Parenting Priorities + Changing Teen Behavior

When your teen has a history of hard times, setting effective limits can feel daunting. 

You may fear triggering a safety concern or starting and argument with your teen, or you may just not know where to start given the host of concerns at hand including:

  • Not completing school assignments
  • Arguments at home
  • Isolation, depression or self-harm
  • Anxiety that shows up as avoidance and shutting down

Prioritizing parenting goals... 

When your teen is making unsafe choices or engaging in self-destructive behaviors, this take priority over all other concerns (yes, even grades.)  The #1 priority to reinforce for teens who are experiencing safety concerns is getting them into treatment and ensuring that they engage in it (even if this makes them angry with you.)

When your teen is safe, prioritizing goals and tackling issues comes down to a few things:

  1. What is the most challenging concern that your teen or family faces?
  2. What values do you have as a family and how does this impact the decisions and goals you develop within the family system?

The goal or challenge you choose to address first matters less than being clear and staying consistent in communicating expectations and consequences to your teen.  This is how they learn what to expect and where limits lie... limits that create consistency and security for your teen.

Increase Positive Behaviors by Reinforcing Them 

When you respond to your teen with attention and/or reward, it increases the likelihood that whatever behavior they are exhibiting will continue to occur.  Some examples of reinforcers include:

  • Smiles
  • Hugs
  • Praise
  • Compliments
  • Extra privileges
  • High fives
  • Gratitude
  • Attention

There are lots of ways to say or show that you appreciate your teen's behavior and that you want more of it.  

Your interactions with your teen (whether they'd like to admit it or not) can be a POWERFUL way to reshape their behavior.  

Be very mindful of what you may be accidentally reinforcing with your time, attention, or strong emotion (and also aware that giving too much focus to an unhealthy behavior can reinforce that behavior too.)

Punishing your teen sucks (and it doesn't even really work) 

Taking something away from your teen, like the car or phone (or even having them do chores or other tasks) has been proven to be LESS effective at getting them to stop problematic behaviors.  AND, it often leads to sneakiness and dishonesty as your teen will just continue to do the same thing but try harder to make sure they don't get caught.

Punishing your teen doesn't tell them what they should do either and ends up creating a divide in the parent-child relationship.

What works?

Notice and reward healthy behaviors.  << Years of psychological research back this up.

What if it doesn't work? 

Help your teen learn natural consequences by not fixing mistakes for them.  As long as they are safe, let forgotten homework, embarrassing social judgment and failed tests have real world responses.

When you protect your teen from what would naturally happen in these situations, your teen doesn't learn that their behavior has consequences and you give them permission to shift blame to others when life doesn't work in their favor.

It's hard and scary to watch your teen "fail' but it's a necessary life lesson so that they can learn from these experiences and adjust their behavior accordingly.

It definitely gets worse before it gets better 

It's called the behavioral burst.  As you're making changes (which take time), you're shaking things up and your pulling your teen out of their comfort zone.  Expect that your teens emotions and behaviors will increase in intensity as they try to maintain the status quo.

Trust the process.  Stay the course.  It makes sense that you'd want to give in, but doing so will only strengthen your teen's unhealthy patterns.  

You're about to make the changes that will set your teen up for success today, tomorrow, in college and beyond. You got this!

Finsta, Rinsta or SnapChat Story... You Decide

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This just in... 

A “Finsta” (fake instagram account) is for posting photos of dogs and connecting with friends.  Your teen’s “Real” Instagram account is reserved for…

  • “Hot pictures of myself.”
  • “Me and my boyfriend”
  • “Only the best version of myself but if no one likes it fast enough I’ll take it down.”


Social media is a STRESSOR and the struggle is REAL!

Our teens are immersed in putting their best face forward at the expense of real and genuine connections that would actually give them the self-esteem boost they want and need.

Use the following tips to guide your teen in creating genuine peer connections and improving their overall happiness social media style...

Use Social to BE Social

Instead of surfing the scroll, send messages, comment and engage on others posts to create a shared experience and look for ways to genuinely connect with others.  This starts with a willingness to be authentically you and not some screen persona that’s aiming for likes and comments.

Use Comparisons to Find Your Personal Best Self

Instead of comparing yourself to others, compare yourself to yourself.  Think of it as a before and after photo for a fitness ad.  Where have you been and where are you now?  What’s improved?  How is your life better or different and what have you done to get to this point?

If They Have It, You Can Too

Jealousy can be used as a motivator when you reframe it.  Instead of, “She has lots of followers and I don’t,” look for traits and lifestyles on social media that are a step or two beyond where you are currently.  It gives you something to strive for without that feeling that it’s unfair because they have something that feels unattainable for you.

