Family: Lead, don’t micro manage

Dealing with a teenager can be as hard as looking after a newborn. Lisa Salmon reports.


It’s hard looking after a new baby – but many parents believe it just gets tougher as they get older.

Research has found that more than half of parents (52 per cent) find looking after a teenager harder than a newborn, and 60 per cent worry more about their teenager than they did when the child was a baby.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The survey of 1,000 parents by the National Citizen Service (NCS), suggests part of what makes parenting a teenager so hard is the stark contrast between a baby’s dependence on them and a teen’s independence. Indeed, 58 per cent of the parents questioned admitted they were worried their teenagers’ future was out of their hands, and 45 per cent felt they had no influence over their teen’s decisions.

Teenage parenting expert Sarah Newton, a mother of two teenage girls, suggests that when children are young the hard part is physically always having to be there, but when they’re teenagers, while parents don’t always have to be physically present any more, their children need support, which can be mentally exhausting.

“They don’t need you around so much, but mentally they become more difficult,” she says. “You worry about them more – have they done their homework, how will they do in their GCSEs, what university will they go to? It’s the amount of head space they take up which is different.”

Newton, who has written books about teenagers and coaches them, points out that with younger children there are milestones that parents can measure their children’s development against, but as children get older, there’s nothing to measure them by, except perhaps exam results, which are far from the whole picture.

“Parents don’t tend to talk about the challenges they’re facing with teenagers, because they feel like they’re failing, but there’s nobody to guide you and tell you your child’s fine.”

Newton suggests that while parents teach younger children, and manage pre-teens, they need to lead teenagers. “Parents panic and they try to micro-manage their child instead of leading them. Ask questions rather than giving them advice – it’s a really subtle shift, and very difficult to do.”

Such a shift can include parents letting their children make mistakes, and Newton says she even had to let her daughter fail a maths exam for her to figure out that she needed to try harder.

“It’s difficult,” she says. “Many parents are stepping in and doing too much for their teenagers, and they’re not resilient enough. But it’s very hard to get the right balance.

“Parents and teenagers need to understand that failure and making mistakes is part of life.”

More than a third of parents (40 per cent) questioned in the NCS survey admitted they’ve wrapped their teenager in cotton wool, possibly in an attempt to protect them from making mistakes and failure.

But Newton suggests that rather than stepping in to deal with situations teens get themselves into, parents should ask them what they want to do.

“I think we’re not very good at trusting.” she says.

“A lot of the things we hear about young people are so bad, and we’re led to believe our teenagers are going to do something bad, yet all the evidence shows that’s not true at all.”