Reconnect with your very challenging Teen

Help For Parents of Very Challenging Teens:

If you are struggling to parent a very challenging teen, you are not alone, and there is help!

In this information age where our kids are ruled by their iphones, insta feeds, tic toc, and snapchat, it’s increasingly difficult to do what wise parenting gurus, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate recommend, “Hold On to Your Kids”.

Understanding the constraints of a highly volatile teen brain, reframing the problem, shifting from a Manager to a Consultant, and developing a self care plan, are essential first steps to help parents shift out of adversarial parent teen dynamics.

The Teen Brain’s Developmental Storm

In addition to cultural, peer, and media pressure, the teen brain is undergoing a storm of developmental changes that cause them to push us away in one moment, and need us to be there for them in the next.

The teen brain has an under developed pre frontal cortex, and highly aroused amygdala.

The amygdala is the “fire fighter” part of the brain, and while it’s in charge and the prefrontal cortex is under construction, teens push the gas on risk taking activities but lack an operational internal braking system.

This combination of a hyperactive amygdala, and an underfunctioning prefrontal cortex makes it more difficult for our teens to manage their emotions and impulses, and to prioritize, plan, and make healthy behaviour choices.

Secure Attachment: A Pillar for The Parent Teen Bond

Contemporary attachment research emphasizes the importance of secure attachment in helping parents navigate the perilous journey of parenting a troubled teen:

“The secret of parenting is not what a parent does but rather who the parent is to a child. For a child well attached to us, we are her home base from which to venture into the world, her retreat to fall back on, her fountainhead of inspiration. All the parenting skills in the world cannot compensate for a lack of attachment relationship. All the love in the world cannot get through without the psychological umbilical cord created by a child’s attachment.” (Dr. Gabor Mate and Dr. Gordon Neufeld discuss the concept of attachment in their book Hold On To Your Kids 2014. p.6).

Of course most parents would agree that a close, loving bond with their child is essential. But this can feel impossible when our teen is going off the rails engaging in high risk activities, and defying basic rules and family values.

Self Regulation Strategies

“When it comes to “problem children,” it is best to remember that the problem is the problem, not the child.” – Michael Ungar, I Still Love You: Nine Things Troubled Kids Need from Their Parents

When teens act out, use drugs and alcohol, defy their parents wishes, refuse to go to school or spend time with the family, don’t come home, lie, steal, and fight with family members, understandably parents get very distressed.

When both parents and teens are hijacked by a state of fight or flight, the possibility of healthy communication goes South.

Parents often need help to better understand how to defuse their own reactivity, and get back to calm before trying to communicate with their teen.

Once parents are resourced, conversations with their troubled teen tend to go much smoother.

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when parents themselves grew up with parents who didn’t role model healthy self regulation and communication.

But through education and practice, we can all learn how to take better care of ourselves, navigate conflict more smoothly, and nurture a close, positive bond with our teens.

Barbara Coloroso, a parenting expert, says that there are six critical messages that teens need from their parents:

  • I believe in you
  • I trust you
  • I know you can handle life situations
  • You are listened to
  • You are cared for
  • You are very important to me

Parents are often caught in a catch 22 where this loving, hopeful stance feels impossible when they feel so angry, emotionally depleted, and devastated from the toll their teen’s relentless downward spiral has taken on them, and the family.

Reframe the Problem

Setting boundaries, and providing structure and consequences can feel impossible with a teen who is cold, rejecting, and defiant.

One thing parents can do is avoid externalizing, or internalizing the problem.

For example, when a parent sees the problem as “my teen is a bad kid” (externalizing), or “I’m a bad parent” (internalizing), the relationship between the parent and their teen suffers.

Self blaming leads to feelings of inadequacy and low self worth, and can drive negative, explosive reactions.

Parents often withdraw from their teen to avoid reacting negatively, but this only undermines the parent’s confidence, and their ability to influence their teen.

A cold, withdrawn, hostile teen may look like they don’t love, care, and need you, but they do!



When parents reframe the problem as “the explosive dynamic between us”, they can begin to reflect on what they are doing that contributes to the negative cycle.

Self awareness is empowering.

While we can’t control what others do, we can change what we do.

Parents who stop doing what isn’t working, can be more strategic, and creative in approaching difficult conversations with their teen.

When Lucia’s fifteen year old son, Roman, exploded on her for refusing to buy him cigarettes, she screamed at him, and threatened to kick him out of the house.

As a single mom, Lucia felt very alone and powerless to deal with Roman’s explosive reactions.

Towering over her in his fit of rage, Lucia fought back.

Her amygdala took over to protect her, but over time their explosive dynamic pushed Roman further away.

“You’re ruining your life!” she screamed.

“I quit being your punching bag, Roman. If you don’t shape up, I’m done!” she yelled, and slammed the door.

Lucia felt deeply sad and at a loss about how to restore what was once a loving relationship with her son.

Thoughts like:

  • “He doesn’t love me.
  • I’m trapped.
  • I have to change him.
  • I’m responsible for him.
  • I’m a bad parent.
  • He won’t make it in life.
  • He can’t make good decisions.
  • He can’t follow the rules so he’s a bad kid.
  • He can’t take care of himself”

circled her mind.

