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Parenting Matters: When Does Parenting Teenagers Begin?

When I decided to extend my pediatric practice to include adolescents I thought I would be able to help all those troubled teens and their families get back on track. I soon learned that by the teen years a kid’s life habits are pretty much formed; what happens before the teen years is what’s important.

Develop a positive attitude: If you want your child to be happy, optimistic, honest, spiritual, and respectful you must be happy, optimistic, honest, spiritual, and respectful!

There are many roads to this goal. The most basic ones include being responsible, knowing that actions have consequences, and laws at every level are made to protect us; we must respect the laws, and those who enforce them.

First, instill in your children an attitude of responsibility. One of the best tools I know to help your kids learn responsibility, at an early age, is an alarm clock. Before kids start first grade, maybe even kindergarten, they should be able to read a digital clock. If not, teach them!

Tell them that they must stay in bed until the alarm rings, and they must get up as soon as it does. Don’t tell them about the snooze button; they’ll learn about that soon enough. Discuss with them what good will happen when they act like adults and get up by themselves. Grade school kids love school and hate to miss a day. So, if they don’t get up they will miss that day of school, because you will keep them home or take them late, but don’t send them to Grandma’s house to have a fun-filled day with her. Sure, it will mess up your whole day; let the kids know that, too. All kids long to make their parents happy and proud and thrive on pleasing their parents.

When kids are able to get themselves up and out of bed they immediately accept other responsibilities. Brushing their teeth, picking out what clothes they wear, eating breakfast all become easily acquired habits.

Second, in order to teach that actions have consequences, you and your kids must know what is expected of them. Before any transgression happens, they need to know what the consequence would be. When explaining a rule to your child ask them what good or bad things they think will come from following or not following that rule, and what should happen if they don’t follow it. Don’t be surprised if they suggest a punishment worse than you would. This gives you a chance to be the “good guy” and lessen the rebuke.

Third, start parenting on the strict side: One year I asked several hundred high school and college kids if they felt their parents were stricter than the average parent or more lenient. Most of them said “They’re about average.” But, another group said, “They used to be really easy, but now they are so strict I can’t even move without being yelled at.” Many more replied, “They were really tough when I was little, but when I started high school they laxed up!”

When I asked the kids why they thought their parents changed their approach and became stricter; the uniform answer was, “I got in trouble!” Those whose parents moved in the other direction and became more lenient replied they had never been in trouble so, “I guess Mom and Dad think they don’t have to worry about me anymore, and they don’t.”

It’s much easier to go from strict to lenient than it is to go the other way!

Fourth, expect the best: I often hear parents say, “She is such a good kid now, but I’m so afraid of the teen years.” or “I just don’t know what I’ll do when it’s time to get his driver’s license. I just dread thinking about it!” When I ask why they are afraid the answer is, “You know how teenagers are!” And, worse, they say it in front of the kids.

Why not say something like, “I just can’t wait until Joel gets his license. I know he’ll be a good driver and I could use help with all the driving errands I have to do!” Be sure the kids hear that, too. When you drive, follow the rules of the road and drive the way you want your teen to drive.

Fifth, respect the laws and those who enforce them. It is easy today for kids to dislike police officers or fear them, as the media talk about how bad cops are. That’s fake news. Most police are good, honest, and respectable individuals. Take your grade school and your high school kids to meet the police either on the street, or at the local police station. Make friends with them.

If you are driving and the blue lights start to shine in the rearview mirror. Remember the kids are with you, don’t show signs of fear! Treat the officers with the respect they deserve, admit your driving error, and explain to your kids why that violation could be a hazard to you and other drivers and let them know that, like other laws, they apply to all drivers including yourself and them.

In the end, if we have shown our kids how adults act, they will respect us, love us, and if they have trouble making a decision they will feel free to ask for our advice. If not, we have failed them!

Parenting teens, really begins when they are born, if not before. The best parenting plan, and I’ve said it before, is to be the person you want your child to become!

Enjoy your family, and may God continue to bless you.

Dr. Parnell Donahue is a pediatrician, military veteran, author of four books and the blog, and host of WBOU’s “Parenting Matters” show. He and his wife Mary, have four adult children; all hold Ph.D.s, two also are MDs. Contact him at

Parnell Donahue

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