Adolescence is a time of challenge and opportunity, a time of growth for parent and child. At times you and your child may feel like pulling your hair out during their adolescent years. And, at other times, you may feel like pulling one another’s hair out. But there is a key that can help nurture health for parent and child during the adolescent years. It’s a key that the parent holds but both parent and teen benefit from it. Psychologists call this key “authoritative parenting.” Several studies have shown authoritative parenting beneficial for raising children. Among other things, studies suggest it promotes a positive self-concept and better self-control in children as well as better relationships between parents and their children. Why? Because it sets health, age-appropriate limits AND it offers warm relationships.
What makes a warm relationship between parent and child? In a warm relationship, parents show delight in their children. They are responsive to their children. Not only do they respond to their children on a consistent basis, but their responses match the children’s needs of the moment. Parents listen, observing their children’s behavior as well as hearing the message behind their words, and respond in a way that communicates understanding and affection. Warm parent-child relationships also involve sharing time together enjoying positive interactions.
In addition to warm relationships, authoritative parenting also involves healthy, age-appropriate limits. Children are not allowed to do whatever they want when they want. Instead, parents establish and enforce limits for their children’s safety and health. These limits help assure predictability and security for their children. Ironically, children more easily explore their world and their interests from the safety of well-established and lovingly enforced limits. Exploration helps them learn and grow. So, in effect, lovingly enforced, age-appropriate limits nurture our children’s ability to learn and grow.
Together, warm parenting combined with healthy, age-appropriate limits make up authoritative parenting, the type of parenting that promotes a healthy adolescence for both parent and adolescent. Know what I like about this? You can learn to practice authoritative parenting. You can practice warmth in your relationship and learn to lovingly enforce healthy limits. Here’s a few basics.
Listen intently to your children’s verbal and nonverbal communications. Even their behaviors are communicating something for you to “hear.”
Remain responsive to your children’s communications and needs.
Establish healthy, age-appropriate limits and lovingly enforce those limits.
Show consistency in your responsiveness to your children and in the enforcement of limits.
As our children mature, allow the limits to change. Let them become increasingly “in charge” of their own decisions and consequences.
Enjoy your maturing adolescent and your relationship with them.
If you want to boost your teen’s brain power, start when they are children, before the time of the teen push for independence. Really, this way of boosting teen brain power is quite simple. Encourage them to read as children. A study of over 10,243 teens found reading for pleasure during childhood contributed to improved verbal learning, memory, speech development, and school academic achievement in the teen years.
Even more, reading for pleasure as a child was associated with fewer signs of stress and depression, improved attention, and fewer incidents of aggression and rule-breaking in teen.
But wait, there’s more. Children who read for pleasure also engaged in less screen time as a teen and slept longer.
The best results were found in those teens who read up to 12 hours a week as a child. That’s about one hour and 43 minutes a day. So, if you want to boost your teens brain power, awaken the joy of reading in them while they are still children. Here’s how to begin.
Let your children see you reading for pleasure. Children follow our example. So, let them see you read for pleasure, not just for work. Talk about the fun things you’ve read about or the stories you read. Let them hear you talk about the adventures you enjoy while reading.
Read to your children. When they are very young, read simple picture books. As they get older you can read children’s chapter books. Make it a fun time together by engaging them while reading rather than simply reading the page in a monotone voice. Take on the voice of each character. Ask questions about what your child thinks might happen next. React to surprising twists in the plot. Engage the story and your child as you read.
As your children begin to read independently, read the same book they are reading. Talk about the book with them. Enjoy sharing your reactions and surprises to the book.
Visit the library together. Walk through the stacks of books with your children and discover the joys of what you can learn and read. If your library has reading times, take your child to them.
Depending on the kind of book your children enjoy, you can visit the places described in the book. For instance, if your child reads a book about the American revolution and you live near Philadelphia, take a road trip and visit the Liberty Bell. Reading about Walt Disney may lead up to a trip to Disneyland or reading about Martin Luther King may lead up to a trip to Atlanta. You get the idea. Let the books come alive by visiting a place associated with that book.