Focus on the Good

What you focus on expands.  Instead of focusing on what you lack in your life, begin working on highlighting what’s good.  It’s the most important www you’ll ever type:  what went well.  Share what’s working in your life, share what brings you joy.  Use your social media as your gratitude journal to highlight the favorite parts of your life.

Follow People Who Inspire You

Who are some people you admire who inspire personal growth for you?  Let others lift you up by following those who model a life of mindful joy and kindness so that you can do the same.

Validate to Make your Relationships GREAT!

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When you validate others, it means that you express and understanding of them and share how their thoughts and feelings make sense in the situation.  It does not mean that you agree with them, just that you understand.    Validation is one of the building blocks of engaging in effective relationships.  

Use the following guidelines to validate others.

Value Others
Seeking the inherent value in others is essential to validation. Adopt an attitude of acceptance toward others. Demonstrate your caring and concern, and let others know they are important to you.

Ask Questions
We ask questions to help clarify others’ experience. Ask specific questions about what others are feeling. Ask about thoughts and beliefs. Be genuinely curious about what is behind behaviors. Use questions to draw out others’ experience.

Listen and Reflect
Listen to others’ answers to your questions and reflect back the major themes. Invite others to confirm your understanding (or lack of understanding). Continue to question, listen, and reflect for clarity.

Identify with Others
Work to see the world through the eyes of others. How do relationships and the world make sense to them? Seek to understand others, identifying when you can and accepting differences when you cannot.

Discuss Emotions
Talk about others’ feelings and how they affect them from their perspective (not how it affects you). Acknowledging the impact of others’ experience on them demonstrates understanding.

Attend to Nonverbals
Notice others’ nonverbal communication to give you information about their experience. Do they look open or closed? Are they making eye contact? Read facial expressions and body language to identify feelings, and then check out your observations with others for accuracy.

You don't have to agree to validate! 

Some parents hesitate to validate because they don't want to condone or agree with an unhealthy teen behavior.  But, validation is actually about communicating that you understand WHY your teen FELT a certain way so that you can open the door for communication and problem-solve HOW to respond in a more healthy way to a difficult situation next time.

Validation is the #1 key to communication success!

Group Therapy: It's Not Just "Social Hour"

A few parents have remarked in the past that group wasn't the right level of support for their teen because they didn't believe that a "social hour" would ultimately help their depression or anxiety.

But here's the deal...

Support support has been scientifically proven to be the #1 indicator of overall wellbeing in humans. It leads to improved symptoms of anxiety and depression, better physical health (and actually higher incomes too!)

Here are three reasons that group WORKS and why it's a valuable layer of support for your teen:

Group helps your teen experience and understand that they are not alone.

Being in a group with others who have similar struggles normalizes this experience to help your teen understand that they are not weird, bad, wrong or different for having the feelings that they do. It allows them to feel heard and understood and this validation is the first step towards making any changes.

Group helps your teen learn to love and accept themselves for exactly who they are.

The experience of showing up week after week, being able to "take off the mask" they wear at school and allow themselves to be know for who they are at their core is a priceless experience that most don't get in life. It allows your teen to actually live the truth that they are accepted for exactly who they are which leads to courage, confidence and sky-rocketing self-esteem.

Group provides your teen with a built-in accountability system.

Group members support each other in making healthy decisions. I've had group members commit to quit smoking, end toxic relationships, finish school work and more... and they actually follow through because they have PEERS checking in on them on a weekly basis to hold them accountable and cheer them on.

There are MANY ways to find a social support system for your teen.

Whether you decide on group as a way to help your teen find support, or you seek connection for your teen elsewhere, our mission is to help your teen understand that they are not alone.

(The key is to find a social support that your teen is interested in so that they will actually invest in the process.)

As Montgomery County's Teen Support Center, we've collected a list of local resources for 7+ ways to increase your teen's social support system.

Click the image below to get your free printable resource guide for local teen activities.


How to Help Your Teen Break Free of Limiting Beliefs

Our beliefs influence our thoughts, words and actions, and then the way we interact with the world around us.  The way your teen thinks then impacts their words and behavior too.

Watch the video below to learn how your beliefs about your teen are actually a part of the story in how they see and define themselves.  You'll also learn how you can use this information to boost your teen's confidence and productivity.

Some examples of limiting or unhelpful beliefs include...

