How Parents Can Help Teens Navigate the Arduous Path to Adulthood

Martha Rush-Mueller looked up from her coffee to see her teenage daughter stride into the kitchen. Elizabeth had just put her hair up in tiny ringlets, sweeping back the light brown locks that normally hang freely. As corny it may sound, Rush-Mueller admits, she glimpsed a more mature Elizabeth that day.

“I looked at her profile and thought, ‘That’s a whole new person – a young woman,’” says Rush-Mueller. “You’ll blink your eyes one day and say, ‘Where did she go?’ She turned around and she was 4. She turned around and she was 10. And now, she’s 17!”

Our children grow into teenagers seemingly overnight. Some days we look into their faces and notice a new, more mature person. A sharper angle to the jaw. A seriousness around the eyes. A sassiness that wasn’t there before.

Along with a new look or attitude, the process of actually becoming an adult, experts say, follows a somewhat predictable path: acquiring certain skills, taking risks, trying on and casting off habits, and defining one’s own set of values and morals. How and when that all happens, though, can be tough to articulate.

Robbie, a 14-year-old ninth-grader, says he’s “on his way” to becoming a grown-up. “There’s still a lot more to go through, and things that I haven’t seen,” says Robbie, a dirt bike enthusiast who is also a member of his school’s football, wrestling and baseball teams. “A few years from now, I could become a whole different person. I don’t know, it just seems like it happens over time. There isn’t a breaking point. You grow into it.”

Robbie’s right. The process of becoming an adult takes time. And teens need help from their parents.

Parents Still a Powerful Influence

Research shows that moms and dads continue to wield tremendous influence over their teens – how they can “fit in” and survive in our unsettled times. And, though the temptation is often great, parents should never just watch while the rest of the world – good and bad – shapes their adolescent’s future.

Whether the influences come from peers, the media, family or community, parents can – and must – play a vital role in coordinating and mediating what touches their children. They need to continue all of the caretaking roles they performed when their children were younger, and recognize that their parenting styles must evolve as their children grow, says A. Rae Simpson, Ph.D., administrator of parenting programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action, a project of the Harvard School of Public Health.

“I rarely run across a parent who isn’t absolutely committed to the best for her or his teen and willing to try to struggle to figure out what might help,” Simpson says. Where we fall short, she surmises, is either by failing to provide other adults our kids can talk to, or by ignoring their interest in healthy extracurricular activities and events.

When Elizabeth Mueller floundered a bit in her early teens, her parents encouraged her to challenge herself. At 14, she went on a 1,001-mile bike ride through Nova Scotia with eight other females. The next year, an Outward Bound trip to Colorado involved white-water rafting and a two-day solo camping trip. She rediscovered her strength and self-confidence.

“You can’t do it for them,” Rush-Mueller says, “so you put them in situations where they can get it back themselves.” 

Encouraging Acceptable Risks

Lynn Ponton, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California – San Francisco and author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do and The Sex Lives of Teenagers, says we must reject the notion that all risk is dangerous and accept that teens will always take risks.

“You need to get some challenge, some risk into a kid’s life,” Ponton says. “If a parent doesn’t do this, or combats the idea, the kids find it on their own” – often in less-healthy ways.

Teens take social risks (running for school president), as well as emotional (professing love for someone), artistic (auditioning, exhibiting art) and physical (rock climbing, survival activities, unprotected sex) risks. Parents have plenty of opportunity to direct their teens to areas where they can take on the most risk and challenge in the safest way, she says.

For example, Laura, a 16-year-old sophomore, is encouraged by her parents to challenge herself. She’s on the track team, plays flute in the school band and with a community choir, baby-sits, and works at a bagel shop.

“You definitely make a lot of mistakes and you learn from them,” Laura says of the growth process. And you take risks. “I try out for things even if I know that I’m not going to make it, or be the best one on the team or in the group,” she says. “I say, ‘Go for it!’ That makes you feel better.”

Parents can also help their growing teens recognize when a particular pursuit doesn’t work for them or help them assess the risk of an activity, Ponton says.

Rush-Mueller recalls when her daughter wanted to drive her boyfriend home after they had a fight. Given her emotional state and snow-covered roads, Rush-Mueller and her husband forbade her from going. “Elizabeth got really irritated with us,” Rush-Mueller says. “She got on the train and spent the night with her girlfriend.”

As upsetting – and uncommon – as the incident was, Rush-Mueller says the outcome was far safer than allowing Elizabeth to drive. Teens don’t see the potential dangers, Rush-Mueller says. That is a parent’s job.

Parenting Adolescents

A parent’s job extends to what Simpson labels “The Five Basics of Parenting Adolescents” (see sidebar). Teens need parents’ support and acceptance, as well as accommodation and affirmation of their increasing maturity, according to Simpson. They need to know their parents are aware of their activities, and parents need to work their way through a process that involves increasingly less-direct supervision and more communication and observation.