The time arrives in every parent’s journey when our sons and daughters start to date. Deep in our souls a twinge of excitement peaks out from behind the walls of our apprehension and protection. We look forward to the joys and the fun our children will experience as they date…but we also recall the pain of rejection, the heartbreak of the breakup, and the despair of feeling as though “I will never love anyone that much again.” In fact, our children’s dating relationships are part of a journey we navigate with them, a journey through the peaks and valleys of a thousand emotions. There’s no way around it. We have to go through this journey with them. I offer three tips to help you navigate this journey with your children.
Remember, your children’s dating experience will not be the same are your dating experience were. Dating has changed since you were a teen or a young adult. Your children are not you. They may not experience the same ups and downs as you did. Do not thrust the baggage from your dating relationship onto your children’s dating relationships. Separate your emotions and feelings from what your children’s emotions and feelings because your children will likely experience dating differently than you did. Instead, be aware of their emotions, their relationship joys and struggles, their motives and intentions. Meet them in their journey and support them “where they are.”
Build and nurture a strong relationship with your children. Through your words and your actions, teach them that you are trustworthy, reliable, understanding, and willing to listen. In other words, build a relationship in which they know you are a person they can turn to with the joys, struggles, and decisions of life. This requires spending time with your children as well as deeply listening to your children over time. Starting early is best; so start developing this relationship before your children start to date. But remember, it is never too late to show yourself trustworthy and reliable in relationship with your children.
Avoid making evaluations or judgements. Along the same line, avoid teasing them about dating. Even if it’s in fun and jest, it increases the possibility that they will not feel comfortable talking to you if relationship concerns or issues do arise. If (or when) they experience a break up, don’t respond with “I told you she would hurt you.” Instead, offer a listening ear. Invite them to put their dating experience into words by asking open-ended questions like, “What do you like about him/her the most?” Communicate empathy and understanding when they experience joy in the relationship–“I bet that was exciting” or “Tell me more about that fun date”–or when they experience hurt and sorrow–“That had to hurt” or “I’m sorry he/she hurt you like that.” Inviting them to talk about their relationship will help them learn from their experience and develop their healthy “dating philosophy.” After you have listened deeply (and only after you have listened deeply), you can lovingly share your wisdom and knowledge to the development of that philosophy by encouraging them to think about certain strategies.
In summary, build a trusting relationship with your child and, because their experience will be different than your experience was, listen deeply to understand their unique experience. Really, that basically describes honoring your children’s dating experience and loving your children deeply as you traverse the dating journey together.
No…it is not an oxymoron to say a “happy, satisfied teen.” Teens often get the bad rap of being moody, full of angst, and complaining about everything. But it’s more myth than fact. Sure, they have times of moodiness (as do most adults). They may even complain…but I know many adults who do the same (including me). Still, teens do experience multiple changes in their physical life, social life, and psychological life that can create a sense of unhappiness and a dissatisfaction with life. But I have good news. A study led by an educational psychology professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign discovered a great way to help teens become happier and more satisfied with life.
This study followed 200 teens between 14- and 19-years-old for 70 days. These teens took part in a 10-week learning challenge sponsored by GripTape, a non-profit organization working to “instill a sense of agency in young people.” Each day, the participants rated how “purposeful they felt, how satisfied they were with their life, and the levels of positive and negative emotions they experienced.” The results revealed that feeling “more purposeful than usual on any single day was a unique predictor” of the participants’ emotional well-being. In other words, when teens felt a sense of purpose, they felt better about themselves. They experienced a higher level of happiness and greater satisfaction with life. So, how can you increase your teens’ sense of purpose and, as a result, increase their happiness and life satisfaction? I’m glad you asked.
