a scientific perspective on the biological challenges of adolescence will help you interact more objectively with your child, maintain your cool, and offer guidance that can improve his or her life. As a parent or teacher, when you finally know what is really happening inside and outside teen brains, you will be able to do a better job of helping your teens get through this in-between stage. You'll be able to help them survive...and thrive.

I have made my share of mistakes with adolescents, as any of my kids and students would be happy to tell you, so please view the suggestions I make in this book through the lens of your own knowledge of your own kids and your experience caring for them. What is helpful for one adolescent may not necessarily be helpful for another. Trying to help teenagers is a process of experimenting with solutions. You need to figure out for yourself what works and what doesn't.

When my older son complained about my parenting decisions, I often joked with him, "I'm sorry, but you're the first one. I'm still learning on the job." What I thought I had learned from my experience with him didn't always help with my next son, however, because the two of them have different personalities and temperaments. And then just when I thought that maybe I had parenting down, along came my daughter. Parenting each kid was an adventure. Most of the adventure was fun, but some of it was frustrating and scary. I hope that my suggestions will help you take advantage of the fun and reduce the frustration and fright. If nothing else, gaining an understanding of how adolescent brain development makes teens act the way they do will help you devise strategies for helping your kids.

My friend Steve was one of the first people with whom I shared the new understanding of the adolescent brain that I present in this book. Having seen Kevin frequently during the previous six months, I knew that he was growing a lot, about an inch every month. I explained to Steve that the dramatic changes on the outside were being matched by equally dramatic changes in Kevin's brain. "My bet is that parts of his brain are doing somersaults. I think he's as confused as you are. So before you pack him up for boarding school or lock him in a room with a shrink, take a step back and get some perspective on what's going on." Steve and I talked about some strategies.

Not too long ago I asked Steve how things were going with Kevin.

Steve smiled. "We still have our rough days, but things are so much better. You know, Dave, all parents should know what's going on in the adolescent brain. It's still no cakewalk with Kevin, but knowing what he's going through really helps."

No Longer a Child but Not Yet an Adult

Adolescence is one of most challenging periods for parents like Steve because so much is in flux. Compare a photograph of a girl taken when she is in eighth grade with another taken at her high school graduation. In many instances you would be hard pressed to tell it was the same kid. Besides obvious changes in hairstyles and clothing, dramatic physical changes occur in a short amount of time during adolescence. Maybe she's taller, maybe she's thinner, or maybe her body has gone from a girl's to a woman's. The shape of her nose could even have changed. In four years adults generally just look a little older, but teens are transformed into what appear to be entirely new people.

Growth spurts and the changes that puberty causes are the most obvious physical differences between children and adolescents. A boy or girl enters adolescence as a child and leaves an adult. The transition from childhood to maturity is nothing short of a metamorphosis. Just as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly by living for a while cramped in a cocoon, kids must go through the awkwardness of adolescence to become fully grown up.

Because the teenage years are an in-between stage, it's sometimes awkward and difficult to know how to treat adolescents. They are no longer children, but they are also not yet adults. Many of them have trouble being in this in-between stage. The rules, the roles, and the roads to travel are either indistinct or too various to count. The in-between stage leaves everyone guessing what is appropriate and what is healthy.

Today the in-between stage may be more difficult than ever. Research shows that adolescence is getting longer. Adolescence begins with the physiological event of puberty, which is occurring earlier and earlier. In the nineteenth century the first signs of puberty were seen in an average kid at the age of seventeen. Today the average age is twelve. Different theories attempt to explain why puberty is starting earlier than it used to. One is that children now have better nutrition: a well-nourished body is better able to begin puberty than a malnourished one. Although thankfully there are not as many malnourished children as there used to be, more children are overweight than ever before; research has also suggested that children who are overweight are more likely to start puberty earlier. Another theory is that food additives, processed foods, and growth hormones fed to animals that we eat may speed maturation. And one more contends that the many sexual images that children see on TV and in the movies stimulate the production of sex hormones, which tell the child's body that it is time to begin to develop sexually.

Because we do not have conclusive proof one way or another, it is not possible to say what causes the early onset of puberty. One of these theories may be correct, or some combination of them, or something else entirely. Whatever the explanation, puberty is starting earlier.

While puberty is the easy physiological marker for the beginning of adolescence, the end of adolescence is fuzzier. It is difficult to nail down biologically but can be defined socially as the taking on of an adult role in society. The end of adolescence is also coming later in life.

In previous generations, completing grade school or high school was the end of formal education. At that point most young people got a job to help support their family or started their own household. In today's highly complex, technological society, most young people need a postsecondary education or further training. As a result, many are not taking on adult roles, steady jobs, or real responsibilities until they are as old as twenty-five.

