Fathering Your Teen: Thriving in Times of Change

by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.

When children enter adolescence, they experience some pretty drastic ups and downs. So do fathers. What goes up for a dad? Food bills, auto insurance premiums, the stereo volume, and your frustration level: “All right, who used my razor to shave her legs?!” Other things go down: free access to the bathroom mirror, the one-on-one basketball games that you win, the gas gauge in the car.

One very significant drop during this stage takes place in fathering satisfaction. Research at the National Center shows that a typical dad’s satisfaction reaches its lowest level during his children’s adolescence, then swings back up. Researchers call it a true linear curve, but at the bottom of the swing, most fathers just call it frustrating. Or difficult. Some call it quits.

dad-teen-son-fishing-riverThis period is marked by great change, and change means stress from having to adjust. Your child is attempting to find his feet, and the tension can permeate the entire house. How will you respond when your son’s value system seems to go against everything you’ve tried to teach him? How do you show affection to a daughter who looks more like a woman than your “little girl”? What will you say when they’d rather spend the day with their friends than with you? It can be unsettling.

There are many little-yet dramatic-swings in mood and opinion that come with adolescence. A changing teen and a changing father will have a changing relationship-or else a very strained one. We must grow and adapt if we want to maintain a strong connection.

No period of life is marked by more self-doubt and self-consciousness than adolescence. Each new blemish on the forehead presents one more reason for teens to hate themselves. They need an atmosphere of acceptance, and yet we fathers tend to pull back and struggle with appropriate ways to show affection. Our nurturance needs to be modified-not eliminated-and one of the best ways to encourage and affirm our teens is through effective communication, especially listening, one of the 7 Secrets of Effective Fathers.

Healthy, active listening takes the initiative: “Hey, let’s go get some lunch. I want to hear how school’s going this year.” It asks questions that address emotions, not just facts: “How are you feeling about moving to Chicago? Are you worried about making new friends?”

Good listeners shut out distractions, ask clarifying questions, and-especially important for dads-fight the urge to lecture. If you simply provide an empathetic sounding board, you may be surprised by how easily your child reaches your conclusions too.

As police chief, Gary had seen all the latest: hair cuts, body piercing, tattoos, you name it. He considered himself a pretty understanding, flexible dad until the day his teenage son Clay walked in wearing an earring. Gary wanted to reach over and yank it out of his ear.

Clearly, it was time for a talk. Clay began: “Dad, I’m seventeen now-old enough to make my own decisions. My friends have earrings, and I want to be part of this.”

Gary said, “Son, I try to keep this community wholesome and safe. If people think my own family is out of control, they lose respect for me.” The earring stayed in that day, and it was there three months later. Gary still wanted to yank it out, but again, he resisted.

Then one day, Clay walked in and the earring was gone. “You know, Dad,” he said, “I was ready to go to the mat with you over the earring, but we talked, and you listened like always. You were consistent, and I’m over the earring now.” Gary’s healthy communication with his son preserved their relationship and even strengthened it.

Though a dad’s satisfaction typically dips to its lowest point during this stage, another research finding can offer some hope: the trait with the strongest connection to high fathering satisfaction is verbal interaction. The father who communicates effectively with his children gets the most satisfaction as a dad.

There may be times when your teen openly rebels against your desires, your established routine, even your values. Too many fathers try to exert strict control and often drive their teenagers away.

Our kids are their own people. We can teach them to make wise choices, but the choosing still belongs to them. We can influence and shape their lives, but we can never control them. Instead, we need to focus on those things which are under our control and make appropriate adjustments.

If your teen is too busy to do things with you, maybe for now you can fit into his schedule. If it’s difficult to get your son to talk to you, maybe you can try opening up about your day. If your daughter is getting failing grades, you can’t force her to study harder; but you can stay calm, express concern, and let her face the consequences.

With self-control, we can let some responsibility slide onto our teens’ shoulders. We can communicate trust in them, be patient, and let them sharpen their decision-making skills.

