Raising teenagers is tough. Here are some vital tips

After eight years of having teenagers in the house and with 13 more years of this nonsense to go, my husband and I had an opportunity to educate ourselves on the subject of adolescence. 

The form of education was “Making Sense of Adolescence”, an online course featuring videos by Dr Gordon Neufeld. Would this course really make sense of adolescence? It seemed too good to be true, but it was worth a shot.

Prior to the course, my idea of individuation was this: hormones cause our lovely little children to go through a process of distancing from parents as they become their own person. This process could often be unpleasant, involving rebellions, misunderstandings and the occasional blowout. Eventually, things would settle down, and they would become mature(ish).

While this is true in part, I am happy to report that I now can give a better explanation of what exactly a teen goes through during adolescence. And, more importantly, I can apply this knowledge to the interesting and ridiculous situations that keep cropping up in our household.

Separating from parents

So, here is what we as parents need to know about adolescence. Around the age of 12, a child starts to feel a loss because they realise two things. One is that they are separate beings from their parents. No longer are they that little child who runs into their parents’ arms. Secondly, their own self has to emerge and develop.

Consequently, they become egocentric and push back against their parents (Neufeld calls this counterwill). This is nature’s way of putting blinders on them so that they can figure out who they are. They become idealistic. This is to help them think in hypothetical terms.

The loss experienced by adolescents can most closely be compared to a hole. This hole inside them is painful and confusing. Most likely, they aren’t even aware that it is there. When two of my daughters were little, they would need to eat but not realise they were hungry. I had to learn to read the cues (grouchiness or tiredness plus length of time since they last ate) in order to know that hunger was the reason they were acting out. In the case of a teen, the hunger is their loss of attachment, which they need to feed with the discovery of their own self, aided by vertical attachments to parents (and others).

Although our children may not run to us for cuddles anymore, they do need a strong attachment to us. Even though it seems they don’t want or need us, this vertical attachment is absolutely necessary for them to mature. If they don’t have someone to vertically attach to, then they will attach horizontally to their peers. Neufeld advocates “cascading care”, which is parents as the primary source of attachment along with other adults such as relatives, teachers or mentors.

When an adolescent has a strong attachment to his parents, then he will be able to fill that hole (i.e., mature). What does he fill the hole with? First of all, Neufeld says that it is necessary to fill that hole with tears. The adolescent has to cry, to acknowledge the sadness of leaving childhood behind. Sadness makes them see that separation from their parents is part of life and that they will have to adapt to this. This helps them let go of the sadness and become resilient and emotionally stable.

But tears are not where it ends. After that, they will fill the hole with identifying their emotions, with getting to know themselves, with their sense of purpose and desires and interests in life. In this way, and with the guidance of parents they are attached to, they will gradually mature.

That’s the nutshell version of the course, but I’d like to delve a little deeper into Neufeld’s insights into this process.


Let’s start with the sadness our teens are dealing with. One small but striking thing we noticed was that our teens would gravitate toward melancholy music – anything in a minor key. A few of our girls started crying a lot, even some who had never been inclined to cry. All of our teens had dramatic friend problems and much time spent in their rooms moping or angry.

Neufeld says this is good and that we need to help our teens embrace this sadness. They need to feel alone – they have just “woken up” to the fact that they are separate people from their parents. This changes how they view us and interact with us. Occasionally, one of my teens has expressed the desire to go back to being a little child. Not being that little girl who would run into her parents’ arms is a loss for them. They need to feel this loss in order to accept it.

Peer orientation

In our society, we have idealised peer orientation. We expect and encourage our teens to turn toward their peers. That peers should replace parents is “normal” only in a statistical sense. It is typical of our society, but it is not natural.

Teens should have friends, but the problem arises when the peers replace the parents and cause the teens to attach only to them. In this way, they only grow horizontally, instead of vertically, as when the attachment is to parents. Teens then begin to take their cues from peers, and this crushes their individuality.

A properly maturing adolescent should be able to be an individual with both parents and peers. They know how to say “no” to us! Likewise, they should also be able to say no to their peers. In a teen’s life, both parents and friends can co-exist.

In one study, 90,000 adolescents were asked what they felt was the single most important factor that would keep them safe from rejection and other risks. Their answer was: a strong emotional connection with a caring adult. Wow!

So, how do we raise a teen that is more connected to us than to their peers? We parents have to constantly cultivate a strong emotional connection. We have to help keep their hearts soft (or help them become soft once again).

Counterwill (aka rebelliousness)

Rebelliousness has a function! I found this very helpful. It is nature’s way of helping them learn who they are and to discover their own will to be able to function independently. Adolescents need this increased appetite for autonomy.

Neufeld says that to the degree that the teen does not know his or her own mind, he or she pushes back against authority. It’s like they’re saying, “Back off, don’t bother me now, I’m trying to think!” Their will is a vanguard, pushing everything out of the way in order to discover who they are on the inside.

The good news is that we are meant to grow out of counterwill. Neufeld compared it to a pregnancy that gives birth to the self.

One big rule is that increased coercion (e.g., punishments or forcing them to do something) will backfire. We have to parent differently than when they were under 12 years of age. The more we impose our will, the more it backfires. The stronger our agenda, the greater the teen’s resistance. Our goal is to help them discover their own will, and if we can do this, the counterwill instinct will back off.

Please note, this is not about letting the kids make the rules. We must be the alpha, and sometimes a consequence is necessary. The point is that what will help them to finally mature is their attachment to us. 

In addition, rewards also backfire! Rewards tell the adolescents what parents want. And, in the words of one of my girls when she was 14: “Whatever you tell me to do, I will do the opposite.” I actually found it very helpful when she said that. It wasn’t pleasant, of course, but it gave me some ideas on how to communicate. Instead of asking her to do her daily dinner job, it was helpful to have a chart so everyone knew what they had to do. Schedules (maybe posted on the cupboard) and routines are very helpful.

My main takeaway regarding counterwill is that it is very likely we will go through a period where every single interaction with my teen will be characterised by counterwill. I simply have to accept it. And not take it personally. Easy, right? Honestly, what gets me through this is brainstorming solutions with my husband and more prayer.


Confusion aids the development of the prefrontal cortex. It helps an adolescent realise that things are not always black and white. They feel the urge to escape the confusion and thus start to process their conflicting feelings. The more they experience mixed feelings, the more the prefrontal cortex grows. Thank goodness!

The confusion helps them to be able to look at two sides of an issue and to proclaim, as did Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, “On the other hand...” 

The teen starts to be able to rise above a situation and to see both X and Y instead of only X or Y, as they did when they were younger.

Getting out of this confusion is not a given. A teen who fails adolescence will only be able to feel one feeling at a time. They will be impulsive, unstable, moody, and lack perspective. Neufeld worked extensively with juvenile delinquents and noted that these youths had no inner conflict. They slept like babies. Teens need inner conflict.

On the other hand (to quote Tevye), mature youths will know themselves. When they find their mixed feelings, they will automatically have self-control. They will be considerate, fair, and have a good work ethic. They will understand that a lot of the time, the work is hard, but they will be capable of making sacrifices toward the goal they are trying to attain.

Filling the hole with bad stuff

Instead of embracing their feelings, teens may choose to numb them. Boredom, addiction, and aggression are all examples of this. These mask their feelings of sadness, as does screen time.

Other false fillers for the hole are food, activities, distractions, non-stop entertainment, digital pursuits, screens, and video games. According to Neufeld, “These fillers not only fail to cure boredom (other than momentary relief) but also exacerbate the flight from feeling, which is the root cause.” The hole then becomes a black hole, sucking everything into it without ever being filled.

Filling the hole with good stuff

Teens need space for their sadness. Intertwined with this is play. Play is a safe space where they can work out emotional problems. Some examples of play for adolescents are music, art, writing, journaling, and reading. Screen time, video games, and other highly stimulating activities are not play, since they lack personal expressiveness.

In addition, if we play with our teen, it will strengthen our relationship. Family hikes, a trip to the symphony, family game nights, or movie nights are some ideas.

Sexuality and teens

A large part of teenage sexuality is about sameness. Sex is another way of attaching to someone. It’s a way of interacting with peers, being accepted, obtaining status, recognition, and belonging.

Kids have no idea how attached they will become when they get into sexual interaction.

“Sexual interaction was designed to marry us,” says Neufeld. Scientific research shows that when a person engages in sexual interaction, the brain releases bonding chemicals that automatically create a union (wanting to stay close) with the partner in the sexual interaction. There’s no such thing as casual sex. Sex is meant to create an exclusive relationship, and so it sets us up for this. 

When teens engage, suddenly, they become possessive or easily hurt by the other. This is because the brain recognises that a union has occurred. They cannot get out of it without getting hurt. It is a “super glue” that binds them together. 

In traditional societies, having sex meant you were married. Therefore, if you pull apart what is bound together, the wounds are huge. A lot of parents don’t realise what effect this has on their child. They think their child can just get out of it. Neufeld tells the parents of such a child: “They are married, you know, psychologically married.” Even if they feel trapped or unhappy in the relationship, their brain thinks they are married.

If our children are peer-oriented (not attached to us), they will long for attachment and may use sex to try to satisfy this hunger. As Neufeld puts it: peer orientation sexualises attachment hunger.

