Behavioral Consult

Help Parents Change Style for Raising Teens

Adolescents are often the most intimidating of our patients. Let's face it: Most of us chose pediatrics because we like little kids. If a 15-minute office visit with a sullen teenager can be so difficult, imagine living with one 24/7. Actually, many of us won't have to imagine—we ourselves are the parents of adolescents, and we know just how challenging that can be.

Despite our own feelings of inadequacy, we can help parents make the transition from raising the innocent younger child to guiding the testy teen into adulthood. A failure to make that transition in parenting style can contribute greatly to a suboptimal outcome.

But your guidance needs to start early. When a parent comes into the office demanding that you administer a drug test or a pregnancy test, you have probably missed the window for effective action. The horse is well out of the barn.

The time to start is earlier—much earlier. All of parenting involves the balancing act between supporting dependency and promoting independence. When people first become parents, they are consumed with accepting the huge dependency of their baby. As the child gets older, parents must allow the child more independence for things to go smoothly.

But adolescence is a time when that balancing act requires truly skilled acrobatics. Teens and their parents need to negotiate the “Four I's” of adolescent development: Initiative, Individuation, Independence, and Intimacy.

Adolescents clearly need to take the initiative in their activities, including when they do their chores and how they manage homework. If parents get in the way and try to structure all of that, they're going to get a lot of pushback.

In terms of individuation—discovering who they are—teenagers are highly sensitive to the standards of peers. They're more interested in what their peers think they should do than what their parents think they should do. On one level, this includes how many ear piercings they have and how they dress. But on a broader level, they need to think their parents are wrong about most things in order to feel “like their own person.” Offering an opinion can be beneficial in giving the adolescent something to counter, but ideally save consequences for more substantial failings. In terms of independence, teenagers are better educated by learning from the consequences of their own actions when those actions are not harmful to their futures.

And in terms of intimacy, teens want and need privacy for their budding relationships. Parents need to learn how to be available to talk about relationships, but not ask too many questions.

Different teens move through these changes at different times. And on top of that, the transition may not always go in one direction. A teen may want to be very independent in choosing her clothes. But the same teen may want a lot of parental help on getting her homework done and on handling peer situations. That's part of what makes parenting adolescents so difficult.

Parents need to gradually release control and let their teens exert more independence. But the key word in that sentence is “gradually,” and parents need to be alert for signs that the child is not ready or has not yet earned that freedom.

Let's say the parents have allowed their 13-year-old to have a cell phone. Let's say that a few weeks later, the child hurls the phone against the wall in anger, shattering it beyond repair. Some parents might be tempted to say: “That's it. I'm not buying you another cell phone until you're in college,” but that is unlikely to be the most educational solution. The time frame should be measured in days or weeks, not in months or years. If consequences are too severe, kids tend to write their parents off completely and feel they have been written off.

Instead, the parents should give the teen a clear path to re-earning the privilege, negotiating the terms. Maybe he has to contribute 80% of his allowance and do some extra chores until the phone is paid for. Showing that they're reasonable and willing to negotiate is a model of adult behavior, and it's also their key to success.

The older the child, the more important it is to negotiate what the rules are to be, and also what exceptions there might be. It's fine if there's a general rule that they can't stay out after 11 o'clock. But if a special event comes along that starts at 10 o'clock and won't end until 2 a.m., it's best to be flexible about the curfew this one time. When teens and parents negotiate one-time exceptions as needed, there is structure but rebellion or sneaking is not brought out.

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