If you’re a biological father, you have already shaped your child’s sexual identity by providing an X or Y chromosome. But you-and all fathers-also play a significant role in influencing your child’s sexual expression.

Advocates of teenage sexual experimentation have a limited view of adolescence. Kids don’t need to have sex, but to learn about it. The goal is understanding, and experimentation is only one educational means. But it’s neither the most instructive means nor the most satisfying for the child.

Your child will pick up some clues from friends and the media. And, we hope, he will turn to you. Safe sex and pregnancy prevention are important concerns, but his emotional and spiritual well-being are just as vital.

We have the power to give our kids the truth about sexuality: the dangers, the joys, how it changes relationships, and its proper context. It may be awkward, but we have to be open with both our sons and daughters.

Look for teachable moments when you can ask a question or express your perspective. Check in one-on-one, and make yourself approachable and available. Imposing your views on your child is outside your control, but having a view and living consistently according to it is within your control.

That means modeling a healthy, loving relationship with your wife. Demonstrate that women are to be valued for their character, their integrity, and the feminine traits that complement and complete your masculine approach.

Most of all, love your kids. Kids from families where there’s an abundance of love are far less likely to engage in premarital sex. They are secure in the love they receive at home and are less inclined to look elsewhere for cut-rate substitutes.

Your adolescent is asking questions like: “Where am I going?” “What does the future look like for me?” Soon she will make decisions about what college (if any) to attend, what major to study, what career to pursue.

As a father, you want your child to succeed in the job market, but you also want her to have a fulfilling career and rewarding life pursuits. So guiding her vocationally is a commitment to helping her identify and express her unique personality, talents and gifts.

Practically, that means keeping in touch with your teen’s studies to see where he excels. What disciplines does he gravitate to? What are his favorite classes, and why? Perhaps your son has problem-solving savvy, or design skills, or natural leadership qualities.

Talk to teachers, coaches and guidance counselors about your child’s strengths and interests. Take advantage of the school’s assessment tools and discuss the results with your child. Your primary task for now is to identify skills and interests; matching them up to colleges and careers is secondary.

If your child has a part-time job, help nurture her confidence. Most jobs in the teenage market aren’t very glamorous; they’re more about making money than beginning a career. So help her focus on character and skill-building rather than the job itself. “Honey, you really know how to make your customers feel comfortable.” “Son, I appreciate your hard work. Your boss said you keep going strong right up until quitting time.”

You also teach a lot by example. Do your children hear you talk about the satisfaction of meeting a challenge, or are you always griping about something at the office or plant? How can you demonstrate hard work, honesty, fairness, and respect for everyone, no matter what their position? Your children may or may not follow in your career footsteps, but it’s likely that they will imitate your values and attitudes about work.

These years can be frustrating for teens and for fathers. Sometimes it would be easier to just give up-and many fathers do pull away during this stage. But hang in there, dad. The transition from child to adult is traumatic. Your influence may be diminished, but it’s still very powerful. Even if he won’t admit it, your teenager needs your love and acceptance more than ever.


  • Let your child choose an activity to do together: a father-daughter date, bicycling, working on the car, golf or disc golf, etc.
  • Ask your teenager where she sees herself in ten years. What will she do for a living? Will she be married? How will she spend her spare time?
  • When talking with your teen, introduce your opinions with phrases like, “From my experience …” or, “The way I see it …”
  • Invite your child’s friend to join the two of you for an outing or activity.
  • Listen, ask questions, and let your child arrive at the solution to a problem.
  • Check out the latest movie or music download with your child. Ask questions about the messages being sent.
  • Ask for your child’s advice on some problem you’re having.
  • Open up to your child about the rewards and challenges that you encounter at work. Invite questions.
  • Initiate a conversation about a current news event. Draw out and discuss differing points of view.

Watch the replay of the Fathering Breakthrough Event

Join Dr. Ken Canfield and a handful of friends and partners as we give an update about our efforts to inspire and equip fathers all over the world.

There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.