Adolescence is a challenging time for young people, bringing on not only the physical changes of puberty, but emotional transformation as well and in some cases, the emergence of serious mental health conditions. For parents, it can sometimes seem like their affectionate, adoring child has become a different, distant person and that their teen’s friends have become more important to them than their family. But some of these changes are part of the essential process of moving toward independence and parents who are able to offer more empathy than judgment can continue to be a source of guidance for their kids, and emerge from this period with their relationship intact. Admittedly, though, teens do not always make it easy: A heightened egocentrism is a core trait of adolescence.
For more on the teenage years, see Adolescence.
On This Page
During adolescence, young people often break away from their childhood attachments as they try to develop an independent identity. They may adopt and discard activities, interests, peer groups, and mindsets again and again until they land on a persona that suits them. It’s not an easy process and it takes courage: While trying to figure out who they want to be, they have to manage sometimes bewildering hormonal changes while overcoming constant threats to their self-esteem, including feeling self-conscious about their appearance and body image perhaps for the first time.
Many parents are hyperconscious of the changes adolescence brings to their children but unaware of the way the challenges of raising an adolescent brings changes to their own parenting style. As children become teens, parents may criticize or question them more than before, and be more suspicious, protective, and strict. Remaining mindful of these risks in their own interactions with their kids can help limit the distance between them during the teen years.
Evolutionary psychologists suggest that adolescence emerged as a period during which young humans built the social networks they would need to thrive. Key to that process is bonding with peers, and responding to their influence, which often involves proving loyalty by taking risks. Research finds both that humans are not the only animals that display greater risk-taking in young adulthood, and that adolescents take greater risks when with their peers than when they are alone.
“I don’t care” is a phrase parents can expect to hear regularly during the teen years. Teens may tell parents that they don’t care about their approval, even though they probably do, and that they don’t care about things that engaged them as a younger child, which may be true. But parents should be conscious of when “I don’t care” becomes a blanket statement covering grades, health, peers, and more. Such apathy can be bred by depression, its continuance can sustain depression, and it should not be ignored.
Teens rarely tell their parents about it, but many live with intense self-criticism and self-doubt as they struggle to manage the multiple crises of adolescence. The negative voices in a teenager’s head can push them sometimes to seek alone time in their rooms, and at other times to seek to confide in an adult other than a parent.
With puberty comes an increased preoccupation with looks and dress. Aspiring to celebrity role models, girls may push themselves to be slimmer and boys to be more muscular. Both may feel pressure to wear newer, more fashionable clothes. Parents should take these concerns seriously and not mock them, even if they do not indulge teens’ demands for a new wardrobe. And sharing their own past experiences of insecurities about appearance can help reassure kids that others understand.
It’s been widely assumed that constant social-media use is a potential trigger of depression in teens, especially girls, as they scroll through screen after screen of peers looking their (digitally-enhanced) best. Research on the connection, however, is inconclusive, and some recent research suggests that depression spurs young people to spend more time on social media and not vice versa.
Conflicts between parents and teens are common occurrences, but just the fact that they have disputes doesn’t mean that a parent’s relationship with their child is weak or in jeopardy. Teens who feel comfortable enough with their parents to raise contentious issues may really be displaying how high a level of comfort and trust they have with them. And a parent willing to debate issue with a teen and not just demand obedience, is showing their child the respect they crave.
Teens often physically retreat from parents and chat less with them. But parents should understand that such distancing is developmentally appropriate. Solitude allows adolescents to experiment with autonomy, find time for introspection, regulate their moods, and develop their identities.
Teenage rebellion has long been a source of conflict between parents and adolescents. Some teens rebel against adult authority, whether parents’ or teachers’, and others rebel against convention and conformity. Some parents try to clamp down on teenage rebellion to preserve their authority, but others understand that creating distance is natural for teens and that the acts of rebellion that truly demand attention are those that put children at risk of committing self-destructive behavior or destroying core relationships.
