Many parents expect the teenage years to be a trial they will have to endure. They’ve been warned that their previously successful parenting strategies are about to become useless and their previously delightful, loving children are about to become moody, uncommunicative strangers. “Expecting the worst in the teen years can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says parenting specialist Toby Dauber, L.C.S.W., with Morris Psychological Group. “There’s no question that adolescence presents challenges to both parents and teens. It’s a confusing time, with lots of emotional ups and downs. But it’s also an exciting time in which the unique individual that each youngster will become is taking physical, intellectual and moral shape. Parents play a crucial role in fostering that transition and with some understanding and guidance they can make it a rewarding period for the entire family.”
The turmoil of adolescence is rooted in dramatic changes that are taking place in the teen brain. Imaging technology has confirmed that the brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the early 20s. Teenagers are close to their peak of physical strength and intellectual capacity but the part of the brain responsible for impulse control is among the last to mature and the circuitry that controls the intensity of emotional responses is overactive in the teen brain. ”While there are other personal factors in play for each individual, the impulsive – sometimes reckless – behavior and emotional outbursts that typify teen behavior are driven by what is going on the brain,” says Ms. Dauber. “Understanding how the brain is changing can help parents understand what may seem like inexplicable behaviors and help them develop the parenting skills that will guide their children through this period of intense growth.”
Tips for Positive Parenting During the Teen Years
Stay connected: A key characteristic of the teen years is the youngster’s need to separate from her parents and become more independent. Parents are often frustrated that the child’s receptivity to parental guidance starts to take a back seat to the opinions and influence of friends. But teens need the love, attention and emotional and moral compass provided by parents more than ever. They may seem to be pulling away but parents must continue to try to stay close, to talk, to actively listen, to praise, to prioritize family dinners, to maintain habits like a goodnight kiss, and to find ways to spend time together even on inconsequential activities, like errands or household chores.
Set limits: “Teens balk at rules,” says Ms. Dauber. “But they must know what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t and what consequences to expect. Be clear but don’t be arbitrary in setting rules. Explain your reasons. Let your teen have a say and don’t be too quick to say ‘no.’ And be flexible, especially as your child matures and demonstrates the ability to make good decisions.”
Don’t sweat the small stuff…or miss the big stuff: The teen years are a time of experimentation. Youngsters try on and try out new looks and budding identities, some of which are bound to distress their parents. It is appropriate to discuss with your teen the risks in her choices and how she might be perceived based on her looks and behavior. But as long as the changes are harmless, it might then be best to step back and let her make her own decisions and learn to live with the consequences. However, parents must be alert to changes that signal real danger – indications of substance abuse or other dangerous behavior and they must intervene early, seeking professional help if necessary.
Respect and trust your child: As he grows into a responsible adult, your child must have the latitude to develop his own opinions and interests, which may be vastly different from yours. Express your feelings but don’t lecture or argue; let him know that you respect his opinion. And while you must know where your child goes and with whom, you must respect his privacy and trust him to behave responsibly.
Successful parenting in the teen years is a balancing act. Parents who fear losing control of their children and impose rigid discipline aren’t allowing their teens to learn to think for themselves and develop sound decision-making skills. Those who take a hands-off attitude in order to avoid conflict leave their youngsters to fend for themselves without structure or clarity as to what is expected of them. “Finding the right balance gives teens the support they need while allowing them the freedom to develop their individual identities,” says Ms. Dauber. “Parents who set standards for their children while letting them know that they love them for who they are will foster mutual respect and find the teen years an exciting and fulfilling time.”