A horse-sense approach to parenting troubled teens...

We don't want to beat a dead horse (pun intended), but there are a lot of similarities between parenting troubled teens and training mustangs (and horses).

Horse tip:
"Your raise kids, dogs, and horses all the same." Ray Farmer (Not sure who he was, but the quote seemed relevant.)

This is especially true with Apache...Troubled Teen Mustang, ApacheThe dark chocolate horse here, Apache is a challenge to work with, especially when it comes to saddle work. With other people and children, he is very gentle and no problem. But because of our special relationship (he sees me as a member of his herd), he is always challenging me for Top Horse position.

A big part of the challenge for parenting troubled teens is that they reflect a lot about ourselves (the parents). In psycho-babble, there is a lot of Freudian projection and transference that goes on between parent and teen. In essence, they are mirrors of ourselves...

Mirrors of ourselves

Mirror Neurons in the Brain

We now know that there are a whole set of special neurons (brain cells) that act as mirror neurons (Miller, G. 2005. Reflecting on another's mind. Science, 308, 945-947.). In essence these neurons enable us to mirror back what we see in others. They are critically important for learning new skills and behaviors. They are also important for empathy, i.e. the ability to experience and share others' emotions. Mirror neurons are the neurological basis for social skills, learning, and interpreting social situations. What does this mean for our troubled teens?

The bad news:

Our teens (and children) are very often mirrors of ourselves as parents. Their issues too often reflect our issues. If anxiety is one of our issues, anxiety is probably going to be one of their issues. Why is this?

First, we are their first role model. So we have modeled anxiety in whatever form it manifests in us for them. This is an environmental component. But, there may also be a large genetic component.

From the Human Genome Project and other genetic studies, many genes have been identified. (Hamer & Copeland, 1998) Among them is a high anxiety variant. And anxiety in its several manifested forms (excessive worry, panic attack, phobia, etc.) has high heritability in studies with twins. This means if we have it, our children probably have it.

The same goes with depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and many other traits.

Our teens don't just incorporate the negative from one parent, but too often incorporate good and bad from both parents. They are hybrids of us.

At my therapeutic boarding school we have found that when we meet the parents, we usually know why the troubled teen behaves the way s/he does. This is true about 95% of the time. Likewise, I hear many teachers say the same thing. It is quickly obvious when they meet the parents where their student gets his problem behaviors.

The good news:

So what is the good news? The human brain is a fantastic learning machine. We can learn new ways to counter our old learned behaviors or even compensate for our genetic endowment. And so can our teens.

Parenting Basics Index:

Top Horse: Who's the Parent?
Walk Your Talk
Divorced or Separated Co-Parenting
Single Parenting
Feeling Safe
Because I Say So
Communication: basic listening skills
Communication: non-verbals
Being Real and Authentic

Parenting Skills

In this part of the website, we present some helpful horse-sense based "basic" parenting skills for helping with your troubled teen. "Horse-sense" is another way of saying "common sense" for the most part. This section is Parenting Skills 101.

In the Empowering Parents of Troubled Teens section, we go beyond the basics to more on the "How To" aspects. This is the Parenting Skills 102 section.

Below is a brief discussion and links to what is discussed for each topic for this parenting troubled teens. At the bottom of the page is an overview Index for your convenience. You can use this Index to go to the next topic or to skip around from topic to topic, jump back to this page, etc.

Top Horse

Top Horse covers the importance of you being the parent and remembering who is the parent and in charge. It is about being in control of your parent-teen relationship.

Walking Your Talk

In Walking Your Talk we talk about the importance of your words and actions reflecting each other. This is where the mirroring comes in. You must lead by example if you want your words to be heeded.


Consistency emphasizes the importance of being consistent with your teen. This means telling him the same thing time after time. This means not telling him or her one thing one time and another thing the next time. It means being consistent with your rules over time, between parents, and more.


Which brings us to the important topic of Co-Parenting. A teen has a mother and father. Unless one is not in the picture, then both parents need to be parents and be on the same page with each other about rearing practices. This is another way we have to be consistent as parents.

Divorced or Separated Co-Parenting

Next we move on to discuss a special type of co-parenting, that of the divorced or separated parents. This gets stickier sometimes, but it is imperative for the health of your teen that you two be on the same page with each other on parenting issues and decisions.

Single Parenting

Being a single parent presents another set of challenges. It is really important here to have a support group.


Do you know the difference between being assertive, aggressive, and passive/aggressive with your teen? This is important.

Feeling safe?

What we have found as the basis for many children's, adolescents', and adults' problems and negative behaviors ultimately comes down to not feeling safe...

Because I Say So

This goes along with the Top Horse concept. When it comes down to making decisions, you are the parent, and it is your decision. In the end, when it is all said and done, you don't have to justify or explain decision.


A critical issue with teens, and too many adults I'm afraid, is taking ownership of their behaviors and actions. When you see/hear your teen starting to take accountability for themselves, you have made a giant step.

Communication: Basic Listening Skills

Everyone, yourself and your teen alike, want to feel like they have been heard. Here are some basics on listening so that everyone will feel like they have been heard.

Communication: Non-Verbals

More important than the verbal, the words that are said, are the non-verbal communications. They tell you what is really being said.

Being Real and Authentic

This page discusses the importance of being real and authentic to your teen and with yourself.