The crucial role of parents during teen years

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Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in the lives of adolescents. With the onset of puberty, many teenagers begin to seek independence and establish their own identities. Parents and caregivers remain central to the emotional, physical, and social well-being of teens. Guidance from parents is key to helping teenagers navigate a considerably tumultuous period in their lives.

There are eight developmental tasks that teens should work on during adolescence to become healthy adults. In each of these tasks, they need the support of their families.

The impacts of physical growth are:

  • Chaos! Since these changes are totally out of their control – they feel chaotic, unbalanced, off kilter. Who wouldn’t be? It is normal for teens to not be able to recognize or name all of the emotions and changes they are experiencing.
  • Fatigue. Young people are tired and need more sleep. It is important to not confuse need for rest with laziness.
  • Self focus. Teens often place importance on their peer relationships. Consequently, it is common for teenagers to worry about fitting in and being "normal." They may ask themselves, "Why do I look different than my friends?" This increased self focus can contribute to the development of body image and self-esteem issues.
  • Need for privacy. Youth begin to desire and demand privacy.

Teens start to explore and experience:

  • Gender identity, i.e. presenting more masculine or feminine features.
  • Changes in how they look at themselves.
  • Changes how others around them react to them.
  • Developing values about sexual behavior – what does it mean to be sexual? What are my values about my sexual behavior? What should I do and with whom?

Youth will experiment with sexual behaviors, language, ways of presenting themselves, and they also start dating. Remember, this is all new! Relationship skills are still in development.

There are other physical changes taking place that we cannot see: Their brains are changing. All this brain development can have noticeable effects on adolescent behavior. This might result in desire for increased physical activity, a preference for high-excitement and low-effort pastimes, difficulty controlling emotions, inconsistency with planning and reasoning. It is expected for teens to engage in impulsive behavior.

This doesn’t mean that young people can never control their emotions, always opt for high excitement, make bad decisions or act impulsively. Instead, it means their brains are not yet wired to do these functions routinely and consistently. As their brains develop, they gain the ability to reason, plan, strategize, control impulse, and make wise judgments more consistently. 

This brain development may also explain why teens often seem self-centered and come off as rude. However, this is normal given their developmental stage. They are not yet able to consider the effects of their behavior on other people. That requires insight,and insight requires a fully connected frontal lobe.

How to deal with this as parents and caregivers? Provide teens with opportunities to practice using their brains. Teens who “exercise” their brains are laying a neural foundation that will benefit them as they age and progress through life. Teens can exercise their brains by learning to organize their thoughts, by analyzing situations and making informed decisions, confronting abstract concepts and exploring their personal value systems.

Young people are increasingly able to understand and grapple with things that cannot be seen, heard, or touched, such as faith, love, trust, personal beliefs, political and social systems. They begin to:

  • Think about possibilities
  • Position things hypothetically (the age-old "what if..?" questions)
  • Follow a logical thought process.
  • Think about thinking, the ability to consider their own personal feelings and thoughts about the world around them. 
  • Take into account another person's perspective.
  • They are increasingly able to make abstract assumptions about the way things work – relationships, expectations from teachers, their role on a sports team – nonetheless, teenagers still do not have a complex and lived array of experiences with which to ground their assumptions. So, they test their assumptions about the real world through trial and experimentation. Understood this way, these testing behaviors, often labeled "adolescent rebelliousness," are key to figuring out one's identity.

What do they need from the adults in their lives? Youth need repeated and ongoing opportunities to practice abstract thinking. It is very important to keep in mind that a young person’s physical development is not an indicator of their ability to think abstractly. These two tasks are often not in sync with each other. Just because an adolescent looks physically mature does not mean they are advanced in their abstract thought. 

As they seek to define their personal identities, teens are faced with the following questions:

  • Who am I? 
  • Am I normal? 
  • How or where do I fit in?                  
  • Am I lovable and loving?  
  • What are my strengths?

Keep in mind: Teens are reckoning with their personal identities while simultaneously developing the capacity to think abstractly. Personal identity in and of itself is an abstract concept. As a result, the process of forming an identity solely of their own is non-linear and confusing for both teenagers and their caregivers. During this stage of development, a teen may strike one as increasingly self-absorbed. Extending empathy and acknowledging just how overwhelming this process of identity development may be for young folks is central to fostering a positive sense of self-worth.

What do they need from the adults in their lives? Teens need their caregivers to establish clear boundaries and expectations about behavior. It is normal for young folks to challenge boundaries as they develop their sense of self in relation to the needs of others. Giving teens a safe space to think about the impact of their actions on those around them is crucial for the development of a healthy self-identity.

Teens will start exploring personal identity in relation to a set of personal values. They must determine what they believe in, what they stand for, and what motivates them through life. Establishing a set of personal values is how teens give meaning to their lives, and during this stage of development they begin to position their actions, desires, and relationships as a matter of "why," not solely a matter of "how."

Adolescence is a time when peers play an increasingly important role in the lives of youth, and relationship building is an essential component of development.