  • I am unlovable
  • I'm not good enough
  • I am unwanted or uncared for
  • I am helpless or powerless
  • I am weak
  • I am trapped

Here are 2 ways to help your teen break free of limiting beliefs:

Technique #1:  Observe and Dismantle

Your thoughts, words and actions are always a reflection of what you believe.  Pay close attention to what you think, say and do when you notice a difficult emotion start to arise.  Ask yourself, "What's going through my head?" then flip the unhelpful or limiting belief into something more helpful or empowering.

For example:  If you normally look at a pile of homework and say to yourself, "This is too much.  I'll never get through it."  Instead you might say, "OK, one thing at a time, I totally got this!"

Technique #2:  Bulldoze and Liquefy

When you can explain and rationalize all the reasons that your belief is NOT true (even when it's hard) you begin to create evidence for a new truth.  I encourage my teens to put pen to paper and write down all the evidence that a current belief is false.

For example:  If you normally believe that no one likes you, write down all the evidence that you can find that others appreciate you, want you around, or are kind to you.  Then, begin to make it a habit to find evidence of your new and empowering belief.

 Remember to "Act as if!"

The super important follow-up to both of these exercises is to begin taking action and behaving in ways that reinforce that this new belief is true.  Choose at least three new, healthy and empowering behaviors that will help you make lasting changes that match your new beliefs about yourself.

Is my Teen's Behavior Normal or Problematic?

Often times we hear parents' concerns about teen behavior that are completely valid.

It can feel worrisome to know that your teen may be experimenting with alcohol or becoming sexually active.

And, while we always err on the side of safety and encouraging teen's to act in alignment with their family values, we also want to have the "real" talk too so that we can adequately address the behaviors that are happening (rather than be a place where teens feel like they can't fully be honest for fear of consequences or judgment.)

This is the same worksheet we use with teens in our DBT groups to help them evaluate their own behaviors and assess for areas of concern.  Remember as a general rule of thumb to listen more than you talk to help support your teen in acting in alignment with their values.

How to Make Sense of Your Teen's Problem Behaviors

Some behaviors that your teen displays in the moment may seem irrational to you. They may upset you. They may baffle you because you see how they can be harmful or have long-term negative consequences.

But in the moment they make a whole lot of sense.

Drinking at a party may ease your teen's social anxiety.

Self-harm may give an immediate release to a build up of emotional pain.

Punching a wall (or a person) may provide instant relief to a burning anger that's brewing inside.

Behaviors always serve a purpose.

And when you're looking to better understand your teen, it can be helpful to understand the WHY behind the action (and be open and curious about this) rather than jumping right to conclusions and consequences.


In a relationship first stance, you always start with validation, like,

"You must have been in a lot of pain to have hurt yourself like that."

Or, "Seems like you were pretty angry to have punched that wall."

^^ This is what eases your teen's emotional experience and opens them up to actually talking to you about it rather than being defensive and shutting down.

And, just like behaviors always have a purpose, they always have a consequence too (good or bad.)

Drinking at a party may ease social anxiety, but it also may lead to underage drinking charges or moments of embarrassment when you're less inhibited and have poor judgment.

Self-harm may help with in the moment pain, but it often causes shame, fuels self-hatred and leads to the desire to ultimately self-harm more.


Punching a wall may help you release anger instantly, but may also lead to hurt hands and having to fix the hole you created using your own time and finances.

Use the DBT skill Pros and Cons to help your teen decide whether or not their behavior has been helpful or harmful

Stop reacting to behaviors with punishments that make your teen resent YOU. Instead, Validate FIRST, then talk through the pros and cons that THEY see in their chosen behaviors and help them come up with a new way to think about and act on this feeling in the future.

This is how you set your teen up for being a successful adult. It's all about empowering them to learn appropriate ways of interacting and responding (not punishing them for acting on feelings they haven't learned to control yet.)

This doesn't mean that you condone unhealthy behaviors. It means you understand them and troubleshoot how to manage the feelings behind them so that they behaviors fundamentally change. (Otherwise you're punishing a behavior but not addressing the feeling that's causing it. And this typically just leads to sneaky and dishonest teens that try not to get caught but continue to do the same thing.)

You can validate the feelings behind your teen’s behavior and still set limits on behavior! Try this three step method:

Acknowledge your teen’s feeling: “I know you’re angry that I won’t allow you out past curfew.”

Communicate the limit: “But punching the wall is not an appropriate way to express this anger."

Provide alternatives: “So, you can choose to yell, journal, text to a friend to vent or go punch the punching bag in the basement-- which do you choose right now?"

With this method, you are validating your teen’s feeling while maintaining house rules and expectations. In addition, you are providing some acceptable alternatives that may satisfy your teen’s initial desire (at least in part) to show that you care about your teen’s wants and needs.