On the surface, teen-parent conflicts focus on issues like curfew, driving privileges, spending money, homework, and housework, but mothers and fathers should consider that their children may pick fights over these conflicts because they see deeper issues that challenge the core of their identity: A parent’s denial of permission to go to a party can be taken as a lack of trust, for example, and a parent checking in on homework can be seen as challenging their maturity. When teens hear these questions from parents, they can trigger their own self-doubts. With so much at stake, it’s not surprising that they respond with anger if not fury.
“I’ll do it later.” “I didn’t know that’s what you meant.” “I forgot.” Adolescent lies are so common that some parents may wonder if their kids ever tell the truth. Teens lie to escape punishment or avoid responsibility, and so it’s up to parents to help adolescents understand that lies hurt the people they love, make life more complicated, and bring on more punishment than the original offense.
Adolescents manipulate parents by making them feel guilty for saying no, or by emoting so powerfully that they gain permission for a risky outing. Teens can tell if parents are worried about their connection or feel guilty about not spending enough time together. To get what they want, they may use that against parents, so it’s important for adults to hold firm, understanding that their child’s emotional displays may not be sincere. In this way, and by no using emotional manipulation themselves, they help their children learn that manipulation is a poor substitute for honest dialog.
Teens do not always make it easy for parents. They may come home from school without looking up from their phones, and then close the door behind them as they enter their messy rooms to spend the evening playing video games. But parents cannot stop engaging with their children. Whether they open up to their mothers or fathers about it, teens can struggle with anxiety, depress, low self-esteem, poor body image, bullying, peer pressure, self-harm, and other mental health challenges. A certain level of stress is developmentally appropriate for teens as their lives undergo tremendous change but parents must remain on the lookout for signs of more serious issues and help kids get effective early treatment. At the same time, parents must be careful not to become sources of stress for kids by overscheduling, applying intense academic pressure, or generally stifling children’s growth through the habits of helicopter parents.
Rejecting childish ways, even those they still derive pleasure from, is a core aspect of adolescence. For many children, but especially boys, that means giving up the expressing and accepting of physical affection with their parents. This insistence on standoffishness can create a profound loss for both generations. Parents can try to maintain a physical bond through different forms of physical affection: Pats on the back instead of snuggles, for example. And parents can maintain verbal affection by saying “I love you,” even if their teen is reluctant to say it back.
It is generally a fact of parenting that teens know their parents better than parents do their children. After all, parents have generally presented a consistent face while adolescents have undergone possibly significant change. This knowledge, accompanied by the adolescent tendency to knock adults off their pedestals, often leads kids to criticize parents, for a variety of perceived flaws. Parents may be shocked by the criticism, and disagree with it, but should understand that it rings true for their child and that, as their offspring mature, they will likely become more accepting of their mothers and fathers even with their faults.
Adolescence can be a time of mutual detachment for kids and parents, as teens pull away from families and parents try to let go. But there are ways to maintain closeness without jeopardizing those goals: Parents can ask their children to educate them in their interests, like music or video games; support their connections with their peers and other adults; remain accessible, and importantly, continue to maintain a reliable family structure that is available whenever their children need it.
It can be especially challenging for parents to maintain connection with teenage daughters as they try to manage their identity and maintain self-esteem amid social and cultural pressures. Parents can aim to understand the difference between sexier clothing and inappropriate sexual behavior; to tolerate their self-absorption; limit criticism of their friends; help them become critical consumers of popular culture; and own up to their own mistakes.
One truism about the teenage years is that children change often, which means that a parent’s overreaction to one action may quickly become irrelevant or backfire. Violating a teen’s privacy, say, by checking their social media accounts; teasing a teen or making predictions about their future; assuming that all their behaviors are a form of rebellion against their families; and doing things for a teen that they ought to do for themselves are all steps that can lead to unnecessary conflict.