In the recent past adolescence began around age thirteen and ended around age seventeen. Today adolescence can last a full fifteen years. Managing an in-between stage is challenging enough for four years, but having to navigate this awkward phase for more than a decade is really difficult. By the time most people reach adulthood, they've spent more than half their lives as adolescents.

The Physical Changes in the Teen Brain

Let's return for a moment to my example of the photograph. Between eighth grade and high school graduation, a teen undergoes visible external changes matched by biological changes on the inside, particularly in the brain. For a long time the adolescent brain was believed to be very similar to an adult brain -- a finished product. The body continued to change through adolescence, but the brain seemed fully grown, because the adolescent brain is actually the same size as an adult's. A newborn baby's brain is only about three quarters of a pound and triples in size by his first birthday. Then it grows to three pounds by the time a child goes to kindergarten. It's easy to imagine that big changes are under way in the brain of a small child because the organ itself is growing so dramatically, but knowing that the adolescent brain is physically equal to an adult brain, scientists believed until recently that it had finished its development.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, generally regarded as the founder of developmental psychology, has also influenced most views of the adolescent brain. Piaget identified the stages of cognitive development and dubbed the last stage of development -- from eleven years to sixteen years, when a child learns to think abstractly -- "formal operational thinking." Such thinking included using complex systems of symbols, like algebra, and understanding concepts like morality and justice. Because adolescents can do these things, psychologists assumed that teens basically had adult brains that simply needed more experience to become fully mature.

Anyone who has ever argued with fifteen-year-olds knows they can think logically and abstractly. They can come up with extremely ingenious, complex, logical arguments for why you must give them a ride to a friend's house at ten o'clock at night. Piaget's picture of the adolescent brain's power wasn't wrong, but it was incomplete, because he was only concerned with the ability to reason. Complex reasoning is an extremely important function of the adult brain, but it is only one of many things that the brain does.

Scientists now know that the adolescent brain is not a finished product but a work in progress. Even though the teen brain does not alter in size or shape, a truly astounding amount of growth is still under way. In recent decades new technology has enabled scientists to peer inside living, working brains without damaging them, using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), PET scans (positron emission tomography), fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), and SPECT (single photon emission computerized tomography). With these powerful machines scientists can even watch specific brain cells in action. In the following chapters you'll learn more about adolescents than anyone knew just ten years ago.

Knowing why kids act as they do isn't quite enough though, if you're dealing with anger, rebelliousness, or rudeness. I'll give you some strategies for coping with and even changing these challenging aspects of teen behavior. The fact is that teens sometimes have a tough time getting along with themselves, let alone with their parents and family.

When I was a high school counselor, I also taught one or two classes each semester, and with daily contact I got to know those students quite well. Some would often visit my counseling office just for a chat, sometimes to sort some things out, other times to get help working through some really tough issues -- like arguing, divorcing, or alcoholic parents; domestic violence; or even sexual abuse.

Tim was a student who dropped in periodically to sort things out. As he grew to trust me, our conversations about sports or classes would evolve into deeper discussions, and Tim became more forthright about some of the confusion he was feeling -- confident and happy some days, hypersensitive on others. On the touchy days Tim would get very upset when teased by his friends. He never let on to his buddies that their jokes bothered him, but he often descended into a funk for hours or days after being the butt of some passing wisecrack. Other times he found himself getting angry over little things and going from feeling great to feeling down, all in the space of an hour, seemingly for no reason.

Tim was also confused by the dramatic change in his relationship with his parents. Close to both his mother and father since he had been little, he felt fortunate that his family didn't have the tougher problems of many of his friends. But that was changing too. Tim felt irritated by many of the things his parents said, even resenting his father's cheerful "Good morning" at breakfast. Sometimes he found himself making snide or mean comments to his parents; later he would feel guilty. Although Tim's friends told him how lucky he was to have such nice parents, he felt simultaneously proud of and embarrassed by them.

One day in a class discussion I gave the students the following question: "If someone gave you a million dollars, what would be the first thing you would do with it?"

Tim was the first to answer. "I would give my parents a new house and then send them on a vacation to anywhere they wanted to go. They work so hard and never do anything for themselves."

After class I mentioned to Tim how surprised I was with his answer, given our earlier conversation in my office. His response was that he had surprised himself with his answer.

At parent conferences a week later, Jan and Charles, Tim's parents, stopped by to talk about Tim's progress in my class. I told them their son was doing fine. They were relieved because communication with him had been difficult and Tim wasn't sharing much about his classes. Before they left, I told them about the discussion in class the week before. When I shared that Tim had immediately responded that he would buy them a new house and would pay for them to have a vacation of their dreams, Jan's eyes filled with tears.

