5 Basics of Parenting Adolescents

Today’s blog tries to summarize strategies for successfully parenting teenagers found by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT’s Raising Teens Project was created to “make research more accessible and useful to those who work with and on behalf of parents, adolescents, and families.” In some of our previous blogs, we have covered many of these same ideas, but we believe having these ideas summarized in one article could prove very helpful to parents as a general guideline. MIT identified five significant ways in which parents can influence healthy adolescent development:

Love and Connect

“Studies find that supportive relationships with both mothers and fathers are linked with lower risk of substance abuse, depression, and delinquency—as well as with higher levels of self-reliance, better school performance, and successful future relationships.”

While teens can be abrasive as they try to assert independence and develop their own identity, they need to know that their parents’ love is unconditional and unchanging. Yes, they make act like they are rejecting or criticizing you, but every time they test you, they are really asking “do you still love me even if I do this…?” Their confidence and well-being is bolstered when they continue to feel a parent’s acceptance and support.

Research supports these strategies for connecting with your teen:

  • In addition to spending time together as a family, each parent should spend time one-on-one with each child in the family. This time should be used to engage in an activity or interest that the specific child uniquely enjoys.
  • Express genuine affection, respect, and appreciation for your teen.
  • Validate your teen’s feelings when they share their fears, concerns, or opinions. Listen more than you talk.
  • Allow debate in your family. When discussing ideas, demonstrate to your teen that you can both disagree while still respecting each other’s opinions. When making decisions, model negotiation skills and compromise.
  • Celebrate your teen’s individuality. Learn about a topic or activity that interests your teen. Never compare your teen to their siblings, cultural stereotypes, or your past.


Monitor and Observe

“A number of studies link the seemingly simple act of monitoring the whereabouts and activities of teens to a lower risk of drug and alcohol use, depression, early sexual activity, victimization, and delinquency.”

As our children enter adolescence, our parenting must evolve into new roles. When children are little, we provide direct supervision. As our children become teens, we step back and use communication with our teen, observation of their activities, and networking with other adults to guide them. You must respect your teens’ privacy while also demonstrating an interest in your teens’ safety and positive development.

Studies show these monitoring strategies are effective:

  • School progress and environment. Stay informed about your teen’s progress, grades, and behavior in school. Be involved at your teen’s school, attending events and parent-teacher conferences.
  • Physical and mental health. Learn about warning signs of abuse, neglect, depression or mental illness, and poor physical health. Role model healthy living and talk to your teen about ways to properly care for both mind and body. Seek help from professionals if you notice drug use, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, withdrawal from activities, or anxiety in your teen.
  • Friendships and extracurricular activities. You should always know where your teen is and what they are doing. Get to know your teen’s friends and romantic partners. Network with adults who know your teen, such as neighbors, family, teachers, and other parents, and ask about your teen’s behavior. Make sure that the activities your teen plans match their maturity level.


Guide and Limit

One of the hardest adjustments for parents during adolescence is determining where to set limits and where to let go of control. Teenagers are struggling to create their identity and are challenging the status quo. While this is a natural stage of development, it can be hard for parents to find the balance of keeping their teen safe and maintaining their values, while also encouraging their teen’s decision-making skills and respecting their teen’s new opinions and beliefs.

Research supports these strategies for guiding your teen:

  • Provide explanations and reasoning behind your rules.
  • Uphold rules that concern safety (such as drug abuse) or family values (such as no name-calling during arguments) as non-negotiable. Despite their protests, teens want and need appropriate limits and recognize these as care and concern for their well-being. Just be sure that your limits still allow your teen to develop and maintain his/her own opinions and beliefs.
  • Work together (negotiate and compromise) to determine other rules, responsibilities, and privileges that align with your teen’s development and maturity. For example, talk to your teen about their curfew, amount of screen time allowed, the household schedule, and your teen’s chores. Explain what you think the rules should be and ask for your teen’s opinion. Try to negotiate compromises that work for everyone. Soliciting input from your teen usually inspires more compliance.
  • Choose your battles by ignoring smaller issues in favor of tackling the more important issues.
  • Expect great (but realistic) things from your teen. People, even teens, almost always rise to what is expected of them.
  • Be sure your discipline is teaching your teen something. Punishment should not be about getting revenge or causing physical or emotional distress.


Model and Consult

“While teens are influenced by a growing circle of adults and peers during adolescence, parents remain surprisingly influential. Research has found that the values and beliefs that teens hold on such major issues as morality and politics tend to be similar to those of their parents. In addition, adolescents whose parents model appropriate behavior have better skills and attitudes regarding academic achievement, employment, health habits, individuality, relationships, communication, coping, and conflict resolution.”

Role modeling remains the best way to influence your children at any age, and you should pay close attention to what you are showing your teens in every aspect of your behavior. Additionally, as your teen matures, you must shift your focus from directing your child’s life to consulting with your teen.

Research suggests these strategies:

  • Set a good example for your teen around healthy habits (eating, exercising, sleeping), honesty, emotional control, stress management, risk taking, resiliency, positive attitude, healthy relationships with others, and serving the community.
  • Provide your teen with opportunities and information for their future. Help your teen identify their strengths, skills and interests, and offer them classes, training, or internships. Help your teen explore options they have for their future, such as discussing strategies for education, employment and lifestyle choices for their adulthood.
  • Express your personal beliefs on a wide variety of issues, and ask your teen for theirs. Show respect and seek to understand your teen’s opinion rather than try to explain why they are wrong.
  • Create a safe environment that accepts mistakes as learning opportunities. Encourage your teen to try again!
  • Provide opportunities for your teen to practice reasoning and problem solving. Avoid telling your teen what to do or how to do it. Instead, ask questions that encourage your teen to think logically and consider the consequences of different choices.


Provide and Advocate

You have a responsibility to provide positive resources for your children, such as education, healthcare, guidance and support. And, when your child isn’t receiving needed resources, it’s your role to advocate for them. Providing and advocating for resources helps your teen to prepare for the adult world and overcome societal barriers.

Consider using the following strategies:

  • Network within your community to identify resources that can provide positive activities, guidance, education, and positive adult and peer relationships for your teen.
  • Advocate for your teen’s education. This does not mean you should yell at your teen’s teacher if they get a bad grade. It does mean that you should work with your school and other community programs to ensure your teen is receiving opportunities and resources that fit with your teen’s academic and social needs, as well as their learning style.
  • Arrange for preventive healthcare and treatment.
  • Identify people and programs in your community that can support your teen.


Final Thoughts…

Parenting teens is an art, not science. Every family is different and the relationship between teens and their parents is significantly influenced by their individual personalities. Research into effective parenting can offer guidance and strategies, but it can never offer absolutes or a “one size fits all” parenting method. We encourage you to use MIT’s strategies as starting points from which to gather ideas that you can adapt to fit your own family, culture, circumstances, and teenager.

One comment

  • This is a very good article. Here I thought I’m doing good enough job as a mom to my teens but there’s always room for improvement. I’m guilty of this one ” Never compare your teen to….. your past.” Always telling them that kids during our time were more respectful and obedient. And that we didn’t have to be told what to do coz we were responsible. Thanks for the reminder. Good point also in “consulting them” because I like the way their face lit up when I ask them for their advise or opinion about something. They love it when you value their insight. Teens always want to be appreciated.

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