It’s often hard to know how to parent an adolescent. While you love your child and want the best for them, there are many grey areas in parenting an adolescent that can leave you bewildered.
A major area of confusion arises in knowing how strictly to reign in potentially negative adolescent behavior.
Say your 16-year-old son wants to go on a summer road trip with friends you find questionable. Or maybe your 15-year-old daughter wants to attend a high school party where you know there’s a good chance that drugs may be present. When do you intervene?
Clearly, you don’t want your child taking unreasonable risks or exposing themselves to real dangers or to develop a mental health issue or substance abuse problem, but you also want them to have fun, live the life of an adolescent and not stick out among their friends. You want to be a responsible parent but don’t want to be a helicopter parent. What’s a good parent to do?
Preventative Action: Be Involved in Your Adolescent’s Life
As Executive Clinical Director of Evolve Treatment Centers, I am frequently contacted by parents with these kinds of dilemmas. However, parents usually come to me once there’s already an issue. In order to keep these kinds of dilemmas from even arising, I believe there’s one basic thing you can do: spend time with your adolescent.
In parenting adolescents, or really any child for that matter, it’s vital to develop a real connection with them. It sounds simple, but you really need to spend time with them, know who they’re hanging out with, be aware of what they’re doing and ask them questions about their life.
Research shows that regular parental monitoring and involvement is the best thing you can do to raise successful children. And the opposite holds true at well: Inadequate parental monitoring may be a risk factor for adolescents developing problems later on.
However, let’s be real: there will be conflicts between you and your adolescent even if when you engage in regular parental monitoring and involvement. So what do you do then?
Educate yourself, find a middle-path response, and get support.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that many adolescent behaviors that may shock parents are actually normal. Adolescents are still in the process of developing their prefrontal cortex and so experimentation with risk-taking is common at this stage. Indeed, it’s usual for adolescents to have mood swings, a dramatic social life, conflicts with parents and a growing interest in sex, alcohol and drugs.
Both parents and adolescents must learn to discern the difference between behavior that is normative and age appropriate and behavior that’s dysfunctional and may require the support of a trained mental health professional.
For example, increased moodiness is normative, but long-lasting depression or thoughts of suicide are not. Conflict with parents is part of typical adolescent development, but verbal and physical aggression, or running away, is not. Increased sexual interest is normal, but promiscuity crosses the line. Spending time on social media is common but sharing too much personal information with strangers online may be cause for concern. (For more information about normative vs. non-typical adolescent behaviors, see DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Guildford Press, 2015.)
Even drugs? For most of American adolescents, light experimentation with alcohol or drugs is normal. However, developing a substance addiction, or selling or buying drugs, is not. There certainly are kids out there who might dabble once or twice with marijuana or try alcohol a few times, but not become enmeshed in that peer group or involved in the world of drugs.
However, it’s also important to consider an adolescent’s community and family when determining what’s normative for a particular adolescent. Some adolescents can be surrounded by drugs and promiscuity growing up while others live in neighborhoods where that’s rare.
So why is it so important to educate oneself first about knowing what’s normative and what’s not? Because parents need to ensure they’re not making too much of typical adolescent behavior or making light of dangerous behavior.
Choosing the Middle Path
This brings me to the next point: being flexible and willing to negotiate when it comes to conflicts between you and your adolescent. What does it mean to be flexible? In Dialectical Behavior Therapy terms, flexibility translates into choosing the middle path.
When it comes to disagreements, parents are often too loose or too strict. For example, if your 15-year-old wants to stay out past midnight partying, sleep over at her boyfriend’s house and is asking to get multiple body piercings, you can’t respond to her by insisting that she be in bed by 10pm on the dot and forbidding all piercings. That’s too extreme. If you don’t give in a little, your adolescent is going to push away completely.
However, at the same time, you can’t just go along with all those requests.
So what do you do?
You need to find a middle path. You need to be willing to negotiate on certain issues while being firm on others. Maybe this means you allow a few more ear piercings, but nothing more. Maybe insisting that your daughter be in bed by curfew during the week but allowing her to stay up a little later on weekends. And maybe she can’t stay over her boyfriend’s house but he can come to your house and hang out until 10 pm.
This is consistent with the type of monitoring a parent should always engage in. I always recommend parents have their adolescent’s friends over at their house instead of the other way around, because that way you can keep an eye on your child and monitor what they’re doing and with who.
Another example: If an otherwise high-achieving teen gets a poor report card one semester and the parent responds by removing all social and extracurricular privileges, that is too strict of a response. But totally ignoring the report card is too extreme as well. So what would a middle-path reaction look like here? It may be as simple as discussing the grades with the adolescent and brainstorming ways in which he could improve the following semester.
Again, however, the shock of this situation might have been prevented had the parent been in touch with the adolescent throughout the semester—keeping up-to-date on how they’re doing in school, having conversations with them about their classes and otherwise monitoring their academic performance.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to find a middle-path. That’s where support comes in. Every parent of a adolescent should have a mental health professional they can speak to on a regular basis, preferably one who specializes in working with adolescents.
Whenever delicate issues with adolescents come up, it’s a good idea to get input from a psychologist, therapist or other mental health expert to determine how to react or proceed. In addition to providing an objective opinion, the mental health professional brings their expertise to the table and can offer qualified advice on how to best approach each situation as it arises, drawing from years of training and experience.
Other forms of support can come via weekly counseling, parent-training therapy or parenting support groups. Many therapists hold Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) groups for parents, which help teach, among other skills, how to find the middle-path between two extremes. Learning these DBT skills can help parents support their adolescents in maintaining better balance in every aspect of their lives— in their thinking, behaviorally and emotionally.
A mental health professional will also be able to help you understand when things should be taken seriously and when you can just let it go… when you should wait, and when you need to take action. For example, a mental health professional may feel that your adolescent actually does have a mental health issue or substance abuse problem and can point you towards getting a proper diagnosis. Further, they may issue recommendations for treatment.
Depending on the problem—and whether it’s a mental health disorder or addiction issue—treatment could include 1:1 therapy (cognitive behavior therapy, DBT or other therapies), medication or a more immersive adolescent rehab center. Adolescent treatment centers offer varying levels of care, depending on the severity of the mental health or substance abuse problem: full-time residential treatment (RTC), or day and evening programs, such as intensive outpatient (IOP) or partial hospitalization (PHP) treatment.
1. Know what is going on in your adolescent’s life;
2. Talk to them; and
3. Know when to reach out for support.