Model a life of purpose. Our teens will emulate the life we model, so life a life of purpose. Think about the activities and interactions that give your life purpose. Your work or community involvement provides you with a sense of purpose. Volunteer work through your church or school provides you with a sense of purpose. Or your sense of purpose may derive from acts of kindness and service to neighbors and family members. Whatever it is, let your light shine so your teen can see it. Live your purpose with joy that your teen can witness.
Value kindness. Kindness represents a valuable purpose in today’s world. We need people who act in kindness toward neighbors, acquaintances, and even strangers. Kindness, from holding the door open to a simple “thank you,” has a powerful impact on our world and our individual lives. Model this simple action of purpose and encourage your teen to practice it as well.
Allow exploration. Teens find their purpose by exploring the world around them. Support them in exploring a variety of interests. Encourage them to explore through reading. If the opportunities arise, let them travel to other places to meet other people and witness other lifestyles. Exploration will help your teen gain a deeper understanding of themselves and find their purpose.
Provide volunteer opportunities. Volunteer opportunities are a wonderful way to explore and seek purpose. You can volunteer as a whole family or individually with your teen in a variety of ways. Depending on your teens’ interests, you might volunteer at a food bank, in a nursing home, in your church worship band, through habitat for humanity…or simply in your neighborhood by helping others whenever a need arises.
Allow downtime as an opportunity for reflection. Our teens often experience a constant rush of activities. They run from school to sports to clubs to homework to church activities to the next item on the agenda with very little downtime. When they finally get the chance to sit down and rest, they delve into the world of technology. Still, no reflection. Sometimes our teens need a period of simple boredom, of looking for something positive to grab their attention. This downtime allows them the opportunity to seek out their passions and find their purpose.
You will have a happier, more satisfied teen if you can help them find a sense of purpose. Of course, your teens’ sense of purpose will change and grow as they mature. But having a sense of purpose will increase their happiness and general satisfaction with life. “A happy, satisfied teen” is not an oxymoron—it’s a teen with a sense of purpose, a goal worth striving for.
Your teen’s brain is changing. It’s maturing and slowly (sometimes it seems painfully slow) becoming more efficient. But parents don’t get to see the actual changes in the brain. Instead, we see the behaviors that result from the ever-changing brain—behaviors that include, among other things, risk-taking, a growing and improving ability to argue, and mood changes. Not surprisingly, we tend to see and remember only the negative aspects of these changes. But each of these changes has a positive aspect as well, one we would not want our teens to miss out on. Still, navigating the adolescent years can feel like a roller coaster. It’s full of ups and downs, curves and twists, that go by faster than we realize. When it’s all over we take a big breath and look back with nostalgia at the joys of the ride. If you have a child entering adolescence or in the midst of adolescence, here are 4 ideas to help you have the best ride possible.
Remember that risk-taking behavior has a positive dimension. A teen’s willingness to take a risk increases their opportunities to try new things, learn new skills, and develop life-long interests that may translate into a future vocation or hobby. Risk-taking also increases a teen’s confidence in their skills and abilities. With that in mind, focus on providing opportunities for healthy risk-taking.
Focus on connection. You will experience times in which you must correct and teach your teen but focus primarily on your relationship with your teen. Enjoy lots of time and activities with your teen. The stronger your connection, the more likely your teen will accept correction from you and, better yet, the stronger your relationship will be when your teen emerges into young adulthood.
Statements like “boys will be boys” and “their brain is still developing” may have a kernel of truth; but they are not an excuse for poor behavior. Teens can practice self-control. They will fall short at times, but they can continue to learn and grow. They can speak and act politely and respectfully. Encourage them to do so.
Dwell on the benefits rather than the deficits of teen behavior. The assumptions we make as parents impacts how we see our teens’ behavior. Put aside the assumptions and look some of the benefits of their behaviors. Risk taking behavior allows a teen to explore options and learn healthy limits. A teen’s idealism encourages them to dream of a better world and ways of creating that better world. Moodiness opens a door for teens to have greater compassion for others and a passion to help. Taken together, these teen attributes may motivate our teens to create change in a world that needs change. Find ways to creatively tap into these strengths and benefits for your teen. Encourage them to mature into people who help make the world a better place.
