What Age Is Hardest to Parent?

A recent survey showed that parents of 12- to 14-year-old teens had a harder time than parents of toddlers, elementary school children, high school children, and adult children.
A recent survey showed that parents of 12- to 14-year-old teens had a harder time than parents of toddlers, elementary school children, high school children, and adult children.

From toddler tantrums to teen angst, parenting children at any age can be tough. Research shows that some people find it hardest to parent children in their middle school years. Puberty and peer pressure can leave these teens feeling angry, alone, and confused, which can cause bad behavior and disagreements.

Why are middle schoolers hard to parent?

While cases vary across parents, a survey of more than 2,000 moms showed that parents of 12- to 14-year-old teens had a harder time than parents of toddlers, elementary school children, high school children, and adult children. These moms felt more stress, emptiness, and loneliness, as well as lower parenting and life satisfaction.

There are several reasons the middle-school years are difficult for the child-parent relationship:

  • Changes during puberty
  • Issues with identity
  • Issues with dating
  • Issues with friends
  • Introduction to alcohol and smoking

Middle schoolers may start to ignore their parents' authority and instead focus on people outside the family unit, like peers of the same age. Parents may feel frustrated by their child's newfound independence, causing arguments.

Disagreements between parents and teens

Common areas of disagreement between parents and their middle schoolers include:

  • Curfew and social restrictions
  • Choice of friends
  • School performance
  • Dating
  • Clothes and makeup

In severe cases, children can show signs of self-destructive behavior, such as drinking and smoking. They can also act in violent or criminal ways.

To limit disagreement, you should understand and respect your teen's need for more freedom while setting reasonable limits. Open communication is key for a smooth transition into the later teens years.

How to talk to your teen

When your child was little, you could probably have direct conversations without much trouble. But asking direct questions to middle schoolers, such as "how'd you do on the quiz?", can come across as too much.

Indirect communication is more useful. Try to actively listen without much interference or questioning. Listening to your child makes them feel safe enough to tell you what's going on and ask for advice when they need it.

Middle schoolers are sensitive to parents' reactions. You should address inappropriate behavior, but try to soften your language so you don't come across overly harsh or judgmental. 

You should talk to your teen about puberty, drugs, and alcohol. While it may seem too early, some children start using drugs and alcohol at just 9 or 10 years old. Sexual development is also a big part of the early teen years and can be a source of confusion.

You don't need to tackle everything in one big talk. Instead, give your child age-appropriate information as they age through middle school. Books like The Boy's Body Book (by Kelli Dunham) and The Care and Keeping of You (by Valarie Schaefer) are good for bringing up the topic of puberty.


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How to set reasonable limits

Middle schoolers should have more independence than little kids, but parents should still give guidance and set limits in some areas. Take the following measures to make sure your child grows up happy and healthy:

  • Respect Privacy: don't snoop on your child's calls or texts, but make sure you know where they are at all times.
  • Quality Time: set aside time away from work and other responsibilities to give your child full attention.
  • Limit Screens: limit screen time and set curfews on technology use to encourage good sleep.
  • Internet Safety: talk to your child about the dangers of social media and teach them to be internet savvy.

It's normal for middle schoolers to spend more time away from their parents and hang out with friends and peers. Remember that your child is not rejecting you — they're just trying to figure out their own identity. Forcing your teen to share everything with you will just make them more distant.

When to see a doctor or psychiatrist

Occasional disagreements between parents and middle schoolers are pretty normal. But sudden, long-term changes in behavior may be symptoms of a deeper problem, like drug abuse or an eating disorder. Keep an eye out for these signs:

  • Extreme weight gain or loss
  • Problems with sleep
  • Skipping school
  • Talking or joking about suicide
  • Using drugs or alcohol

Other unusual or inappropriate behaviors that last more than 6 weeks — like a grade A student failing — can also be a sign of a deeper issue. Talking with your child about any concerns you may have can be helpful in some situations, but oftentimes, children won't want to discuss any problems they are experiencing with their parents. Contact your doctor or psychiatrist in these cases.

American Psychological Association: "Parenting: The teen years."
Child Mind Institute: "10 Tips for Parenting Preteens."
Developmental Psychology: "What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children's developmental stage."
KidsHealth: "A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Teen Years."