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10 Tricky Parenting Teens Situations and How to Handle Them

Expert advice on issues including sexting, depression, smartphone obsession and more

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triloks/Getty Images

Parenting teenagers has never been easy, but the omnipresence of social media in kids’ lives, combined with the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, has brought daunting new challenges. ​

​Depression and anxiety rates among young people are soaring in the U.S., and while these issues have been a growing problem for over a decade (suicide, on the rise since 2010, became the second-leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24 in 2018), the more recent spike in mental health problems is "inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19,” according to a recent Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Health from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association. ​

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​Parents are desperate to help their struggling children but often don’t know how. We asked top experts in teen mental health to suggest ways to handle some now-common parenting scenarios.

My daughter is posting racy, overtly sexual photos on Instagram. She thinks she’s building her career as an influencer, but I’m afraid it will affect her future college or job prospects. How can I get her to tone it down? ​

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—Robyn Mehlenbeck, board-certified pediatric clinical psychologist and director of the George Mason University Center for Psychological Services
Courtesy John Mehlenbeck

Mehlenbeck: If she's 18, there's not going to be a whole lot parents can do. But if she's under 18, there can be problems on many levels. There’s a chance she could be attracting predators. Teens don't think far ahead, so an argument about college or job prospects is not going to work. On top of that, there's really good data showing that those “likes” on Instagram are incredibly influential and powerful, particularly for girls. This is about taking a step back to talk with your teen about why she has to post sexy, racy photos. Is it that she gets adrenaline from all the likes? Are there other ways to get that satisfaction and excitement? [If she won’t talk to you about it], are there other trusted adults who can talk to her about what is making this so important to her, and whether there are other ways to get to some of the same goals?​

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Resources and Tips

My daughter seems much more anxious after spending more than a year at home learning remotely during the pandemic. She’s stopped spending time with friends and avoids the social activities that she used to enjoy. How can I help? ​

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—Julie Zigarelli, licensed psychologist and Associate Director at the Renée Crown Wellness Institute, University of Colorado, Boulder
Courtesy Julia Zigarelli

Zigarelli: One of the best things you can do is actually pretty simple: Validate and acknowledge the complex feelings your child is experiencing. Let them know that you are there. Just saying, “I’m here to listen whenever you want to talk” is a powerful way to open the door to communication. When your child does share any of their fears or anxious feelings, try not to respond by going into problem-solving mode, but instead offer a caring space for them to process them. ​​

If these anxious symptoms are interfering with your child’s ability to engage in everyday activities (like school), you might consider offering the opportunity to speak with a counselor or therapist. There are wonderful, evidence-based interventions that work well with children and adolescents to reduce fear and anxious behaviors.​​​

My son says he’s fine, but is showing signs of depression. He is seeing a therapist, but what else can I do? I worry about suicide. ​

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—Hina Talib, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and an American Academy of Pediatrics Spokesperson
Courtesy Hina Talib

Talib: That you are aware of signs of depression and have already connected your child to a mental health specialist is a huge benefit. Do not be afraid to speak about suicide. You will not inspire a teen to harm themselves by checking in about how they feel. In fact, connecting with your teen and even offering some education that thoughts of suicide are very common among teens right now can be helpful. ​​

The key is to foster open communication. You could do a weekly check-in, at a time and place of your teen's choosing, or over an activity like during meal prep, during a walk or car ride, or over a puzzle. I also suggest you confirm with your child’s therapist that they are screening for suicide, and layer in your pediatrician to do so, as well. You can also speak with your teen's school to see what they are doing in the setting of a suicide attempt. After a Suicide: Toolkit for Schools by the American Federation of Suicide Prevention is a terrific comprehensive resource.​

My son has a girlfriend he met online. He spends all his time interacting with her, but they have never met in person. Should I be concerned? ​

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—Montana Miller, associate professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, Ohio
Courtesy Montana Miller

Miller: If they're video chatting, then that's pretty normal. But if they're not seeing each other and it's all through text, then I'd be very concerned. Who is this person really? Does she refuse to meet him in person? There could be all kinds of scenarios where your son could have a girlfriend he's never met in person, and that could be completely fine. Maybe they met in an online group where they share a common interest and she just lives far away. That's completely OK. But if he hasn't seen her face, there’s a possibility that person is catfishing him [which can mean the person is posing as someone else online]. I would recommend watching the movie Catfish together. It's about the reasons people act in certain ways online, on social media and through texting, and what underlies those reasons. ​​​

My child has asked to be referred to as they and them and says they consider themselves gender neutral. How do I explain this to their grandparents and others? 