One writer compared adolescence to the Israelite’s 40 years of wandering through wilderness. In some ways, adolescence may feel like wandering through the wilderness at times. On the other hand, adolescence can feel like a roller coaster filled with ups and downs, twists and curves. And a ride on the roller coaster is always better with a good partner. So, partner up with your teen and your spouse for the ride of your life. When it’s all over, and it will be over before you realize it, you can enjoy recounting each twist and turn, dip and swirl with your teen as you laugh and reminisce about the times you had together.
Teens seem to have two speeds: lounging around the house or running around “who-knows-where” with their friends. At home, they often appear “bored” and maybe even a little grumpy. With their friends, they are energetic and full of smiles, exploring new places and trying out new activities. Sometimes we may even think they are engaging in too much novelty with their friends. However, while exploring their world and interests can carry some risk, our teens’ energetic exploration of their world actually benefits them in life. In fact, they need to engage in this exploratory behavior.
A study published in 2022 shows us a couple of the benefits of this energetic exploration. The researchers in this study followed teens and young adults (13- to 27-years-old) using GPS trackers. The GPS trackers could measure how often the participants visited novel locations over a 3-month period. This provided “real-life data” of exploratory behavior and novelty seeking. Based on this data and the participating teens’ self-report, the study suggests:
Daily exploration peeked during the transitional years of 18 to 21.
All ages (13- to 27-years) reported better moods on days in which they had explored more. In other words, exploration was linked to greater psychological well-being.
Those with higher than average levels of exploration also reported larger social networks. In the long run, a strong social network is associated with greater emotional well-being.
Teens who explored more also reported more risky behavior. This was not true for adults. Perhaps adults have better learned their limits, strengths, and interests.
Taken together, these results suggest that teens and young adults are explorers. They are exploring the possibilities that will come with adulthood. As a result, our teens and young adults benefit from exploration and novelty seeking behaviors. It prepares them for adulthood. Whether it be visiting new places, trying new things, experimenting with new hobbies, or sampling new friend groups, exploratory behavior enhances our teens’ well-being and helps them establish stronger social connections.
Did you know that fetuses recognize their mother’s voice? That’s even before a child is born. It’s true. They do. And from birth, children prefer their mother’s voice. A study using MRI technology has even shown that the brains of 7- to 12-year-old children respond differently to their mother’s voice than to other women’s voices. In response to their mother’s voice [but not in response to another woman’s voice], the 7-12-year-old’s brain lights up in brain areas associated with emotional processing, reward processing, and the processing information about the self. In other words, a child’s brain is uniquely attuned to their mother’s voice even before birth.
But something happens around the age of 13 years. If you’re a parent, you probably noticed it. Our children turn 13-years-old and suddenly they become deaf to their mother’s voice. They appear to quit listening. A 2022 study published by the Stanford School of Medicine reveals that this change is not necessarily a willful choice to disregard their mother. The change is deeper than that. It’s a change reaching deep into the brain itself.
Researchers utilized data from teens who were 13 to 16. 5 years of age for this study. These teens listened to recordings of their mother and two unfamiliar women say 3 nonsense words. Researchers used nonsense words to avoid meaning or emotional content eliciting a response. They also listened to recordings of random household sounds. While listening to all of these voices and sounds, brain activity was recorded using MRI. Not surprisingly, teens easily distinguished their mother’s voice from the other women’s voices. All the voices elicited greater activity in several brain areas when compared to younger children. Interestingly, researchers could even predict the teen’s age based on this increased brain response.
But, and this is the kicker, unfamiliar voices created greater activity in the area of the teen’s brain associated with reward-processing and the area involved in determining the value of social information. In other words, our teens’ brains biologically responded differently to unfamiliar voices than they had prior to 13 years of age. For teens, the brain areas associated with reward processing and determining value light up for unfamiliar voices more than they do for their mother’s voice. All the voices were heard (even your voice, Mom) but the unfamiliar voices were more rewarding and valued.
