Bigger Parenting Challenge—Toddlers or Teens?

The teenage years may require more coddling than when kids are babies or toddlers. We talk to an expert about why parenting teens can be more challenging than other ages and stages.

Mexican mother and father sitting with their teenage children and listening to their daughter.

aldomurillo/Getty Images

Picture this: One morning, I'm lightly jogging (totally not panting) after my toddler—who's careening down the sidewalk on a balance bike—and my preschooler, who's slightly ahead of his younger brother, scootering like he's got wings, not wheels. A neighbor who just dropped his elementary-school-age kids off at school starts trotting along beside me, and we commiserate over how on top of your game you have to be with little kids. Then he hits me with, "I figure I put in the real work until my kids are 10 or 11 and then, I'm done. I've taught them everything I can."

And this much I know: He couldn't be more wrong.

As the mom of a toddler, preschooler, and two teens (as well as a 9-year-old), I'm here to argue that the real work begins when your children hit the middle school and high school years. And I'm not alone.

The Teen Mental Health Crisis

A recent study from Pew Research Center shows parents are more worried about their kids' mental health than ever. Forty percent of parents surveyed said they are extremely or very worried about their child struggling with anxiety or depression at some point. That topped the list of parents' concerns—even above bullying, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, teen pregnancy, or getting in trouble with the law.

Teen suicide rates are rising at a scary high level, with those ages 10-24 making up 15% of all suicides. It's actually the second-leading cause of death for this age group, and the suicide rate has risen more than 52% between 2000-2021. Meanwhile, millions of teens report suffering from depression and anxiety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Study, 42% of high school students in 2021 felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row. That led them to stop doing their usual activities.

Parenting Teens vs. Parenting Younger Children

Absolutely no one tells you how to parent teens. Meanwhile, we don't hear the end of how to be the most perfect parent to small children. Don't miss their first soccer game! Read to them every night. Sing the brushing teeth song, so they don't stop brushing too soon! And don't forget the guilt is real when your little one is stuck watching TV while you finish that report for work.

But it's not whether my 2-year-old finished his broccoli at dinner or refused to leave my side at the playground that keeps me up at night. It's all of those statistics I cited above. So, you'll have to excuse me if I don't panic right this very second about my son watching Vlad & Niki for a stretch while I write this article.

Instead, I'll be over here obsessing over how I plan to grill my teens about who the boy was that said "hi" to them at the mall the other day, and what they were laughing hysterically about that they saw online. And why was my middle schooler sobbing just an hour later?

A lot of the time, I think about how I wish it were simply teething that had them bothered—like when they were little. Sorry dear reader if you're clinging to the belief that parenting gets easier as kids get older—it's a lie. Ready for hard truth time? The old adage, "The bigger the kid, the bigger the problem," is so overwhelmingly true, it hurts this mom's heart.

I have learned over the years that missing a soccer game when your child is in preschool won't damage them forever. Hint: Ice cream after works like a charm to help little ones move on. But missing the signs of serious mental anguish when your child is 13? Far more dangerous. This is why engaging with our older kids at every opportunity, day and night, and—dare I say, being on top of everything they're doing, where they're going, and who they are with—is a full-time job we can't slack off from now.

Why The Stakes Feel Higher As Kids Get Older

I talked to Scott Roth, Psy.D., founder and clinical director of Applied Psychological Services of New Jersey about my theory that teens need more coddling than the thumb-sucking set. I also consulted him on the kinds of challenges parents may face in attempting to be let into our teens' lives.

"It feels like the stakes are bigger when they grow up. In a sense, that is true. Academically, a poor grade in fifth grade means a lot less than it does in eleventh grade," Dr. Roth says. "The scary part for parents is that we are in control of most of their lives when they are young. As they grow, we cede a good deal of this control, so our anxiety goes up even more. This combined with the perception that there is more at stake is a challenging reality to confront." 

Deep breaths. It's OK. Oh sorry, I'm fine. Let's go on.

Scott Roth, Psy.D.

The scary part for parents is that we are in control of most of their lives when they are young. As they grow, we cede a good deal of this control, so our anxiety goes up even more.

— Scott Roth, Psy.D.

"Adolescents have a desire for independence and autonomy, though they are not quite there yet when it comes to their executive functioning and decision-making," adds Dr. Roth. "With this being said, helicoptering too much can result in adolescents not developing strong enough coping skills. Backing off too much can make an adolescent feel isolated and unsupported."

What to do? "Attempting to find that balance is key," Dr. Roth advises.

Finding that balance and engaging with teens in a way that won't have them immediately texting their friends about how lame their parents are (they may do that no matter what), will look different at each age. "There is a natural proclivity for teens to pull away from their parents as they attempt to navigate newfound independence," Dr. Roth says. "I think that many parents have had the experience of attempting to force support on their teenage children and this has backfired."

Back to those early years, when you were reading to them each night, and helping them brush their teeth. "Developing patterns of engagement and support must start from a young age," Dr. Roth says. That way, "when they are teenagers the trust is established." He adds that when the blessed moment arrives that your teen confides in you, we as parents should do our best to validate teens' feelings instead of brushing off their problems as silly or inconsequential. Yes, even if not being able to sit next to a friend in Spanish class is the reason their day "was the worst ever."

Although it's hard for us to accept, we may not always be our teen's "go-to" support person, according to Dr. Roth. The important thing is that they are talking to a trusted adult. Teachers, clergy, counselors, friends, or even friends' parents might be that person. Meanwhile, we always need to be on the lookout for warning signs that teens need help from a mental health professional.

"Significant changes in behavior would be one of those red flags I recommend looking out for," Dr. Roth recommends. "If your teenager is not naturally an introvert and all of a sudden becomes isolated, that could be a sign of a bigger issue. Similarly, changes in academic performances, relationships, or disinterest in activities that once brought them joy would also be another red flag."

Then, Dr. Roth said something that really got me thinking: "Big picture, I think that we are all very impressionable across the developmental lifespan. The variable that changes is our agency as parents."

In other words, perhaps the adage should change to, "The bigger the kid, the bigger the parents' worries." But maybe that's how you know you're doing the best job you can as a parent.

Was this page helpful?
Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Parenting in America Today. Pew Research Center. 2023.

  2. Disparities in Suicide. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2023.

  3. Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report: 2011-2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2023.

Related Articles