Parenting Teens: Choosing Your Battles Wisely

Can you help us figure out how to eliminate as much fighting with our teenager as possible? We've argued over pretty much every subject under the sun: grades, tattoos, music, movies, hairstyles, pants-length, study habits, politics. If only for the sake of our own peace of mind we'd like to when it's okay to back off and when we really need to stand our ground.

The principle you want to keep in mind in a situation like this is the one you’ll find stated clearly in Ephesians 6:4: “Do not exasperate your children.” You have to expect a certain measure of conflict during the teen years, and you shouldn’t back down when a disagreement involves a difference of opinion about beliefs and values that you consider essential and fundamental. At the same time, you have to be careful about exerting too much control in areas that are relatively inconsequential. If you don’t exercise some discernment, you may end up alienating your child unnecessarily. The important thing is to get through these turbulent years with as little damage as possible to the parent-child relationship and your own sanity.

Your basic rule of thumb, then, should be, “Avoid major conflicts with your teenager if at all possible.” Some things just aren’t worth it. For instance, you should think carefully before starting a war over any of the following:

  • A mess in his own room (unless the health department pays a visit).
  • Hair length
  • Earrings (for either sex)
  • Music style
  • Music volume
  • Choice of everyday clothing
  • Fast food
  • Sleeping in when there’s no specific reason to get up
  • How, when and where homework is done (provided it’s getting done)

There are, of course, a number of other areas – some related to the issues enumerated above – in which you will need to state your case and hold your ground. Let’s revisit our list, adding a few qualifiers and caveats.

  • Don’t fight over the mess in your teen’s room. But if it extends beyond his room, it’s time to put your foot down. Make it clear that you have resigned from unpaid janitorial duties and that unclaimed valuables left lying around the house will be confiscated for an unspecified period. You can be humorous about it, but be sure to follow through.
  • Don’t make an issue of hair length. But if it’s a matter of extreme alterations to hair – something bizarre like giant green spikes – a heart-to-heart talk is in order. Extreme styles are a way of saying to the world, “I don’t care what anybody thinks of me!” If this is your teen’s attitude, you need to find out why.
  • Don’t obsess over earrings. But if your teen wants to move beyond earrings to aggressive body piercings (nose, tongue, navel, etc.) or tattoos, sit down and let him know that it’s extremely unwise to do anything to his body with permanent physical consequences at a time when his life is still in a state of flux. Tell him that he can have all the tattoos he wants – after he is eighteen and living on his own. He should also be aware that serious viral infections, as well as bacterial skin infections, can be spread by contaminated tattoo needles or piercing instruments.
  • Don’t nag your teen about the volume of his music – unless it’s bothering other people in the house or in the neighborhood. He needs to understand the importance of being considerate of others. And by all means do make an issue of the lyrical content of music. Words convey values and ideas, and if those values and ideas are inconsistent with those you’re attempting to teach at home, the recordings containing them need to be eliminated from your adolescent’s musical library.
  • Don’t exercise too much control over your teenager’s wardrobe. But if garments sport words or images that are violent or offensive, they need to go. You should also veto female attire that is blatantly sexually provocative.
  • Don’t make too big a deal of your adolescent’s love for fast food. But if his or her food choices become extreme – either excessive or limited in variety or amount – then don’t hesitate to point out the health risks involved. Remember, childhood and teen obesity is on the rise in contemporary society. And anorexia and bulimia are food-obsessions that can have serious consequences.

Other issues that require a very definite parental response should be fairly obvious. Behavior involving tobacco, alcohol and drug use, disrespectful comments and actions, sexual activity and toxic friends, for instance, are problems that you can’t afford to overlook. You should also insist that your teen keep you informed of his whereabouts at all times. This doesn’t mean that you’re treating him like a child. It’s simply a matter of common courtesy, and it may be critically important in the event of a family emergency.

If you’d like to discuss these suggestions at greater length with a member of our staff, don’t hesitate to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Boundaries With Teens

The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships: How to Forge a Strong and Lasting Bond With Your Teen

Losing Control & Liking It: How to Set Your Teen (and Yourself) Free

What Your Son Isn’t Telling You: Unlocking the Secret World of Teen Boys

John Rosemond: Parenting with Love and Leadership 

Your Teen Needs You

Letting Go of Your Teen

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