What does all this mean for the parent of a teen? Teens are naturally moving toward individuation. They are preparing to move away from home and into the world. As a result, they are becoming more attuned to those voices outside of the family. Ironically, they still need a parent’s guidance and wisdom. So here are some tips to help you maintain effective communication with your teen, even has they become attuned to the “outside world.”
First, don’t take it personal. It’s not about you. Your teen is maturing and preparing to leave the home. As a result, they are becoming attuned to the world outside the home. Don’t take it personal.
Trust what they have learned from you and your home over the last 13 years. They have internalized a great deal of knowledge, values, and even a family identity. Trust the time and love you have invested in your teen over their childhood years. You would be amazed how many times a parent brings a child to therapy and says, “They just don’t seem to listen.” They explain things they have told their teen that they fear their teen has not hear. Then, I meet with their teen who tells me, many times word for word, what their parents have said. And the teen voices these statements as their beliefs, not their parents’ beliefs. Our teens are listening. Our children have learned. Trust the love you have invested in your teen already.
Remain involved. This begins with listening. Give your teen your full attention when they want to interact with you. Listen intently and deeply to your teen. Sometimes parents have a difficult time learning that the art of listening is more than simply responding. Your teen will more readily hear you when they know you consistently do your best to listen intently to them.
When you have something to tell your teen, make sure you get their attention first. Address them by name, with kindness. Look them in the eye. You might gently put a hand on their shoulder or their arm. Don’t interrupt them unnecessarily. And if you need to interrupt, do so politely and respectfully.
Involve your child in other community groups with like-minded adults. You might involve your teen in youth groups, drama groups, sports groups, dance groups, academic groups…whatever group might spark your teen’s interest. Meet the adults who manage these groups. Sometimes our teens will hear advice from a coach long before they hear the same advice from their parent. I used to laugh (or, more honestly, boil with frustration) when my daughter would come home and tell me this amazing piece of wisdom she had learned from a teacher or music instructor. Why? Because I knew I had told her the same thing many times over the last several years. But she needed to hear it from another adult.
Our teens are maturing. They are preparing to leave home and make their mark on the world. That’s what we have worked for…but it comes with some sorrow, doesn’t it? Part of that “letting go” involves realizing that our voices take on a different meaning to our teens. Don’t take it personal. Listen to them deeply. Love them with your presence. And watch them blossom into adulthood on the other side of the wilderness of adolescence.
Adolescents have a job in our society. Their job receives no monetary reward; and many parents struggle with letting their adolescent do their job. The job is to become their own person, to prepare themselves emotionally and mentally to leave home. To complete this job, our teens often withdraw some from the parent-child relationship. They spend more time with their peers and disclose less to their parents. However, a study involving 1,001 13-to 16-years-old teens suggests a way in which parents can encourage better communication with their teen during this time and, as a result, promote more teen disclosure even while their teen does their job of becoming independent. The researchers had teens watch a parent and teen converse about difficult situations. The teens then rated the conversations and the parent-teen relationship they witnessed. What did the researchers discover? What did the teens say in their interpretation of the conversations?
When a parent was genuinely engaged with their teen in conversation, teens felt more authentic and connected to their parent.
When a parent was visibly attentive, the teen was more likely to “open up” and engage in more self-disclosure.
That’s all well and good. But what exactly does “genuinely engaged” and “visibly attentive” look like? According to the researchers of this study, these skills involve at least 4 factors.
Maintaining good eye contact.
Engaging in nonverbal communication such as head nodding.
Engaging in verbal acknowledgment and gratitude to the teen for “opening up.”
Verbally and openly appreciating the teen’s honesty as well as their effort in sharing.
I would also add factors five through eight as factors involved in being “genuinely engaged” and “visibly attentive:”
Verbal validation of their struggle to “make the right choice” or “do the right thing.”