Because of its binding quality and because of its attachment effect on the brain, sex sets the child up to be wounded. The three greatest wounds are caused by separation experiences, feeling shame, or feeling unsafe. Sex brings all three of these into play. After a sexual experience, teens will try to defend themselves against this by numbing or tuning out. It’s a vulnerability that is too much to bear. They become emotionally desensitised.

When a child has early sexual experiences, it is very obvious, even physically. There is a hardening in the eyes and face and a lack of feelings and caring. They need to be safe psychologically before any sexual experiences occur, and this requires a maturity that most don’t have (and a commitment most cannot make).

In our days, the flight from vulnerability is not a liberation from sexual repression, but a person’s natural defence mechanisms trying to protect them. A person who keeps engaging in sexual activity will become more and more emotionally desensitised, getting to a point where they don’t feel anymore. That is when sex becomes divorced from vulnerability.

And if you divorce sexuality from vulnerability, there’s nothing to stop you from having more and more sex. Today’s society calls this sexual liberation, and it is celebrated everywhere, yet it is really a defence mechanism that kicks in when we engage in sex without the proper conditions (maturity, commitment, etc.).

There is also a bully dynamic in sexual experiences. With sex, vulnerability brings with it feelings of dependence, of being taken care of. One partner is the alpha in the relationship, whereas, in a good marriage, the partners alternate back and forth between dominating and caring.

If you become defensive against vulnerability (numb), these instincts to take care of the other are smothered and instead move the individual not to care. Now, they have the compulsion to dominate without the caring or feelings of responsibility. This is the ultimate violation, and it’s illustrated by the large proportion of boys who fantasise about rape. In this, the quest is to dominate without the instinct to take care of someone.



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How can a parent foster attachment?

First, we have to recognise that we need to re-adjust the way we’re parenting. Up to age 12, we’ve always told the kids what to do. Now, we have to treat them differently. We have to try to draw things out of them. Stop explaining and start conversing. Probe their ideas and opinions. What do they think of this article or that song? More conversation, less pedagogy (or if there is pedagogy, hide it within a dialogue).

Conversing can be difficult since our child may not seem to want to even talk to us. We have to adapt to the changes they’re going through, and this takes some mental gymnastics.

One of my daughters was extremely affectionate when she was little. At some point during high school, this changed radically. She would jerk away from me should I try to hug her or shudder if I accidentally touched her. I tried different approaches with her, and I think I started to lose my mind a bit – hug, don’t hug, talk nicely, don’t talk, be available to her, be stand-offish, be strict, be lenient. I was an actor playing 20 different parts in a day. I now see that was all part of the process. We’re learning along with them.

In order to help your teen attach to you, Neufeld advises setting up the following “collecting” ritual with your teen (collect means to cultivate a relationship with). Do this whenever you come back together with your teen (upon waking, after school, etc.).

1. Get in their face in a friendly way, make eye contact, smile, nod. Think of a baby and how we make eye contact with them; we look at where a baby’s eyes are going. We wrongly command teens, “Look at me” or “Pay attention.” That doesn’t work.

If a teen isn’t looking at us, watch where their eyes are going and then talk about what they’re paying attention to (“That’s a cute dog on your screen”). Then intercept, which means to collect their eyes, but don’t demand them. Get a smile from them. Without a smile, we don’t have a working relationship. Then get a nod: “Isn’t this a nice day?”

So, smile, eyes, nod.

2. Provide a “touch of proximity.” For young kids, this can literally be a hug or a pat on the back. For teens, this “touch” is something that shows them they’re special: “I saw your soccer game yesterday.”

3. Invite your teen to depend on you, or they will transfer their dependency to their peers.

There’s a good chance this may be very difficult at some point. Neufeld suggests arranging situations where teens have to depend on us. Even he “lost” his daughters to their peers and had to work hard to get them back.

He took each of them on a separate camping trip where they would have to depend on him for orienteering, putting up a tent, and other skills. He describes how, at first, one of his daughters wouldn’t walk beside him, look him in the eyes, or speak except in one-word answers. He didn’t sweat it. After four days and on the hike down the mountain, she finally walked beside him, talking and smiling. She had become attached to him again.

Neufeld urges those of us with problems in this area to be patient. Give “collecting” a good try for a few weeks and even longer if necessary.

With his other daughter, he found she became distant from him again at one point. When he spoke to her about why they were distant, she asked him, “Why did you leave me in the first place?” He became defensive, then had a realisation. It had been his job to keep her close! He then resolved to find structures and rituals to keep her close.

No matter what our teen’s attitude is, we can’t shirk this responsibility. It’s our job. Protect the relationship by making it a priority and making sure they know that. They should know that no matter how they behave, we will always be there for them.

