Adolescence is a time of rapid change. In a span of just a few short years, teens transition dramatically in almost all realms of their lives. Physically, they grow in leaps and bounds and start to appear like mature adults.
Cognitively, their thinking becomes more sophisticated.
Socially, relationships are renegotiated, and teens develop the capacity to form deep intimate relationships with others. At the same time, the roles that they occupy in society also change.
Partly because teens start to look more mature, people surrounding them sometimes begin to treat them like adults — giving them mature responsibilities and adult expectations. While significant development occurs during the teen years, full maturity is by no means complete. Studies show that neurological development is not complete until the early 20s.
Decision-making and future-oriented thinking are not fully developed. Thus, while teens are entering into adult roles and while they may physically appear to be mature, teens might not be fully equipped to deal with these new tasks and challenges. For these various reasons, the teen years can be an especially stressful and fragile time, making adolescents more susceptible to engaging in risky behaviors and be unable to weigh their risks and benefits. At the individual level, youth who have low self-esteem, who have negative peer groups, and low school engagement or educational aspirations are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
Family factors include poor parent-child communication, low parental monitoring (e.g., parents are unaware of youth’s whereabouts), and a lack of family support.
Not surprisingly, when parents themselves engage in risky behaviors, teens also are more likely to do so.
Finally, extra-family variables also play a role in the risk behaviors of youth.
Negative school climate, and poor (or no) relationships with non-parental adults also are at more risk for negative behaviors. For many, what actually happens during adolescence is that relationships are renegotiated rather than broken. This means that while changes occur in the relationship, most parents and teens continue to maintain a close relationship during these years.
This renegotiation and transition in the parent-child relationship is only natural as the teen is growing up and is having an increased capacity for reasoning, self-discipline and independence. As parents start to experience this ‘renegotiation,’ it is important to remember that parents continue to be the most important relationship in their teens’ lives. And while conflict and resistance might arise when parents show concern or discipline their teens, parents need to know that this is all part of the natural progression of relationships as their children grow. Here are several parenting strategies that parents might find helpful:
1. Act on teachable moments. Talking with teens does not always have to happen on planned one-on-one serious talks. Teachable moments, which are the best times during the day to talk, can emerge at various times of the day, often in the context of doing shared tasks or activities like cooking, driving home or dinner. Issues such as death, sexual behavior or substance abuse can come up anytime. Take advantage of these windows of opportunity, even when they are only 45 seconds long.
Parents who are aware and sense that youth need to talk will look toward these teachable moments.
They are more important over the long run than giving a long lecture.
2. Avoid useless arguing. This does not mean that parents have to avoid confrontation. Useless arguments are those that simply fuel hostility yet have no real purpose. It is important for parents to remember the following:
- Avoid reasoning with someone who is upset, as it is futile. It is better to wait until tempers have cooled off before sorting out disagreements.
- Do not feel obliged to judge everything their teen says. Parents and teens need to be able to agree or disagree.
- Parents need not spend time talking teens out of their feelings. Teens have the right to be angry, confused, disappointed, hurt and insecure. Parents can acknowledge their teen’s reaction without condoning it. This type of response often defuses anger.
- All this said, parents need not let disagreements dissuade them from talking to their teens. Studies show that parents who talk to their teens (and even disagree) still are closer to their children than those who avoid these types of conversations.
3. Be respectful. Parents get offended when children treat them discourteously.
Yet they need to be careful that they do not do the same to them.
Example: A parent would be very angry and offended if their teen used offensive and hurtful language. Parents also need to make sure that they are not verbally assaulting their teens.
4. Be willing to be unpopular. Parents need to accept that there will be times when adolescents will disagree with them and possibly even act as if they stop ‘liking’ them.
It is essential to remember that parenting (and not being a ‘buddy’) is a parent’s primary role. It is important to resist the urge to win their favor or spend too much time pleasing them.