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—Myeshia Price, senior research scientist at The Trevor Project, a suicide and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth
Courtesy Myeshia Price

Price: If your child has asked you to refer to them using they/them pronouns, you should ask their permission before sharing that information with grandparents or other family friends. While some young people may want to share their pronouns with everyone in their lives — others may not. The most important thing is to listen to your child, affirm them in their identity and use the pronouns that they ask you to use. Research has found that transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by everyone they lived with attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected. So respecting your child’s pronouns, and urging others to do the same, isn’t just the right thing to do — it can be lifesaving. ​​​

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—Laurence Steinberg, psychologist and expert on adolescence at Temple University
Courtesy Axel Griesch

Steinberg: It’s taken everybody a long time to get used to using they as a pronoun. It goes against everything we learned in English class. And the older you are, the harder it is going to be to get used to this. You might say, “This is their preference. It would be good if you would try to respect it.” You could even gently add, “Look, it took me as a parent a while to get used to this, and I still slip sometimes. It may take you a while too. But I would really appreciate it if you would try.” If they ask ,“Why? She’s a girl, isn’t she?” You can respond, “Well, society is rethinking how we refer to people of different sexes and genders. This has become increasingly popular among children of their age and I think we should do our best to try to abide by it.” ​​​

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—Lucas Zulio, clinical psychologist at UCLA's Youth Stress and Mood Program
Courtesy Lucas Zulio

Zulio: Above all, you need to convey the sense that you, the parent, are the advocate — that you have their back. If something goes off the rails when telling grandma, you are there to quickly check her by saying, “Hey, can I have five minutes with you and me, just one-on-one?” Explain to her why this is important — not only to your child, but to you as a parent — and that it is nonnegotiable. You might say, “My job as a parent is to help my kid stay safe, valued and comfortable in this family, and this is getting in the way of that. How can we resolve that?”​​​

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I smoked pot when I was a teen and my kids know it. But today’s weed is stronger and there are other dangers. How do I warn them about this without sounding like a hypocrite?

Steinberg: Arm them with the facts. Frequent and long-term use of recreational drugs — including marijuana, alcohol and harder drugs, and nicotine particularly — during adolescence affect the adolescent brain, more than the adult brain, impairing the development of the parts of the brain that are important for things like memory. Research says it that it needs to be frequent and long term … so if they are using it regularly, it’s a problem. The brain is very plastic and still developing during adolescence and more easily affected by exposure to these substances than the adult brain is. What’s more, research shows that kids who use recreational substances regularly, before the age of 16, are 7 to 10 times more likely to develop an addiction later than people who use the exact same substances and the exact same amounts, but wait until they are 21. ​​​

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—Cori Green, pediatrician and mental health expert at Weill Cornell Medicine
Courtesy Cori Green

Green: Remember that while many states allow the recreational use of marijuana for those 21 and older (19 at last count), recreational use by teens and children is illegal until you’re 21. Initiate an open conversation and be honest. “I was a silly teenager who didn’t feel comfortable saying ‘no’ and I was lucky I didn’t get caught.” Of course, some things are simply out of your control. When your kids are away from home, it’s up to them to make smart choices. Let them know that they can come to you with any questions. ​​​

My 14-year-old daughter’s best friend says she is bisexual. I wouldn’t let my daughter have a boy sleep in her bedroom. How should I handle sleepovers with her now?​

Price: There is no rule book for how parents should handle their children’s sleepovers with friends. These decisions depend on an individual family’s values and how parents choose to communicate and enforce them. That said, assuming that your child’s best friend, who recently came out as bisexual, is now romantically attracted to your child erases the context of their friendship and plays into harmful stereotypes that over sexualize young people who identify as bisexual. Young people of all sexual orientations can — and do — have meaningful friendships. ​

​It’s important to understand that parents can play a powerful role in supporting LGBTQ youth — whether their own LGBTQ children, or their children’s LGBTQ friends — who we know are disproportionately at risk for attempting suicide. New research shows that when parents and caregivers take relatively simple supportive actions, such as being welcoming and kind to youths’ LGBTQ friends or partner(s), or talking respectfully about young people’s LGBTQ identities, they can significantly contribute to lower suicide risk among these LGBTQ youth.​​

I think my 13-year-old son has been watching hard-core pornography. This is as far cry from the Playboy of my youth. I’d like to talk to him about it, but where do I start?​

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—Diana Graber, the founder of Cyberwise, a website for adults who want to help young people use technology safely, and the author of Raising Humans in a Digital World
Courtesy of Diana Graber

Graber: This is such a charged topic for parents. We always tell them, don’t freak out. It’s not uncommon for kids to see pornography online because in just a few clicks anyone can go from provocative images to hard-core pornography, and kids are curious, so they’ll look at it. ​​

It’s a conversation all parents should have with their kids. One thing you can start with is how on all of the visual mediums they use — TikTok, YouTube, Instagram — there is a lot of sexual imagery. You might say, “Gosh, I can’t believe the stuff that’s OK to put out there. What do you think about this? How do you feel seeing this? Do you think there should be any kind of gatekeeping?” [You might discuss how] a lot of the pictures are doctored, so these perfect bodies they’re seeing aren’t even realistic. ​

Talking about the things they’re already seeing could get the conversation started about [more graphic] sexual imagery, and what’s appropriate to look at online. To bring it up out of the blue is tricky and embarrassing, but there are fantastic resources, particularly a site called Culture Reframed, which has a free program that teaches parents of kids ages 13 to 18 how to navigate this issue. ​​​

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My 13-year-old son is on his phone constantly and even sleeps with it. How can I help him loosen his dependence on the device? ​

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—Jasmine Hood Miller, director of community content and engagement, Common Sense
Courtesy Jasmine Hood Miller

Hood Miller: The first thing is to keep perspective. Most of us are obsessed with tech and our devices in some way. Teens, just like adults, check their cellphones frequently and feel pressure to respond quickly to messages or endlessly scroll through social media feeds. ​

What this parent is probably seeing is a compulsive habit. We can help kids manage that by structuring their time, helping them find a healthy balance of online and offline activities, setting limits and having conversations. Ask what they’re doing when they’re on the phone that much. Stopping to ask that question is a good way to start a conversation. ​

Use tools to set some limits, but also to get them to self-regulate. Encourage them to turn off app notifications so they’re not constantly being pinged. Some parents may be able to take the phone at night and say we’re going to charge it outside of your bedroom. A lot of phones let you see how much time you’ve spent on different apps or the device. Having them look at that is a healthy way for them to take stock of how much they’re using it.​

A boy in my daughter’s class convinced her to send him a naked picture through Snapchat. He sent it to others in the school. What should I do?

Mehlenbeck: My first thought is, how old is the daughter? Thirteen, 14 or 15 is a little different than 17 or 18 because there can be legal consequences, depending on the state. The first thing I'd advise parents to do is stay calm and reassure her that she's not the first person this has happened to. Secondly, you definitely want to involve the school because I guarantee they have had to handle this before. ​​

Also, depending on the age, I'd recommend additional monitoring of social media apps. There's a great one called Bark, which flags inappropriate or potentially dangerous content and ignores everything else, so kids can still maintain their privacy. It can overidentify things, but you can laugh with your teen about that. It also requires that both teens and parents are aware the app is being used, so there are no secrets. I'm big on that. Sneaking around to check someone's phone or computer history isn't going to help a parent-teen relationship. There might be a decent chance that therapy could be helpful as well, depending on the situation.​​

Steinberg: Sexting is common — it’s not a sign that something’s the matter with your daughter. But I’d say, “He might be your boyfriend now, but he may not be your boyfriend forever and he's going to own a nude picture of you — and you won't have any control over what he does with it.”​​​

Video: Top Tips to Help Parents Fight Back Against Cyberbullying

If Your Child Is Considering Self-Harm

  • Take your child to the nearest crisis center or hospital or call 911.​In case of emergency, call or text 988, the federal government’s new three-digit code that will connect you with the free 24-hour 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline — formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — to speak with someone who can offer confidential support and resources. (You can reach the Lifeline by calling its older number, 800-273-8255, as well.)​
  • The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide offers useful information on common warning signs for suicide, plus suggestions on how to discuss the subject with your child, how to find help and other resources.

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