Parenting teenagers - navigating the teenage mind

Published Apr 19, 2024


By: Alison Scott, Executive Principal of Bellavista School

Parents who take a back seat in raising their teenagers will do well to sit up and consider their responsibilities in raising ethical citizens who are protected and also safe for others to be around.

In an unprecedented court case held in the USA recently, James and Jennifer Crumbley were both convicted of involuntary manslaughter in their son Ethan's deadly shooting at Oxford High School in 2021.

Ethan gunned down four peers. The Crumbleys were sentenced to prison for 10 - 15 years because they did not intervene and help their son and avert his irreparable actions.

The judge ruled strongly against their irresponsible behaviour in ignoring warning signs that a “reasonable person” would have seen, saying that these “convictions confirm repeated acts that could have halted a runaway train”.

Adolescence is an explosive, marvellous, and intense point of the development of all human beings. It can be marked with situational disproportionate emotional outbursts, mood swings, risk taking and rebellion.

It is developmentally appropriate that your child presents as a maddening teen: their primary driver is to separate themselves from the child they were. In their quest for independence, they want privacy and to manage their own affairs.

As adults in their lives, you have hindsight from your own years growing up that compels you to intervene when you see trouble ahead. The divergence between what restrictions your child can live with, and what behaviours you will tolerate, defines these parenting years.

Set clear boundaries to keep your teen safe

To guide your child in terms of their own safety you must set clear boundaries. Between you and your teen, you can agree to stay within predetermined ‘rules of engagement’.

Gary Quesenberry, in his book, Spotting Danger before it hits your Teens, suggests the following broad rules to protect your child from the real and irreversible harm they could face in this world today:

1. Never put yourself into a situation you can’t get out of.

2. Never intentionally do something you know could be harmful to yourself or others.

3. Always be aware of what’s happening around you. In other words, never let yourself slip into a position where you can’t be sure of this awareness when you’re out in public.

4. Don’t be afraid to defend yourself if all other options have failed. Never allow yourself to be a victim.

These parameters have sensible application to an adolescent’s life involving social media, the problem of substances in society, and the vulnerability that comes with peer pressure and unchartered social landscapes that extend beyond school and home.

Set limits

Teenagers need limits, and they need to understand yours. Let them know you respect their passage to adulthood and their quest for independence. However, communicate clearly that their safety, be it socially, emotionally and physically, is ultimately your responsibility as their parents.

Commit to giving them the space and privacy they need to do things on their own, but make it explicit that if at any point you feel that one of the rules is being broken or that they are doing something unsafe, you will step in.

You can openly acknowledge that in life, some things start off innocently but escalate beyond our control. Commit to your teen that if, for some reason, they find themself in trouble, they can always call home.

Agree to fetch them or step in regardless of the situation, no questions asked. You can always take some time to cool off, and then discuss what went wrong.

Impulsive expressions of judgment and wrath are not useful when you are building trust in your role as parent of a teenager.

Be the stability in an uncertain world

The world is a scary, uncertain place. No longer do teens have to go to dangerous places to find trouble, with smart devices and a plethora of influencers on social media, the trouble finds them.

While no parent is perfect, and every father and mother has their own set of worries to contend, the judgment of your parenting will come down to reasonable effort to keep your child safe, and others in their world safe too. For more information, visit

*Alison Scott is the Executive Principal of Bellavista School

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL