This month Douglas Holwerda, American trained and licensed mental health counsellor, advises on how to deal with difficult teenagers


Dear Douglas,


My teenage son has become difficult and I am no longer feeling like I know what to do. My husband is telling me that I am over-reacting and that it is normal teenage behavior, but I am afraid of losing this boy whom I have always been close to and able to talk with.


Since he began 11th grade he shows little interest in his family, his younger brother and sister, his dad or me. He spends a lot of time in his room with the door shut and, any chance he can, he wants to be out with friends. He seems to spend lots of time in the bathroom and becomes quickly angry if anyone disrupts him or says anything about how he looks or dresses.


He has always been a good student, but since moving to Hanoi he is not really trying and doesn’t seem bothered by grades that are lower than he has ever had. His teachers say he is quiet, but he is not living up to his potential. The other day I asked him to sit and talk to me. Before I could even tell him what I am worried about he yelled at me and left the room.


Is this normal?


— Concerned Mother


Hello Concerned Mother,


What is normal? This is a question we often ask because it helps us decide if something is wrong or not. Of course, when we pause to think about it, we know that “normal” is subjective and relative… that there is no absolute standard for what is normal. Culture, age, personality, interests, etc. can all determine differences. We seem to want and need some standard by which we can determine what is normal and what is of concern.


Another way to determine whether something is wrong or not, is to consider how we are feeling. If I were to make some assumptions about how you are feeling, it would include feeling confused — not sure how to connect to your son; frustrated that your attempts have failed; fearful that something is wrong or that you are losing the connection with him; hurt that it feels like you are being rejected or that your importance in his life is reduced; helpless and alone with these questions; worried that he is losing interest in school and his future may be impacted.


You may also feel angry that your husband seems unconcerned and is minimising your feelings. All of these feelings may also spur the feelings of love you have for him and memories of feeling close and connected. The question becomes, what can you do with these feelings? The longer they are un-addressed, the more intense they become. It also creates a situation where it feels like your son needs to change in order for you to feel better. This is a disempowered position that burdens him and often leads to power struggles.


Let me say something about power struggles with teenagers. From the time a child is born they are making more and more decisions for themselves, and as long as their decisions are in line with their parents’ wishes, there are no problems. What often happens as they approach the end of adolescence is that they start to make decisions that are not in line with what their parents or teachers would want of them. At this point there is often an unanswered question. Whose decision is it?


Your son may be showing you that he has power — the power not to cooperate, not to participate, to not respond to you and your need for him. He is showing you that these are his decisions. Don’t be tempted into using power in response — punishing, controlling his behaviour, intruding on his space or creating conditions that will meet resistance from him.


I am not saying to abandon expectations or to have no limits. I would encourage you to let him know how you are feeling. Tell him your frustrations, fears, the loss you feel and the way that you love him. It is an invitation to reconnect and to remind him of your importance to him. Be willing to stand by and to gently and caringly observe. The important thing is that you recognize that it is your feelings that you want to change. Only you are responsible for them.
I wish you well,


— Douglas


Do you have a question you would like Douglas’s help with? You can email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Personal details will not be printed

More in this category: « Anxiety Bullying »
Douglas Holwerda

Douglas is an American trained psychotherapist, writer of the Dear Abby-esque monthly column in the Word, "Dear Douglas". He holds to the notion that the living of life is a creative endeavour... an eternal adventure without promises. And that we are both shaped by the journey and the shapers of what is possible. Our greatest hope is to find love and connection along the way. Live it all.

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