"Did he really say that?" she asked.

"He did. You know he really loves you two a lot."

"Boy, do I need to hear that right now. I feel like our relationship with him is completely disintegrating. We have so many arguments and he seems to be so angry with us all the time."

"Sometimes adolescents have to push you away for a while so they can figure out who they are," I responded. "But your relationship with Tim is going to survive. The thing to remember is that all of this is as confusing to Tim as it is to you."

Even when teens are difficult, it's important to remember that your kids are still your kids. Because Tim had been such a sweet kid, the teenage rudeness and anger came as quite a shock to his parents and they were disheartened. This happens in many families. The whole family gets along great when the kids are young, but when the going gets tough in the teenage years, one or both of the parents is demoralized and asks, "How could my child have become so rude, angry, and rebellious?" or "Maybe the connection I thought we had was just a figment of my imagination. What did I do wrong?"

It is completely natural to have these thoughts while parenting a volatile adolescent, especially if the change in your child is unexpected and dramatic. Even if just getting along is a challenge, however, you can't afford to stop parenting. Don't give up. If you continue to give your teens the connection, guidance, and love they need, even when you have trouble believing they're related to you, then you both will get through. It may take a few days, months, or years, but you'll find that your actions will make a difference. Eventually you'll reestablish a loving relationship with your teen or adult child. It does take persistence and consistency in your messages and behavior, however.

Disillusionment is not the only mental trap for parents. Other parents may dread their child's adolescent years with so much foreboding and pessimism that their fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parenting teenagers can be a tough job, but shepherding our children from youth to adulthood is not all drudgery. Frankly, the teenage years offer some of the most rewarding and exciting moments in a parent's life. To assume that our children will transform into unrecognizable creatures as soon as they hit puberty is to do them an enormous disservice. They are the same people they have always been, and they still need their parents to expect the best of them. At a time when a kid feels uncomfortable in his own skin, the last thing he needs is for his unconditional support -- his parents -- to treat him like an alien.

As a parent of a teen, don't be surprised if the road gets bumpy. On the other hand, don't look for trouble around every bend. As with so many other things, parenting an adolescent is a matter of balance.

Striking That Parental Balance

In the coming chapters I often rely on generalizations to describe adolescents. Your preteen or teen, however, is unique, with his or her own temperament and individual circumstances. Each teen will grow and change in his or her own way. So as you read the stories, examples, and scientific explanations in this book, you'll have to decide if and how they apply to the adolescent you know.

Emotional ups and downs, conflict, and communication problems are common during adolescence, but you don't want to respond to every difficult situation or conflict or change with "They'll grow out of it." You need to decide when to intervene to help your adolescent make his or her way to adulthood. While your child will most likely experience a normal adolescence, you do need to be on the lookout for extreme problems. In the course of this book I will elaborate on some mental health issues. Problems like severe depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and eating disorders often have warning signs. Don't ignore them. The behavior of some adolescents can be so challenging -- even if they don't have a serious psychological condition -- that it can overwhelm a parent's skills and resources. Although rebelliousness and anger are common among adolescents, if these characteristics escalate into violent outbursts, cruelty toward siblings, extreme disrespect, and utter defiance, you need to seek professional help for your child. A good counselor can help you sort out the normal from the serious, facilitate better communication, and suggest practical strategies to get things back on track. You might first look for help at your child's school. Teachers, counselors, and school social workers understand adolescents, and since they know your son or daughter, they may have some very good insights. They may also know which local professionals would be the best fit for your family. If you seek help from a counselor, look for good chemistry between you and between the counselor and your child. This is key, so don't hesitate to interview more than one or to seek a second opinion.

What Is Your Parenting Style?

All of us have a style of parenting that includes different beliefs, attitudes, strategies, and tactics. Children don't arrive in the world with an owner's manual, so we have to decide quickly how we are going to respond to the thousands of different situations and challenges we face. To make things even more complicated, we need to keep adapting our style as our kids mature. For example, a ten-minute time-out for misbehavior makes sense for a five-year-old but is inappropriate for a teenager.

Among the influences that shape our style, none is more important than our own experiences as children. I was conducting a counseling session with fifteen-year-old Bill and his mother. After listing all Bill's shortcomings, Connie leaned back and sighed, "It doesn't make any difference how often I hit him, he just doesn't change." At first I thought she was joking, but the look on her face convinced me she was serious. When I asked her to tell me more about how she dealt with Bill when he misbehaved, it became clear that slapping and hitting him were her mainstays of discipline. This method was misguided for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Bill was nine inches taller and seventy-five pounds heavier than she.