5. Clearly communicate expectations. It is essential that parents pass along a strong sense of values. This is one of the fundamental tasks of being a parent. Teens cannot read their parents’ minds so it is important that parents clearly communicate what their expectations are in terms of behaviors and values. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, parents need to talk to their children about what’s right and wrong — about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Again, look for those ‘teachable moments.’ For instance, a good time for these discussions might be while parents are driving with their teen. Not only does the parent have a captive audience, but they can also avoid the need for eye contact. This can help teens feel more comfortable.
6. Encourage participation in positive activities. One effective way of discouraging engagement in negative behaviors is to encourage participation in positive activities. Today, there are many activities that teens can be involved in which encourage the development of various competencies and are enjoyable. When teens develop a sense of competency in acceptable activities, they will feel worthy and accepted. In feeling competent, teens likely will have fun and reduce stress.
Parents need to assist youth in finding these opportunities. For instance, finding volunteer opportunities and developing a supportive network of family and friends will help buffer high-risk behaviors.
7. Focus on what is important. Adolescence is a time of identity seeking and experimentation of different roles. This can be irritating and bewildering to parents.
But as painful as it may be to watch, it is one way that teens learn to function on their own without having to consult their parents about every decision.
Guiding principle: Do not make a fuss about issues that are reversible or do not directly threaten your child’s or another person’s safety.
These issues include unwashed hair, a messy room, torn jeans and so on.
Parents need to save their concern and action for safety. Safety is a non-negotiable issue. Safety rules need to be stated clearly and enforced consistently.
Example: Drinking is not acceptable. If you have a party here, no beer or hard liquor is allowed … and an adult must be present at any party you attend.
8. Help teens learn from experience. No matter how hard parents want to protect their teens from risky behaviors, they cannot watch their teens 24 hours every day or protect them from every risk. When negative consequences arise, parents need to use those situations to help teens learn from experience. Sometimes, dealing with the consequences of their own actions inspires sensible behavior more effectively than any lecture or discussion.
Example: A father went away for the weekend and without permission, his son invited a few friends for a party with no adults present. Several other teens crashed the party, drank heavily and threatened to get violent. The boy felt he had lost control in his own house. After his father calmly talks to him about what happened, the son realizes his father was right in insisting that adults be there
9. Help youth make healthy decisions. Parents cannot be there all the time to help their children make healthy choices; thus, it is important to equip teens with the skills needed to make decisions on their own. An important skill in decision-making is assessing benefits and costs. In helping youth do this, one needs to be honest in helping teens look at the benefits and the costs of various behaviors. For instance, in talking to teens about smoking, parents need to be honest about both sides. Positive consequences might be that some people find it enjoyable or even “cool.”
Negative consequences include adverse health conditions, financial cost and the fact that it can give unpleasant odors.
Similarly, in talking about engaging in sexual behaviors, teens might consider the benefits (e.g., they feel close to someone and want to take the next step), but also consider the risks (e.g., STDs, emotional consequences).
10. Listen to your teen. The most important thing parents can do for their adolescents is to listen to them. Parents must recognize and respect the value of what they say. Too often parents dismiss or underestimate the significance of the pressure their children feel and the problems they face. Listening and valuing teens’ ideas is what promotes the ability of parents to effectively communicate with them.
Listening to a teen does not mean giving advice and attempting to correct or control the situation.
Sometimes all a teen might need is for parents to listen or be there for them. It is essential that teens understand that they are being heard.
Adolescence is a unique period of the lifespan. It is full of changes and challenges, but also of growth and opportunities. Adolescents are particularly susceptible to high-risk behaviors so parents and other concerned adults need to support youth as they go through this period. The process surrounding high-risk behaviors can be complex, and often it is not enough just to tell a child to ‘say no’ to engaging in these behaviors. Risk-behavior prevention must cover a wide range of issues that adolescents face in order to be most effective. Parents and community organizations must address issues such as family violence, psychiatric illness, poor interpersonal skills, learning deficits and the dysfunctional development that might be associated with such behaviors. Parents must clearly express their expectations, and must help equip youth to assess risks, to be assertive, and to have the self-esteem and forbearance to withstand external pressures that might push them toward behaviors that lead to negative outcomes.