Neufeld also suggests a goodbye ritual for times when we will be physically separating from our teen. Put the emphasis on the return: ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ ‘We’ll get through this.’ ‘I’m looking forward to watching that show with you tonight.’ The focus is then not on the separation, but on the return/relationship. ‘I just cooked your favourite food even though we just had an argument.’ This is also a “return” to the relationship.

How do we help them form attachments?

  • Find out what they’re attached to (music, shows, etc.) and look for things you have in common.
  • Teacher interviews – collect what the teen says about the teacher and tell the teacher the positive points; tell the teen the positive things the teacher says; this is matchmaking and facilitating the student-teacher relationship.
  • Grandparents may withdraw, thinking they don’t understand young people. Be a matchmaker and tell them how much the teens need them.
  • They need hierarchy in relationships. Find surrogate grandmas, uncles, and aunts if necessary.
  • Establish holiday structures and rituals. During summer holidays in Provence, whole families come together. We need rituals like this.
  • In a school or other situations, find the adults they connect to most strongly and encourage the relationship.

They need us more than they know they need us. We are their best bet, and we need to be able to reclaim them to get them back. Without us, they don’t have a great chance of being shoehorned into society.

How did you survive? Share your tips for raising teenagers. Leave a comment in the box below.

Ida Gazzola is the mother of six girls and one boy. She writes from Burnaby in British Columbia, Canada.

Image credit: Bigstock


Showing 10 reactions

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  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-19 17:14:54 +1100
    Steven, union busting comes first to mind. Alterations to the tax code. Elimination of most interest deductions. Wealth started its drift to a much smaller percentage of the population because of those tax policies. Trickle down was, and is, a joke.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-03-18 16:35:49 +1100
    David Page: Agreed, on the whole. But would you care to be more specific. What, in your view, were specific actions of the Reagan Administration that led to the destruction of the middle-class?
  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-17 11:36:52 +1100
    One of the worst effects of the destruction of the middle class is the creation of the necessity of two working parents. It is destructive in the extreme. And it began with Ronald Reagan.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-17 11:25:42 +1100
    Someone once said that young people can be forgiven anything but conformity, I tend to agree. It is the job of the elders among us to resist change. It is the job of the young to want change. In a healthy society there is a balance. Change comes, but in an orderly manner. Too rapid change leads to chaos. But no change leads to the same thing.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-03-16 12:01:14 +1100
    You’re right there mrscracker. Most women were married and had at least one child by age 21. The thought of them having a career outside the home was unimaginable for many tho’ they might have secretarial type jobs to supplement the family budget.

    Men were generally a bit older before getting married but had the opportunity to “sow their wild oats.” In the process they created not a few “fallen women”

    “Fallen women” was what women who became pregnant outside wedlock were called. Their prospects were usually grim.

    However, by the 1950s, for middle class urban and suburban women, procuring a safe abortion for a daughter who’d had an “accident” was not difficult. It was in fact much more common in those pre-pill days than good church-going Christians would like to admit. Most “fallen women” came from the working classes.
  • Peter Anglada
    commented 2024-03-16 06:23:00 +1100
    Thank you, Ida and Gordon, for the great ideas you’ve shared with us. I’ve already sent your article to two influencers…… Best.
  • Chris Frew
    commented 2024-03-16 04:05:34 +1100
    Very helpful article and sent to my family members
  • mrscracker
    The idea of adolescence itself is a more modern thing. I think some of the troubles young people experience today are enabled by society extending childhood way past its biological timeline. In the not-so-distant past girls were either married or engaged to be married in their teens. My mother remembers her high school classmates wearing engagement rings at graduation. At the very least young people had after school jobs or apprenticeships. I earned money babysitting at the age of 11 & had a summer job waiting tables when I was 14. Our local grocery store hired 8th graders when my younger children were growing up.
    Being in a holding mode for decade with too much time on your hands can enable angst & self-preoccupation.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-03-15 17:30:42 +1100
    “In traditional societies, having sex meant you were married”

    In what universe?

    In our +- 250,000 year history formal marriage is at most a few thousand year old. The it usually meant a young girl being given to an older man for a payment in cash or kind.

    The first sexual encounter for most girls was when the lord of the manner decided he wanted a “fresh.” Sometimes he wanted a “fresh” boy.

    In upper class Victorian families a father would often initiate his adolescent son into sex with the help of a prostitute. The daughter, of course, had to be kept a virgin. A significant proportion of the population were slaves which meant when young they were also sex objects for their masters.

    The “casting couch” of Hollywood was very real.

    Even in villages young men were expected to “sow their wild oats.”

    In “traditional societies” it was the girls who were unlucky enough to get pregnant while the young men were sowing wild oats who suffered. Honour killings are still a thing in some “traditional” societies.
  • Ida Gazzola
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-15 08:00:25 +1100