I asked her if she thought hitting Bill was a good idea. "No, not really," she replied. "It worked when he was little, but he's gotten so big, I can't even hurt the big lunk anymore!" When I asked her how she came to rely on hitting Bill for discipline, she responded without hesitation. "That's the way my father raised me. All of us kids would get a whack whenever we'd step out of line or mouth off. When Bill's father left us before he was a year old, I realized it was all up to me. I can remember my dad telling me to make sure Bill always knew who was in charge. He explained how spanking was a good teacher. I've always been able to keep Bill in line until the last couple of years. Now he won't listen to me, and he's getting into all kinds of trouble."

Like so many of us, Connie adopted the parenting style she grew up with. She may not have liked it as a child, but it was familiar to her. We all have a tendency to resort to the familiar, especially when we are under stress. I know that I have surprised myself on occasion by repeating things my parents said or did.

We will examine the topic of parenting styles further in chapter 4 and see how different styles work with teens. The first step, however, is to become aware of your own style and the forces that helped shape it. Here are some questions to help you do that.

Think back to your relationship with your parents when you were a teenager.

  • Do you think your parents enjoyed being with you and your siblings or friends when you were a teen?
  • How much time did your parents spend with you?
  • Did your parents take an interest in what you were doing in and out of school?
  • Were your parents easy to talk to?
  • Would you describe your relationship with your parents as warm, cold, or something in between?
  • Did your parents give you some space and independence?
  • Did your parents usually agree when it came to rules and discipline?
  • Did your parents share parenting responsibilities?
  • How did your parents handle discipline?
  • Did either of your parents use physical punishment?
  • Were your parents lax, strict, or somewhere in between?
  • Was it okay to make mistakes in your family?
  • Were the rules clear when you were a teenager?
  • How were disagreements handled between you and your parents?
  • What was your curfew when you were a teenager?
  • Did your parents ever call you names or put you down?
  • Did your parents listen to you?
  • What did you argue about most with your parents when you were a teen?






Alcohol or drugs





Now go back over these same questions again, but pretend you are your own son or daughter. How do your kid's answers compare with your own?

What did you learn?

  • How is your parenting style like your parents'?
  • How is your parenting style different from your parents'?
  • What parts of your parents' style would you like to keep?
  • What parts of your parents' style would you like to change?

Use these questions to examine your own parenting style. I'm sure you'll discover that you have some parts of your style that you want to keep, other parts that you want to modify, and still others that you might want to scrap. To change, you will need to

1. Become aware of what you need to change.

2. Consciously choose how you want to act.

3. Repeat it until it becomes comfortable.

Now pause and think about these two questions, with which I will conclude most chapters.

What do I want to continue?

What do I want to change?

Dos and Don'ts

These dos and don'ts are suggestions -- good starting points for developing an effective style for parenting adolescents.


  • Stay in touch with your adolescent's teachers.
  • Attend parent conferences and school events tokeep communication open.
  • Compare notes with other parents.
  • Get to know your son's or daughter's friends and their parents.
  • Learn as much as you can about adolescent growth and development to gain a realistic perspective on your child's behavior.
  • Refresh your memory of your own adolescence. It does wonders for understanding your kids.


  • Don't panic if things get rocky with your preteens or teens. They may be having trouble; it doesn't mean they're going off the deep end. If you pay attention, you should be able to tell if the situation gets serious.
  • While tolerance and patience are essential, don't become a doormat for disrespectful behavior.
  • Don't ignore warning signs of potentially serious problems, such as depression, alcohol or drug abuse, eating disorders, or extreme and persistent anger.

What do I want to continue?

What do I want to change?

Copyright © 2004 by David Walsh, Ph.D.

About The Author


David Walsh, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading authorities on children, teens, parenting, family life, and the impact of technology on children’s health and development. He founded the internationally renowned National Institute on Media and the Family. He is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Monica. They have three adult children and five grandchildren. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (November 1, 2007)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743274821

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Raves and Reviews

"A powerful, practical book on the teenage brain. Walsh is a storyteller with the gifts of simplicity and clarity. This book is an easy read, but its message is fresh, nuanced, and important. I recommend it to all parents who ask themselves, 'Why do they act this way?'"
-- Mary Pipher, Ph.D., author of Reviving Ophelia

"You'll finish it feeling as if you've just had coffee with someone who is not only entertaining and enlightening but who knows exactly how it feels to be the mom or dad of a twenty-first-century teen."
-- Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., author of Surviving Ophelia

"Parents will find the book immensely informative,reassuring, and useful. I highly recommend it!"
-- Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of Driven to Distraction and The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness

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