"As adolescents move through middle school and high school, some adults expect them to automatically make mature decisions, as if these external events [puberty] magically grant adolescents adult-like thinking skills.  This is a recipe for future conflict; adults become disappointed and teenagers feel misunderstood..."  To read more on the article by Terence & Eileen Houlihan, please click here

Terence Houlihan speaking to high school teachers in Akron, OH, 2013.

Entries in parenting teens (3)


"When teens feel like you "get" them, you've "got" them" -Terence Houlihan

-By Terence J. Houlihan

In my conversations with parents of teenagers over the years, I've heard a common (and real) concern: "I feel like I'm losing my daughter/son."  I could do a quick piece on cognitive restructuring and inform parents that they are not losing their child; the relationship is changing and they are no longer parenting a small child.  That is very true, and accepting that reality takes time, but there are some practices adults and parents can put into place immediately if they want to improve their relationships with teens or at least, understand more about them.

One of the greatest sources of frustration in any relationship is the belief that the person to whom we are talking doesn't understand our perspective.  We can explain our position this way or thay way...we may even have another person explain it for us.  Unfortunately, nothing seems to work.  Often times, this is exactly how teens perceive their parents and other adults when it comes to understanding them: they just don't "get" them.  And this may not simply be because the adult lacks empathy; sometimes it is because the teen fails to explain themselves, for fear that they will be judged.  But there may be another underlying reason.

Research shows that most of our communication takes place in the context of tone and body language: it is not so much what we say but how we say it.  Our facial expressions can speak volumes.  When it comes to trying to communicate with teens, things become even more complex. Neuroscientists like Dr. Yurgelun-Todd of the University of Utah found that teens use a different part of their brain when reading facial expressions.  While conducting research at Harvard in 2006, Yurgelun-Todd discovered that teens identified facial expressions quite differently than adults.  So, while adults may read a facial expression as fear, teens may see anger.  In the context of a conversation, while a parent or teacher is trying to communicate disappointment to an adolescent, that teenager may react quite defensively.  Add in the fact that teens experience emotions 2-3 times greater than adults...you can see where I'm going with this.

Whenever I work with parents, counselors and teachers, I stress the importance of trying to remove judgement from any conversation with adolescents. Although we may not judge them with our words, our faces may say something else; so it is crucial to be mindful of whether our eyebrow is up or we shake our head in disapproval. Even with all of this, they may be misreading us, so I invite adults to following up their comments with, "do you understand what I'm saying?" or it may be more beneficial to ask that 14 year-old if they could sum up what you just said to them.  

This is no easy task, especially when what you're hearing might be very upsetting, but if we want to hear more from our teens, learn more from them and understand more about them, we have to let them know we are interested.  And this learning is rarely on our terms: teens will open up when they are ready...maybe at 11:30 pm on a Monday night after an exhausting day.

When teens feel heard and are understood, free of judgement, they will feel like you get them...and then you've got them.  I now begin most of my presentations with this simple quote.



Negotiating with the teenager

by Terence J. Houlihan, MS Ed, CRS

“My son doesn’t talk to me.”  “Once our daughter turned 13 she became so disrespectful.”  “We barely see our kids anymore.”  “Why does my son only answer, ‘fine’, when I ask him how his day was?”

These are some of the statements and questions often heard from concerned parents.  They are a hallmark of the changing relationship between parents and adolescents. 

The doting child who once was your sidekick and existed to win your smiles and affection has seemingly turned into an unrecognizable, irritable teenager.  For parents, it is frustrating, hurtful, and sometimes, downright scary.

“I don’t know what to do with him anymore, “ a concerned father once told me.  “He sighs when I ask him more than one question about school or what he’s doing with his friends this weekend.  He insists that I don’t leave him alone.  What he doesn’t get is that I do try to give him space.”  I could tell that this parent was worried…not for his son’s well-being so much as he was worried about the changing nature of his relationship.

At a recent PTA presentation, one mother shared that her daughter accuses her of “staring at her” during dinner.   This was said, amidst other parents, in a light-hearted way, and it received a few chuckles of identification.  She didn’t know how to handle this new situation and she was most likely a little frightened.

