Parents of teens can use answers. But it’s not so easy to stay updated. This questionnaire highlights common questions and popular confusions to help parents sort out truth from fiction.
Promoting healthy development
Good parenting is most similar to:
- Molding a sculpture out of clay
- Nurturing seeds and plants
- Training a a pet
- All of the above
It’s easy to default to the “molding clay” mentality of parenting and operate from an image of who we want our kids to be (often established long before they are born).
But, like seeds and plants, most kids blossom when nurtured in the right climate. Development proceeds organically when parents notice, support, and accommodate the child who’s unfolding separately and distinctly from them.
Trying to make kids into our vision, intentionally or unconsciously, stifles their core, leaving them without an internal compass to guide them. This dynamic leads to mental health issues associated with trying to measure up but never feeling good enough. It also creates a demoralizing divide between who they feel they really are and who they’re “supposed to” be.
Common parenting mistakes
Parents interfere with teens developing the skills to become competent, independent and responsible when they:
- Focus on teens’ mistakes
- Lecture and warn
- Tell them what to do
- Do things for them
- All of the above
Making the stakes too high by warning teens and focusing on their mistakes increases fear and stress, shutting down executive functions. This approach propels avoidance, lying, and cheating, driving teens to ward off failure at all costs. Further, stress and constraint is associated with the need to escape though dangerous risk-taking and self-destructive behavior. Parents can help teens develop resilience by bolstering their ability to recover from mistakes, rather than protecting teens from making them.
During adolescence, brain development is promoted when parents act as safety net, guide, and support while allowing teens to make and carry out their own decisions (except with decisions that could lead to serious harm). Doing things for teens, or telling them the answers, conveys a lack of confidence in them and limits opportunities for developing skills.
When parents manage their own anxiety, they can position themselves to lend teens the support, perspective, and calm they need to anchor them.
Reasons teens reject what parents tell them
Adolescents are inflexible and quick to reject what their parents say:
- no matter what
- when they perceive their autonomy to be threatened or feel disrespected
- when they’re tired and stressed
- b and c
The developmental task of adolescence is to form an identity. To do this, teens have to separate from parents and temporarily reject them while trying on something else. When teens feel dominated, or told what to do by parents, it threatens this biological mission, creating stress and making teens lose flexibility. Parents can work around this by showing interest in what teens think, finding the areas where they can leverage teens’ own motivation, and requesting their collaboration. This shows respect for their autonomy, rather than lecturing or telling them what to do.
Surefire ways to fail at reaching teens
Which of the following are not effective ways to teach teens?
- scare them to get them to behave
- take away their phones
- protect them from difficult experiences so they feel better
- allow them to quit things that make them uncomfortable
- give them unlimited autonomy so they can practice being independent
- all of the above
Using fear and psychological force to control behavior leads teens to rebel, lie, or superficially comply. This approach obscures teens’ own concerns and conflict about danger, provoking them to defend the opposite position to preserve their autonomy, Even when this method works and makes teens obedient, it fails in the long run. It deprives them of the chance to develop sustainable internal reasons to make good choices and the tools to handle temptation. (Margolies, 2015).
Consequences are most effective when natural, not punitive or random. Natural consequences include items such as paying for something broken out of anger or talking directly to whomever was counting on them when bailing on a commitment. Consequences don’t work when unwanted behaviors are caused by capacity issues such as executive function deficits.
Shielding teens from difficult things and being afraid for them to feel uncomfortable or upset conveys a lack of faith in them. It also inhibits moral and psychological development. When parents overprotect and prevent teens from stretching themselves within the realm of their capabilities, it robs them of the chance to test themselves, develop coping skills, learn through experience, and gain the feeling of competence and mastery that comes from taking action and making their own decisions (Margolies, 2015). This leaves them unprepared when they leave home.
Tips to help teens talk
To make teens more receptive to talking, parents can:
- consider timing – e.g., don’t bring things up as soon as they come in or when they’re walking out the door
- request a convenient time for a brief conversation
- own up to your mistakes and apologize
- be calm, use short sound bites, listen more than talk
- hear out teens’ opinions so they feel valued
- show interest in teens, apart from their performance, creating leisure time where no stressful topics are raised
- all of the above
- just ride it out; there’s not much parents can do.
Timing can make or break conversations, and demonstrates to teens that you notice and care about what they’re going through. When parents shift their focus to helping teens feel “seen,” valued, and cared about (according to teens’ perceptions, not parents’ intention), teens are friendlier and more receptive.
Explicitly asking for their opinions and thoughts gets teens’ attention and increases collaboration by making them feel respected.
Teens are keenly aware of hypocrisy. By owning up when called out by teens, parents can reduce defensiveness and be a role model for taking responsibility.
Parents’ moods and feelings are contagious. Staying calm reduces teen stress. Teens listen and talk more when parents say less, and don’t overwhelm them or hog the conversation.
The impact of praise
When faced with increasingly challenging tasks, kids whose parents praised their talent or intelligence with statements like, “You’re so smart:”
- do better and persevere because they feel encouraged
- do worse and give up sooner
- are unaffected
Praising kids for their intelligence or achievements can inadvertently reinforce a fake sense of self and discourage curiosity, learning, and motivation. Then, when they’re uncertain, instead of challenging themselves, they give up rather than risk failing and being exposed as a fraud.
When specific to what the kids do, rather than their achievements or talents, praise can encourage learning and resilience. Examples include: “I like the way (you asked for help, stuck with it, took a risk in making that shot).”
Praising kids for demonstrating character strengths such as courage, caring, and gratitude develops those strengths which are associated with future success. It also teaches skills such as perseverance, emotion regulation, and perspective.
Parents of millennials got caught in the self-esteem movement and were given the misleading advice to praise kids unconditionally to raise self-esteem. This practice creates youth without a clear sense of their strengths and weaknesses, unprepared for a world that doesn’t agree that everything they do is amazing. They are potentially void of a moral compass.
Protecting teens from danger
The best ways to help teens be safe are:
- focus on their strengths and channel their need for excitement into healthy risks
- be an ally in the eyes of your teen by being respectful, listening more than talking, and letting them take the lead
- provide guidance, support, and limits
- help teens build coping and decision-making skills through problem-solving
- all of the above
Teens who develop values and competencies are less apt to engage in dangerous activities. Redirecting teens toward healthy risks and challenges in activities that matter to them taps into their need for novelty, stimulation and mastery while keeping them safe. (Margolies, 2015)
Teens who experience their parents as allies are the most protected from harm. Parents who are trusted are in a better position to keep teens safe by helping them think things through, anticipate difficult or high-risk situations and problem-solve. Teens make better decisions when considering in advance what the temptation might be, what they’d want to do and why, what could likely happen instead, and how to overcome obstacles to be true to themselves (Margolies, 2015).
Parents are most successful when they’re collaborative, recognize what matters to their teen and leverage teens’ own motivation (e.g., being in control of what they say and do, staying sober to watch out for a friend). Finally, when parents judge teens to be unable to set their own limits in dangerous situations, parents can protect teens by setting limits.