Asking nonjudgmental questions to clarify the situation and assure you understand. A curiosity about your teen’s thoughts and emotions about the situation. A genuine interest in how they view the situation and how it impacts them.
These skills add up to “attentive listening” and “genuine engagement” with your teen. “Attentive listening” and “genuine engagement” with your teen results in greater intimacy and better parent-teen communication…and that’s a beautiful thing.
If you have a teen, you’ve probably noticed how negative they can become. Sure, they take risks, which is good. They also exhibit an idealistic view of what can be accomplished to change the world. (Which, by the way is also a good thing.) Unfortunately, they can also exhibit a negativity that can drive any parent to the brink of sanity.
A study published in 2019 suggests this negativity is a normal part of teen life, a part of the maturation process. They reached this conclusion after having 9,546 people take a test of emotional sensitivity. This test measured how sensitive the participants of various ages were to facial cues of happiness, anger, and fear. Guess what? Of all the ages, adolescents were the most sensitive to facial expressions of anger and social threat. Their sensitivity to negative facial cues seemed to improve dramatically during mid-adolescence. They become “experts” at seeing negative emotions in another person’s facial expression…and they respond to that emotion in kind.
Interestingly, as we age, we become less sensitive to facial cues of anger and fear while retaining our sensitivity to happiness. So don’t get to bogged down in your teen’s negative responses or negative attitude. They will mature and become more sensitive to happiness. In the meantime, these tips may help you survive the teen wave of negativity.
Have fun with your teen. Engage in activities they enjoy. Watch a comedy. Go for a bike ride. Play catch. Joke around a little. Enjoy dinner out.
Listen to your teen and empathize with the struggles of teen life. Teen life is challenging. Accept the normalcy of teen challenges and teen negative. Then focus on being a positive support for your teen as they navigate the challenges of the teen years.
Gently challenge their use of absolutes like “always” and “never” that can contribute to escalating their negative thinking. Avoid using those same absolutes in your own thoughts and speech.
Enjoy stories, movies, and films that depict people overcoming the challenges of life in realistic ways.
Gather supports for yourself. A group of friends can make sure you hear the voice of validation and support from those engaged in raising teens as well. A supportive group of friends can also include those parents who have already navigated the teen years and provide a voice of wisdom and perspective.
These tips will not alleviate all the negativity from your teen’s life or your home. However, they can add a balance of joy, intimacy, and happiness that you and your teen will appreciate.
A study published in the Social Service Review (September 2020) confirms the importance of a father’s presence in their children’s lives. This study used data collected over a 10-year period (starting at five-years-old) to explore the impact of a father’s involvement on the behaviors 15-year-old children. They discovered that a father’s social engagement with their children as well as time spent with their children led to fewer behavior problems in 15-year-olds. A father’s quality involvement in their children’s lives impacts their behavior for the better. But how much will it improve their behavior?
This study (read a review) found that increasing father involvement among families from lower socio-economic-status (SES) reduced the differences in behavior of 15-year-olds from higher SES groups. Specifically, a father’s involvement with his children reduced the gap between lower and higher SES groups in behaviors like aggression, depression, and delinquency by 30-50% in children who did not live with their fathers. Their involvement reduced that same gap by 80% for those children who lived with their fathers. Even more powerful, this study suggests that a father’s active presence in his children’s early life has a significant long-term impact on their adolescent behavior.
Interestingly, cash support did not have this significant of an effect on adolescent behavior. Children need hands-on, time invested, social engagement of fathers to really make the behavioral difference we want, not cash. (Father’s still need to support their children financially. Children need the financial means to meet daily needs. But a father’s active involvement in their lives can impact their behavior beyond what simply throwing cash their way does.)
Fathers, your involvement is crucial, pivotal to your child’s future. Get involved. Experience the joy of engaging your child today and you will experience the joy of a relationship with them for a lifetime.