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3 Principles for Raising Teens Without Ruining Your Marriage

The teen years can stress even the strongest of marriages.

Key points

  • Three guiding principles can help you and your teen navigate their developmental journey: balance, communication, and connection.
  • Try to strike a balance with your different perspectives in terms of feedback and reactions to their choices, challenges, and changes.
  • Stay curious and connected as you recognize that your teens' connections usually reflect attempts to find a sense of self.

Whereas most people are warned that the blessed event of a new baby may challenge the romance in their marriage, not enough warning is given to parents of teens. Lulled by the relative calm of the school-age years, they find themselves suddenly embroiled in the challenging journey of adolescence, which extends anywhere from age 12 to 18.

Notwithstanding the love they feel for their kids or each other, most parents will agree that the teen years can challenge marital bonds. Why?

A close look suggests that the very developmental tasks that Eric Erikson maintained teens need to negotiate under the broad heading ofIdentity vs. Role Confusion call into question the stability, predictability, authority, intelligence, sleep, and even sexual patterns of parents.

A Saturday night spent nervously waiting up for your teen, while blaming each other for being too lax or too rigid, rarely sets the mood for romance.

That said, it is important to consider that raising a teen need not equate to ruining a marriage. In fact, it is the last thing you want and the very last thing they need.

Three Guiding Principles

There are three guiding principles that may help you and your teen on this journey: balance, communication, and connection.

They not only help adolescents deal with the transition to adulthood, but they are the same principles that help parents strengthen their own relationship.


Teens Struggle With Balance

Basic to the challenges of adolescence, most teens have trouble with balancing everything from emotions, sexuality, friends, social media, and sleep to school assignments.

Use Your Differences to Strike a Balance

Given history, gender, and personality, it is not unusual for parents to become persuaded by their teens and polarized into extreme positions.

"Why can’t I drive with my friends to Florida? Dad trusts my driving!"

  • It may actually be an advantage that you see things differently if you can use different perspectives as points of information.
  • Clarifying the situation from both of your perspectives and from your teen’s point of view sets the stage for collaborative problem-solving.

“You’re right, Dad thinks you are a good driver and he would know. Let’s talk more about spring break and what you were thinking of planning.”

Use Mutual Feedback to Prevent Over-Parenting

An important but difficult balance for parents is helping each other support, rather than substitute, a teen’s own efforts.

Why can’t you let your daughter find her own job?”

  • When parents trust each other to give and take feedback, they can avoid "helicopter parenting” while providing mutual support.
  • Working together not only enhances your view of each other, but it enhances the perspective and competence of your teen.

"Mom and I are both eager to help, but we really want to know what you have in mind for a summer job.”

Distinguish Between Your Life and Your Teen’s Life

Some parents are so enthralled with their teen and his/her activities, friends, and achievements, they abandon a personal interest in self and their relationship. They become the 24/7 support team and audience to their child.

Some parents are so worried about their teen they abdicate their role as partner to become a vigilant caretaker.

When love, support, or even concern for a teen bankrupts a marriage, everyone loses.


Understanding the Language of Teens

  • Anyone who has parented teens knows that communication can get challenging.
  • If you have raised girls, you may find that most issues are vocalized as high drama. Asking someone to get off the phone to help with dinner can invite hysteria, much less avoidance of the request.
  • If you have raised boys, you may be accustomed to feeling like you are with a CIA agent. If you ask too many questions or they reveal too much, there will be problems.
  • In terms of social media—cellphones, emails, texting, etc.—there seems little difference. The only thing that matters to most teens is constant communication with peers.

Reconsidering the Language of Parents

  • In face of this, some parents never stop talking at their teen who remains riveted on their screen or shut down. Bursting with stress, the parents’ communication with each other often regresses into blame of each other.

“No wonder he doesn’t listen—you never stop yelling at him.”

“So she lied again and you’re still saying nothing to her?”

  • It is worth explaining to your teen that you really need their input to address the issue at hand.
  • The request puts the parents into the same place, even if they have different styles and opinions, and gives teens the chance to communicate what they are feeling or thinking.

Reconsidering Social Media

  • Parent and teen collaboration for balancing social media is invaluable.
  • Parents can often model and collaborate with teens on a family plan like shutting phones off during a shared meal or important conversations.

Communicating as People vs. Parents

Source: ProfessionalStudioImages/iStock
Source: ProfessionalStudioImages/iStock

It is valuable to communicate as “people,” not just as worried parents, to each other and to your teen. Teens are often surprised and interested to hear what is happening in your life, at your job, and with your friends. The focus is off them and their advice and opinions are often invaluable.


Welcome Peer Attachments

  • A primary change for parents and teens is the teen’s move from attachment with them to their need for peers for affirmation, acceptance, and connection.
  • Some parents are so threatened by the shift, they become the parent who always says “yes”—often forcing a triangulation with the other parent who feels forced to say "no.” No one wins.
  • When it comes to your teen’s friends, it is advantageous to welcome them rather than criticize them from a distance. Remember your teen is trying out versions of themself through versions of friendships.

Welcome Your Own Attachments

As a parent, continue to welcome, entertain, and go out with your own friends. Your relationship with your partner and your friends is a source of self-esteem for your teen. Teens are very aware of their parents’ lives.


Your Teen’s Sexuality

  • The teen years are a time of emerging gender and sexual identity. It is a time when physical and emotional needs invite romantic connection with a love object outside the parental bond.
  • Parental affirmation of their teen’s gender and sexuality is crucial.
  • Teens do not need their parents to want them to be dating if they are not ready. Given exposure to series and shows that portray extremes of violence, sex, and relationship trauma, actually considering dating can be stressful for a teen.
  • Staying emotionally attuned in your teen’s life, whether they are dating or just spending time with friends, is the best position to take.

Your Own Sexuality

  • In terms of sexuality, some parents are so self-conscious with teens in the home that they put their own sexual relationship aside.
  • Teens sense the feelings between parents and will benefit from seeing affection shared between you.

Marriage and Raising Teens

If you grow together as your teen grows, if they see your laughter as well as your stress, if they hear you apologize as well as argue, if they know you love each other as you love them, you will have given them what they need to go forward.

More from Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP
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