These thoughts made Lucia feel ashamed, and reluctant to reach out for help.

Counter Will: A Teen’s Drive For Independence

The more Lucia defined herself as good or bad based on Roman’s behaviour, the more she tried to control his behaviour so that she could feel better about herself. But this only intensified Roman’s “counter will”.

“Counter will” is our universal, natural instinct to do the opposite of what is expected.

A defensive reaction, counter will is triggered by our perception that someone is trying to control and coerce us.

The ability to achieve independence from their parents and establish their autonomy is a key developmental task for teens, so counter will is nature’s way of ensuring that our teen can someday become separate from us, and make choices based upon their own will, and not the will of others.

Though it makes sense that our teen is defiant, disobeys, argues, and refuses to cooperate in an effort to flex their independence, it’s very exasperating and exhausting for parents.

The Iceberg

The iceberg is a good metaphor for understanding that our teen’s behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg for what’s really going on with them.

It’s tempting to fall into negative conclusions, and see our teen’s behaviour as evidence of their inherent badness, or that we have failed as a parent. But these negative conclusions are harmful to our bond with our child.

Instead of taking Roman’s anger personally, Lucia worked on remembering to slow down. She put the brake on her reactive thoughts, and reminded herself that Roman’s angry outburst could be a sign that he’s under stress, and needs help.

Structure, Consequences, and Connection: The Three Legged Stool

In his book “I Still Love You: Nine Things That Troubled Teens Need to Hear From Their Parents”, Michael Ungar uses the metaphor of a three legged stool as the North Star for healthy parenting.

Each leg of the stool is an equal measure of structure, consequences, and connection, but it will always be a little shaky because any given moment our teen will need us to bear more weight on one than the other two.

Rather than immediately launching into her demands, Lucia made a point to connect with Roman.

She gave him time to transition in the morning, and was open when he sought her out.

When she was writing emails for work, and he wandered into her room and lay down on her bed, Lucia took a break from work emails, and asked Roman about things that interest him, such as his weight lifting, and offered to make him something he enjoys eating.

These efforts to connect with Roman strengthened their bond which ultimately gave Lucia more leverage to enforce structure and consequences.

Q-TIP: Quit Taking It Personally

It takes a good diet of parental self care to tolerate a teen’s stormy weather and stay sane.

Part of this is practicing Q-TIP, an acronym for “Quit Taking It Personally”.

This invaluable tool in the teen parent tool kit helps Lucia to stay calm so she can communicate effectively, and be assertive in a healthy way.

“Roman, you are really upset right now. I am going to take some space now, but I do want to talk to you later when we’re both calm again.”

Listening Skills
  • When talking with your teen about something important, give them your undivided attention by putting away your phone, facing them, and listening attentively, and with an open mind.
  • Try to be an active listener.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Use the “I perspective”
When you are both calm, follow these five steps to build an effective “I” statement:

1. Describe the behaviour you want changed:

ex: “When you yell at me to buy you cigarettes…”

2. Say how you feel:

ex: “I feel attacked and overwhelmed…”

3. State clearly the value that you want to impart to your teen:

ex: “I’d like for us to treat each other with kindness and respect”

4.  Acknowledge your teen’s need for independence and state what you want done:

ex: “I realize that you experience withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have cigarettes. But you are still responsible for your feelings. It’s not okay for you to explode on me when I won’t buy you cigarettes. I care about your health, and as you know since you started smoking you’ve been sick more often, and have missed more school and soccer. If you’re willing, I will buy you a patch to quit smoking, but if you insist on continuing to smoke, you’re going to have to get a job so that you can buy your own cigarettes.”

5. Show trust

ex: “I’ll leave it to you to make up your mind about what you want to do.”


It’s important to remember that the teen brain is uniquely vulnerable to impulsive, explosive reactions. Reframe the problem is not that your teen is ‘bad”, or that you are a “bad parent”; the problem is the reactive distress cycle that hijacks your interactions. If what you’re doing makes things with your teen more explosive, do something different. Defuse your teen’s counter will, and strengthen the three legged stool of connection, structure and consequences to restore mutual respect and cooperation. Remember Q-TIP: Quit Taking It Personally, and never lose  hope that your youth shares your values! Practice the 5 essential steps to build an effective “I” statement, and convey six critical messages to nurture a positive bond with your teen:

  • I believe in you
  • I trust you
  • I know you can handle life situations
  • You are listened to
  • You are cared for
  • You are very important to me



Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel Siegel (here’s a video by him

I Still Love You: Nine Things Troubled Kids Need from Their Parents by Michael Unger.

How to Deal With Your Acting-Up Teenager by Robert T. Bayard and Jean Bayard

The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene

Parenting Coaching for you and your spouse, especially if your conflict is harming your child, and while going through separation or divorce:

For info on what a parenting coach helps with, check out:

To find a Parenting Coach, Check out


Parenting Support Groups offered through the Boys and Girls Club BC (BGCBC),

Get Support through Foundry BC, a province-wide network of integrated health and wellness services for young people ages 12-24:

Parenting Videos:

Don’t wait to get your teen help with recovery from harmful substance use: