The Washington Post

Parenting a teenager takes letting go

illustration by hadley hooper for the washington Post (illustration by hadley hooper for the washington Post/illustration by hadley hooper for the washington Post)

Question: I had an extraordinarily good relationship with my 15-year-old son until a year ago.

I’ve always believed that parents should respect their children, talk with them and listen to their thoughts and feelings, which is what I did with my boy, but he turned into a monster anyway. He can be sweet and thoughtful — adults often tell me what a nice kid he is — but he can also be abusive when he doesn’t get his way. When that happens, he follows me around the house, arguing with me as relentlessly as an ACLU lawyer.

My son is a bright boy, goes to a magnet school, has many friends and takes part in the drama program every day after school. He comes home after that, walks the dog, does some chores and has his half-hour of computer time on weekdays and an hour a day on weekends.

He blew up recently because he had to wait a few hours before he could use the computer. This made him so mad that he said that he wouldn’t spend time with someone like me nor would he go to an event in honor of my late father. I told him he could either honor my father or he could be grounded for the rest of the school week and couldn’t see the skits that his drama club was going to put on. He said that he would see them anyway because he would be at his father’s house. And he was right. I’m the bad cop, and his father is the fun guy.

Although I’ve never talked against my ex to our son, I divorced him 13 years ago because he was addicted to alcohol and pornography. The judge told my ex that he had to go to therapy as a condition of seeing our sonand that he couldn’t drink while our son was there and that he had to keep our son away from his computer. Even if these rules are followed, I worry about my boy.

How can I help him grow up to be honorable and to understand that there are consequences for bad behavior?

Answer: It’s great that you respect your son and that you talk with him freely and listen to him, too, but a conversation should go both ways. If you ask your son a question, you must truly consider his answer, especially now that he is in his mid-teens.

Indeed, you have no option. You may have told him what to think when he was 12 or 13, but you can’t do that anymore.

If your son is like most teenagers, his brain probably took a big jump around 14 and now nature is making him pull away from you for a few years so he can learn how to think for himself. In the process, he will stumble and fall many times, but the more you interfere and the more answers you give him, the more he will resent it and the more he will rebel. No matter how well you know the answers and how right those answers are, he has to figure these things out for himself. Your child will learn to trust himself only when you can dare to let him go.

If you stop engaging him during his harangues, your son will learn that bad behavior has consequences. Just listen for a few minutes, consider his appeal, say yes to him as often as you can — if only so he will say yes to you — and if that doesn’t work, go to your room, lock the door, put in your earplugs and read a book. Your son can’t argue with himself any more than he can clap with one hand.

Things will go better if you ease up on your rules, too.

A 15-year-old is old enough to use the computer more than a half-hour a day. Keep it in a common area, so you can see what he’s watching when you pass by, and keep all screens — including his cellphone — out of his bedroom at night. Otherwise he’ll be tempted to turn on the TV or send a text instead of getting the sleep he needs.

You have a choice. You can either give your son more chances to make his own decisions, or you can insist that he does everything your way. If you don’t let him grow out of childhood’s box, he’ll fight his way out of it and you may never get back that good relationship you once enjoyed.

Send questions about parenting to

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Video curated for you.

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.