Many things change:

  • Friendships become more complex, exclusive, intimate, and more constant than in earlier years. Often they have multiple friendships and may even belong to more than one friend group. 
  • Peers become a central force in the development of self-identity.
  • Teens spend more time with their peers and begin to require less adult supervision.

Why are peer relationship changes important? The peer group provides an opportunity for adolescents to:

  • Explore their identity and understand who they are.
  • Learn how to interact with and relate to others.
  • Find acceptance and a sense of belonging. 
  • Have a safe place to try out new beliefs, roles and behaviors.
  • Have fun, provide excitement.
  • Practice communication and other social skills.

Young people with close and supportive peer relationships tend to:

  • Be more socially competent.
  • Have a better sense of self-worth.
  • Be emotionally healthier.
  • Be more motivated and active in school.
  • Less likely to develop behavioral problems.

The quality of peer relationships in childhood and adolescence may be one of the most important indicators of future psychological and social health.

Yet, it is common for parents and caregivers to feel some uneasiness as teens place increasing importance on peer relationships. Oftentimes, there is anxiety around the weakening of adult influence and the dangers associated with peer pressure and risk taking.

While those fears are reasonable, peer influence is far more complex than meets the eye and warrants a deeper look:

  • Peer influence can be both positive and negative.
  • Teens tend to choose friends and peers who are similar to themselves. Youth are not passive recipients of influence from others. They tend to surround themselves with people who share common interests and goals. While it may seem that teens and their peer groups grow similar to each other because of peer influence, many of those similarities were present to begin with.
  • Teens who are socially isolated or lack good social skills are often at an increased risk for peer pressure and coercion. By forming deeper connections with their peers, teens build resilience to harm.

The desire for space from parents and caregivers is a normal part of growing up. This means in adolescence it is common for the relationship a teen has with their caregivers to change.Oftentimes, teens are not seeking total independence from their parents and caregivers. Instead, they are seeking to establish a life separate from the expectations at home.

Maintaining a strong relationship with parents and caregivers remains imperative during adolescence, but it will nonetheless look differently than it did in childhood.

How do we know this is happening? 

  • A common source of contention in young people's lives is the need for more independence while still relying heavily on the practical support provided by adults.
  • Teens may express feelings of embarrassment if  their need for independence is not taken seriously.
  • Caregiver-adolescent conflict tends to increase. This is a necessary part of gaining independence from parents while learning new ways of staying connected to them. Interestingly, spontaneous conflict that occurs on a day-to-day basis seems to be more distressing to the caregiver than the teen. It is common for parents to give greater meaning to conflict. However, conflict is not an indicator of failure on the part of the parent or caregiver.

What do they need from the adults in their lives? A caring, supportive relationship with parents/caregivers. Regardless of family dynamics, a strong sense of closeness and attachment to caregivers has been found to be associated with better emotional development and school performance. It has also been shown to lessen the likelihood a teen will engage in high-risk behavior such as drug use. So, as much as young people push away from parents and caregivers, they are in need of support from them. Parental influence should adjust to meet the changing needs of young people. The influence may be different, but remains just as strong.

Young people figure out how to successfully take on new roles and expectations as they move into adulthood. Adolescents take on these roles gradually as they engage with:

  • Education
  • Employment/ work
  • Relationships/commitment
  • Citizenship

As young people are developing a new sense of self, they need: 

  • Someone to ask questions – “tell me about what you believe?”
  • Someone to encourage them as they broaden their sense of self. i.e. what motivated you to get your lip pierced?
  • Opportunities to try new things.
  • Opportunities to express/act on what they believe.

Because young people are adjusting to relationships that are changing, they need:

  • Skills to manage these relationships.
  • Opportunities to practice new relationship skills.
  • Support  from parents.

All of our youth need:

  • Caring adults, including:
    • Parents and other adult family members.
    • Other adults – teachers, neighbors, friends’ parents, coaches, faith leaders.
  • Positive connections to the places where they spend their time:
    • Schools – need to feel that they belong, that someone would notice if they were not there regardless of academic or extracurricular performance.
    • Communities – communities that respect and support youth.
  • Opportunities
    • The tools and knowledge to experiment in healthy ways.
    • The opportunity to make a difference in their community, i.e., becoming youth leaders, working alongside adults to complete important tasks.

Altogether, this is what is refered to as “healthy youth development.” When young people are supported throughout this period of immense personal, social, and physical change they are able to thrive and transition into adulthood with confidence.


Adapted from Understanding Adolescence, State Adolescent Health Resource Center, Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota

About Between Us

Between Us is a grant-funded program from the Minnesota Department of Health that creates access to confidential reproductive healthcare for youth and young adults who receive their care at Hennepin Healthcare. Teens have the right to confidentiality for certain kinds of care under Minnesota’s Minor Consent Law. Between Us works to transform primary care into a more teen-friendly environment, welcoming teens and their parents, while also providing confidential care when needed.

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