Healthy Adult-Adolescent Relationships

A great deal of research has been done on adult-teen relationships. A healthy adult-adolescent relationship is not a friendship but more like an apprenticeship into adulthood. So, what constitutes a “healthy” relationship? Positive communication, open sharing, respect and trust are all elements of a healthy relationship. In this blog article, we will inform you of the findings from several high-quality U.S. studies on this topic and offer suggestions on how an adult can develop a healthy relationship with a teen.

Research on Adult-Adolescent Relationships

Teens that have positive relationships with their parents tend to have better academic outcomes. A study of over 12,000 adolescents demonstrated that teens with high-quality relationships with their parents are more likely to have good grades and less likely to have been suspended from school than their peers with less positive parent-adolescent relationships, even after taking into account other social and economic influences.

Most research indicates that a healthy relationship with an adult is the best prevention for any adolescent at-risk behavior (drugs and alcohol, sex, truancy, etc.). Several studies have found that positive relationships or connectedness between parents and adolescents are linked to avoidance or lower use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. A study of more than 12,000 teenagers found a link between positive parent-child relationships and fewer violent behaviors. One recent review found that adolescents who have high-quality relationships with their parent were less likely to initiate sex or be sexually active. These studies found the links consistent among various economic, racial and social groups.

Good parent-adolescent relationships have been linked to mental, social, and emotional well-being in youth. For example, one study found that high-quality parent-adolescent relationships in early adolescence are linked to better mental well-being and less delinquency for the youth three years later, even after taking into account social and demographic characteristics of the family and the youth’s prior behavior. Several studies demonstrate that positive parent-adolescent relationships also are associated with self-confidence, empathy, a cooperative personality, and psychological well-being.

Growing evidence indicates that the strong influence of the parent-child relationship extends into adulthood. For example, studies based on national survey data have revealed that, better quality adult child-parent relationships have been associated with lower levels of psychological distress among adults and higher levels of self-esteem, happiness, and life satisfaction.

Suggestions for Building a Healthy Relationship

Teens need positive, sustained, and meaningful relationships with extended family members, teachers, mentors, grandparents, neighbors, and many others. It is important that adults give teens the impression that they really understand them. In a TeenVOICE study, teens said that adults who “get them” show it by listening to them and paying attention, being honest and dependable, and enjoying their time together. Unfortunately, adults who “get” teens seem to be the exceptions. In the same study, relatively few teens say that most adults ask for their opinions, have meaningful conversations with them, give them chances to help out, or spend time playing sports or doing artistic activities with them. So, what’s an adult to do? Here a few guidelines for building a healthy relationship with a teen:

  • Identify important milestones. There are many significant life events and transitions that take place during adolescence, such as turning 16, getting that first job, and getting a driver’s license. However, which of these life events is important to one teen may not be as important to the next.  So, identify which milestones or achievements (getting a good grade, winning a sporting event) are important to your teen to ensure they know you are “in tune” with what matters most and be sure to celebrate these important life events with them.
  • Listen first, speak second. Listening is key to building and maintaining a healthy, open, and respectful relationship with your teen. We have written an earlier blog on July 9, 2010 about good communication that offers tips on this very subject. Some highlights include paying complete attention (with eye contact) when your teen is talking to you, trying to reserve judgment, and asking open-ended questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.
  • Pick your battles. Too many rules can overwhelm anyone, so have a few rules and stick to them. Eliciting the teen’s feedback into creating the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules often helps to create “buy in” from both the teen and the parent. If a rule is broken, the consequence must happen. Teens lose respect for parents when they don’t follow through, even when it comes to consequences.
  • Treat your teen as you want to be treated. When a teen feels respected, they develop self-respect which in turn fosters positive behavior. Be a role model by demonstrating respect in all of your adult relationships.
  • Create a “safe zone” for asking questions. If youth cannot get the answers to their questions from a trusted adult, they will turn to peers who may give them misguided or uneducated advice.  Some questions they have are simple curiosity and some might be true deep issues or problems, but they are often too embarrassed or afraid to ask.  Create a “safe zone” by allowing your kids to ask the “I have a friend with a problem….” scenario where the rules are that you can’t ask for more details than they are willing to give you.  This is often very scary for parents but works very well in practice.
  • Encourage healthy growth opportunities. Support your teen’s involvement in structured activities with real opportunities for rewards.  This will give them a sense of achievement and serves as an initiation into adulthood.  We have written two earlier blogs that might be helpful: December 2, 2009 on volunteerism and February 27, 2010 on extracurricular activities.

Despite the eye-rolling and sighing, research clearly shows that strong relationships between teens and adults have a profound impact on their lives. Stay in tune with the teens near you to be the support they need.

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