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You Can't Control Your Teen, But You Can Influence Them

How the science of behavior change can help parents, teens, and young adults.

Key points

  • Teens of controlling parents often circumvent the rules or withdraw emotionally, damaging the relationship.
  • The less parents engage in a power struggle, the more likely teens are to relate from a place of maturity.
  • Teens are more likely to take parental advice when parents position themselves as trusted, credible advisors.

Parents are under pressure. Mostly it comes from within. Many of us have internalized to some extent the idea that our children are an extension of ourselves. When our kids struggle, we feel the shame of having somehow failed. When they succeed, we bask in their glory, confident we must have done something right.

As a psychologist treating families whose teens and young adults struggle with mental health, substance use, and other behavioral concerns, I challenge that view. Parents cannot control how their kids turn out. Whether kids wind up earning a lot of money, developing depression, or summitting Mount Everest doesn’t reflect much on the competence of their caregivers.

Expectations about how they should dress and talk; whether we push them toward advanced classes or after-school jobs; whether we allow them to go out with friends on school nights or attend parties—your opinion about these issues matters mostly to the extent that your adolescent cares what you think. Therefore, the most important work of parenting an adolescent is not controlling your child’s path, but rather creating a relationship of trust and mutual respect.

Yet anyone who has recently interacted with a 15-year-old (or, ahem, a college student) recognizes that they are far from ready to take responsibility for major decisions. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, risk estimation, and self-awareness, continues to develop through about age 25. Adolescents and young adults are much better off if there are trusted adults in their lives who can steer them away from a poorly considered tattoo, credit card, or romantic entanglement.

Adolescence and early adulthood are also a time of heightened risk for mental health problems. Young adults ages 18 to 25 have the highest prevalence of mental illness of any age group, and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death globally for adolescents. In this context, promoting self-sufficiency may seem riskier than keeping a close watch.

What, then, is a parent’s job? Teens are famously uninterested in heeding adults’ limits and advice, setting the stage for years of conflict. Insisting on control over adolescents’ behavior drains warmth and authenticity from the relationship, and they will often find a way to circumvent parents’ rules, or simply withdraw emotionally. If parents hope to influence adolescents’ decisions and monitor their safety, they need to find a way to be present, close, credible advisors—in short, the kind of people whose advice kids might actually want to hear.

Don’t worry: I want your teen to hear (and follow!) your advice. In my book, The School of Hard Talks: How to Have Real Conversations with Your (Almost Grown) Kids, I offer a vision and method for achieving that goal. By working closely with hundreds of families in a series of research studies, I developed a 5-step method for effective conversations on literally any topic.

The first step is to approach a hard talk by making a neutral, factual observation. “Your backpack smells like marijuana,” for instance. Then, stop talking. See how your teen or young adult responds and give them a chance to explain themselves.

The second step is to ask questions. Good questions don’t have one answer, invite a conversation, and are rooted in genuine curiosity. “What do your friends think about marijuana?” is a good question. “Did you know that marijuana stunts brain development and could be laced with fentanyl?” is less likely to lead to a productive conversation.

Step three is to use reflections. Repeat back what you heard and keep your own opinions on ice. For instance: “You feel like marijuana is harmless as long as you don’t smoke until after school.” It’s OK if your knuckles are glowing white from the effort of suppressing what you really want to say. You’re doing great.

At this point, teens might acknowledge that they do not in fact know everything, or that they have made some questionable decisions. The less you engage in a power struggle or a debate over who is right and who is wrong, the more likely teens are to relate from a place of maturity.

Once your teen has thoroughly expressed her perspective, it’s time to give your own view. Announce the pivot: “Can I tell you what I know about cannabis?” you might say, or more assertively, “I’d like you to consider my thoughts on this.” Then give your own perspective or advice. “Not only is consuming cannabis at your age illegal,” you might say, “but it could get you suspended from the swim team. Also, since you are getting it from a person you don’t know well, you have no idea what’s really in there. That’s dangerous. I don’t want you using it at all until you’re at least 18.”

The final step is the hardest: Acknowledge that you’re not in control. Let’s face it: Unless you’re going to follow your kid around 24/7, you can’t control their behavior. Your teen already knows this. Hearing you acknowledge it validates their sense of autonomy and appeals to the responsible side of their brain and personality. You can do this by asking, “So what do you think you’ll do?” or simply saying, “I can’t be there all the time, so I have to trust that you’ll use good judgment.”

Will my method guarantee that your teen won’t smoke again until she’s reached the age of legal majority? Of course not. You’re a parent, not a wizard. But by using this method, you can demonstrate that you’re safe to talk to, curious about your child’s perspective, and respectful of her judgment and autonomy. You lay the groundwork to keep figuring it out, day by day, together.

This excerpt is adapted from The School of Hard Talks: How to Have Real Conversations with Your (Almost Grown) Kids.


Kline, E. (2023). The School of Hard Talks: How to Have Real Conversations with Your (Almost Grown) Kids. Seattle: Sasquatch Books.

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