Being a parent is difficult.  It requires commitment, time, energy, love, money, and a willingness to be disliked by your children (for awhile).  Being a parent of a teenager requires a little more: moms and dads might have to change their parenting styles.  What worked with an 8 year-old will longer work with a 14 year-old.  They have changed and are changing.  In most families, it is undeniable that the relationships between parents and teens have changed.  As such, parents need to change their parenting styles.

One of the pieces that parents can add to their parenting style is negotiation.  As a parent myself, I know it is difficult to negotiate with your children.  Negotiating with your child feels like you’re giving up your power as a parent.  Just because something feels a certain way doesn’t mean it is a certain way.   Adolescents are caught between the absolute control of childhood and the freedom and responsibility of adulthood.  They foresee a day when they get to make to their own decision around the corner and yet, they have no trouble allowing you to make their lunch or bed for them.  Teens (for the most part) want to be in control of their lives, so, why not give them some of that control?  In pieces, that is.

Negotiate.  Give them a little autonomy.  See how they do with it.  Push back that curfew if they’re willing to do another chore.   If they need something from you, what is it you need from them?  It is a great life-lesson as well. 

As a parent, you could find that the more you’re willing to negotiate with your teen (provided they follow through), the tension between the two of you might lessen.  It’s essential to always remember that when you put your foot down, though…it needs to stay down.  Relinquishing on pre-determined boundaries and consequences is not negotiating, it’s being a pushover.  Oh, you may stop arguments for a while, but you’ll do more long-term damage to your teens and your relationships with your teens. 

Try negotiating.  What have you got to lose?  You’re already losing the child you once tucked into bed at 8 pm, but you could gain a new relationship and respect of an awkward teen who’s on the cusp of becoming a young adult.


Teens and Sleep

by Terence J. Houlihan, MS Ed, CRS

America's teens are chronically sleep-deprived. There I said it.  It's out. 

I attended a seminar back in the spring of 2011 at North Shore University Hospital to listen to Dr. Judith Owens, MD, the Director of Sleep Medicine at Children's National Medical Center and professor at Brown University.  I had heard of Dr. Owens in the past, as she had been part of a national movement to encourage school leaders to move back school start times.  Before taking my seat amidst the other school counselors, principals, teachers, etc., I was well aware the latest research indicated that the average adolecent requires just over 9 hours of sleep per night, but I was not prepared for the eye-opening data about what exactly is impacting teens' sleep and how their lack of sleep is impacting them.

In my years of listening to students and parents fret over bedtimes, lack of sleep, bedtime activities, wake-up procedures, etc., I've heard the gambit of horror stories and the stories that double-me-over-in-laughter.  In the three hours of listening to Dr. Owens, every story made sense.

America's teens are chronically sleep-deprived. I said that, didn't I?  If you're a parent or educator with sleepy teens, you probably already know that.  Yelling at them to wake up or go to bed earlier doesn't work.  Most of us, adults, children, teens, etc., don't respond to yelling, even if we're awake.

Recent studies were done involving PET scans of the brains of adolescents diagnosed with ADHD and those of other adolescents (with normal cognitive functioning) who were sleep deprived for two weeks revealed unexpected data: their brains looked alike.  One of the reasons why kids and teens with ADHD struggle with school is because their executive functioning skillset is impacted: they struggle with organization, time management, planning, motivations, etc.  This functioning has been identified as being located in the pre-frontal cortex: just behind the forehead.  Neuroscientists point to this part of the brain as being the last to develop...that's why adults are better at multi-tasking and managing their time.  But, when adolescents are losing sleep night after night, they start to lose their capacity to engage in those executive skills.  

What's even more startling is that there's new research to suggest that we never really do make up on lost sleep.  There's no magic "sleep bank" that gets filled on the weekends that we can deduct from throughout the week.  And teens are notorious for sleeping late on the weekends...and parents mostly have no problem allowing them to do so.

We'll talk more about how this is a recipe for more issues...