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Parenting Teens: What Can Parents Do When Teens Push Away?

Parents and teachers can usually agree on one thing: the teenage years for their kids and students are tumultuous, to say the least. The goals and desires of teens are often at odds with the best wishes of their parents and/or teachers. Deborah Farmer Kris of KQEd’s MindShift describes the teenage years as being “marked by paradoxes.” While teenagers are experiencing a burst in cognitive and problem-solving capabilities, they tend to believe pretty confidently that they are ready for independence, when, in fact, they are still very much dependent on their parents.

Their positive cognitive developments are also accompanied by an increase in “behavioral and mental health concerns,” that often includes a decline in academic performance as well. Additionally, parents are at a loss because the parenting strategies that worked in elementary school are no longer effective.

In his book Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers, Michael Riera, Ph.D. writes, “Conventional wisdom has cast the parent-adolescent relationship as unavoidably adversarial. Both sides view the other as ‘the enemy’—a most unfortunate and destructive role in which to be a parent or an adolescent.” Relationships are messy, and when teenage desire for independence is constantly at odds with parental guidance, it can seem like a mess of colossal proportions.

But parenting teens doesn’t have to be a constant battle! “The good news is that youth still want their parents to be involved,” says Nancy Hill, a Harvard University Professor and one of the co-authors of the recently published Parental Involvement study that made connections between different types of parental involvement and how these methods contributed to grade-point averages, decreased behavioral concerns, and reduced depressive symptoms. “This involvement doesn’t have to be a power struggle. Parents need not be afraid to allow teens to try and succeed or try, fail and try again. Parents are in the single-best position to cultivate, encourage and affirm their teen’s development.”

The study identified four strategies that parents can effectively use to ease the combative nature of the relationship they have with their teenager:

The first is called “Scaffold” Independence:

According to Hill, scaffolding means letting teens try out things independently, with a ‘safety net.’ ” Given that so much of human growth is adapting to and overcoming failure, allowing your teens the opportunity to fail is crucial to their development. Not to mention, letting teens make some of their own decisions within a “safety net” fulfills their drive for independence—it allows them to see the consequences of their own decisions and what responsibilities come with independence. Strategies include “waiting for them to ask for help before rushing to provide it, and talking through choices and potential outcomes,” and then giving them the space to make their own informed decisions—even if it’s the wrong one.

MindShift writes, “Parents of younger adolescents can start this process by letting them choose between options that the parent thinks are equally good, and then increasing autonomy from there.”

The second is all about providing structure at home:

Dr. Michael Riera says: “Only when teenagers experientially understand and trust the structure around them are they able to fully develop. The structure provides the safety in which they can suspend momentarily the inherent self-consciousness of adolescence. This in turn opens the door for genuine curiosity, self-reflection, and learning.”

Providing space and structure at home gives teens the kind of intellectual freedom to flourish academically and manage their own schoolwork. However, the structure needs to reflect teens’ growth: their homework doesn’t look like it used to in elementary school, and therefore, a parent’s level of involvement needs to have evolved as well. Altering parenting strategies to reflect teen’s development demonstrates a level of respect that your teenager will appreciate with behavior improvements.

The third links education to future success:

Parents will do well to recognize that their teen’s definition of success will evolve regularly throughout their teenage years—and they won’t always associate success with school.  “With their rapid physical changes, new sexual energy, developing self-consciousness, and the need to find a social niche, it is no wonder that the typical [young high schooler] is quite self-absorbed,” says Dr. Riera. This means reigning in their focus to academic endeavors can be extremely challenging.

However, parents can help teens visualize the connection between their current academic endeavors and their future success. Talking with teens about their career aspirations and relating current schoolwork to those goals can be a great way to help teens find meaning in their high school workload. The most effective way to have these conversations? Tread lightly. Dr. Riera cautions that showing an overbearing interest in schoolwork can push teens away: “When teenagers come home from school they often need to ‘detox,’ just like adults do when they come home from work. Give them space or at least expect them to take it (and don’t take it personally when they do take the space.”

The fourth is about demonstrating warmth:

It should come as no surprise that teens will benefit psychologically from a supportive parent-child relationship that encourages “emotional closeness” as well as balances structure and limits. According to the Harvard study, parental warmth actually amplifies the other strategies as well as social emotional learning: “When parents demonstrate warmth and love, they provide a safe base from which students can ‘tackle the academic and psychological challenges’ of being a teen.”

Even as teens distance themselves, this emotional warmth is felt. Most high school students are experiencing emotions that manifest dramatically, “and they desperately want more independence in their lives, all without losing you as an ally,” says Dr. Riera.

Read the MindShift article at KQEd.org.

To learn more about parenting teens, check out Dr. Michael Riera’s book on amazon.com.

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