Stick to boundaries, provide support around decision making, feed and clothe them, provide shelter and health care, and offer “a supportive home environment and a network of caring adults,” Simpson advises in Raising Teens.

Parents have their work cut out for them. So do kids. To successfully make the transition to adulthood, Simpson says, they must master key developmental tasks (see “The 10 Tasks of Adolescence”).

“Clearly, one of our jobs is to create a sense of what the expectations are, what the goals are” for being an adult, she adds.

We can start this, says Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D., M.S.Ed., author of But I’m Almost 13! – An Action Plan for Raising a Responsible Adolescent, by doing a better job of defining children by who they are, rather than by what they don’t do.

“We say a ‘good kid’ is one who doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t have sex, or doesn’t have an eating disorder,” Ginsburg says. “When society begins seeing kids as wonderful again, holds them to higher expectations and gives them a real sense of competence, we’ll produce better kids.”

Make the Effort to Make a Connection

What also makes teens feel better and do better is a strong “sense of connection” to their parents, Simpson says.

“Gone are the cozy times spent reading a book together before bed. But in its place comes that impromptu chat that happens to occur at 11 or 12 o’clock at night,” Simpson says. “The task for parents is to figure out circumstances in which they can continue to connect with teens, by retaining some family rituals, but also creating new ones.”

Sometimes this requires being a little thick-skinned. Rush-Mueller isn’t offended when her daughter pushes her away or ignores advice. “You’ve got to hang in, no matter what, even more so than when they were little,” she says. “You’ve got to be available when they want you to be. There is such a depth of need for intimacy with a teenager, and that intimacy is with you, the parent.”

Sometimes it’s tough for a parent to understand this secret code, Simpson says. “It’s not unlike toddlers who say ‘NO,’ or ‘I hate you,’ but don’t for a moment mean ‘Go away forever!’” Teens don’t yet have the capability for expressing complex emotions in more subtle ways, she explains.

Failure to understand the code can have dire consequences.

“The pushing back is not around wanting parents to disappear, but rather wanting them to be there; not about disconnecting, but reconnecting in different ways,” Simpson adds. If parents don’t persevere, there’s no opportunity for the crucial evolution to an adult-adult relationship.

Part of the changing relationship requires teens to differentiate themselves from their parents. That means rejecting opinions, wearing different clothes or turning discussions into angry debates. The rebellious mood is how teens figure out who they are, and discover their boundaries and limits, says Ponton. “It’s much more about an internal struggle for identity. Engaging in areas you don’t know a lot about is really the major tool adolescents use to develop their identity.”

Helping Kids Grow

There are a few basic points parents need to understand to help their kids grow, says Ginsburg, a specialist in adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:

• Listen more than you talk.

• Lecturing backfires.

• Understand the process of behavioral change and how human beings change.

Kids think concretely, he says, seeing things exactly as they are without the benefit of recognizing the future consequences. Consider a 14-year-old girl whose boyfriend says he loves her and wants to make love to her. She doesn’t question his feelings, has sex and then feels hurt when he moves on. “She’s wiser. She has moved a little toward adulthood and won’t fall for that line again,” Ginsburg says. “But is she ready for all the other lines and manipulations? No. She will make mistake after mistake.”

And that is simply too dangerous a way to learn, Ginsburg says. “We have to figure out a way to help them figure it out before bad things happen to them,” he says. But parental lectures are not the answer. That makes kids feel angry and then stupid, he says. So you need to use role-playing and break discussions into small steps. That way teens can see immediate consequences without having to go from A to B and C before figuring out that D could kill them.

Another way to help your kids learn about risk and decision making is to provide plenty of options. “Give kids a wide repertoire of coping strategies – music, volunteering, exercise, meditative breathing,” Ginsburg says. “They still might try drugs, but they’ll try them for fun and won’t get stuck and use them as a means of coping with stress.”

Holding On and Letting Go

But too many activities – even healthy ones – can foster another type of stress. John Fontein, a 16-year-old private school student, plays soccer, piano, tennis, squash and guitar. His mother, Tomoyo, worries that he drives himself too hard, “doing too many things, trying to accomplish everything, wanting to please his parents and teachers so badly.” So Tomoyo and her husband told John that he had to drop several activities.

Eventually, John accepted the decision. “He has his own ideas and he can be very stubborn,” his mother says. “Before I could just handle him the way I wanted. He was like my possession really. Now he has his own mind.”

So while Tomoyo still keeps an eye on John’s activities, who his friends are, what movies he goes to and where he chooses to roam, she recognizes that she will need to loosen her grip with her son’s growing maturity.

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“I can’t hold him or kiss him like I used to,” she says wistfully. “But you get used to it. It all happens so naturally, so gradually, that somehow you find yourself accepting a lot of things.”

The Fonteins will miss John when he leaves their home. “But I will also be happy that I have raised him up so he can go into this harsh society with confidence,” Tomoyo says. “That’s my real mission: to see him develop into a real adult with a firm stance.”

From United Parenting Publications, 2002.