As teens move toward independence, they may be confronted with difficult choices about gender, identity, dating, sex, alcohol, drugs, and smoking, among other things. It’s tempting for parents to dictate to kids what decisions they should make but that can play right into teens’ instincts to rebel and distance themselves from home. Rather than setting unenforceable limits, parents who can listen attentively to kids can quietly and supportively help guide them toward the right decisions. Teens will often talk about what other kids do, or trends in their schools or peer groups, as a way to build trust with parents and sound them out about the consequences of certain choices or the dangers of concerns such as eating disorders or self-harm. As long as lines of communication stay open, parents can feel confident that, if things go wrong, their kids will still come to them for validation or support.
Most teens will experiment with alcohol or drugs at some time during high school or college. Parents should have open discussions with teens about the potential risks and be honest about their own experiences, providing kids with honest information and the confidence to make their own choices. One priority, experts suggest, is encouraging children to make sure that their decisions are their own, and not automatic or socially-pressured.
More than 3 million young people in the U.S., including about a quarter of all high-school students, use e-cigarettes, a remarkable number given how new the product sector is. Teens may misunderstand the risks of vaping: While vapes are not cigarettes, they still contain nicotine, an addictive substance, and vapes with THC have been linked to lung disease and other conditions. Part of the appeal for teens is that vaping is relatively easy to hide from parents. Parents of adolescents know how ineffective banning things from their children can be, but they should still be clear and firm about their disapproval, inform kids of the risks, and let them know that, if teens are already vaping, they are prepared to support them when they are ready to quit.
For more, see Vaping.
No. It’s a myth that kids who don’t date in high school or college are maladjusted or lack social competence. Research finds that teens who begin dating later than their peers have social skills at least as strong as other adolescents, and may have superior leadership skills and overall mental health. And other research suggests that not only are far fewer young people today dating regularly as compared to previous generations—only 63 percent of high-school seniors have ever gone on a date—and the percentage of teens who are sexually active has also steadily declined.
Generally not. The vast majority of adolescents masturbate occasionally or regularly, and research by experts in sexual health consistently finds that masturbation is a healthy practice that does not jeopardize the eventual formation of romantic relationships. Other research suggests that the rise of widely available pornography on the internet has in fact coincided with a decline in sexual intercourse among adolescents. But parents who believe that a child’s use of pornography has become excessive or inappropriate should be prepared to discuss it in a nonjudgmental way.
For more, see Masturbation.
Often an adolescent’s first crush or dating relationship raises concerns for parents because their child seems to fall so hard for their partner or because the couple seems uncomfortably inseparable. But these are developmentally normal steps for children and parents may push children away by stepping in and limiting contact. Instead of being dismissive or teasing about a teen’s relationship, experts suggest that they welcome it and remain empathetic, while also making clear their concerns about physical and sexual intimacy. But parents should be on the lookout for signs of depression or aggression if and when a first relationship ends.
Parents spend years worrying about how they will have “the talk” with their kids. But while they should be prepared to share their primary concerns about sex with their children, it is at least as important that they make sure their adolescents know that they are willing to talk about anything their kids want to talk about, that they will listen without judging or shaming, and that they will remain a source of information and guidance. But parents should be aware of the risks of early sexual debut, generally defined as before age 15, including research that correlates loss of virginity at that age with greater use of drugs and alcohol and lower feelings of self-worth.
People who injure themselves, through cutting or other means, may do so as a way to soothe sadness, anger, or anxiety. But research finds that self-harm rarely makes those feelings go away, while introducing its own physical and emotional dangers. Self-harm is often a reaction to childhood trauma or abuse, or a signal that serious mental health issues like depression or borderline personality disorder are present. Self-harm occurs most often in young adults, primarily girls: Studies suggest that 15 to 30 percent of girls may engage in self-harm. A teen who self-harms often does so because they feel alone, and so parents should be supportive and not critical, and help a child who is self-harming get professional help. Parents should also be aware that self-harm is typically not a sign that a teen is considering suicide.
For more, see Self-Harm.
Parents who worry that their child may have an eating disorder should prepare themselves in advance of a conversation about it by learning as much as they can about the condition, including the extent to which adolescents may try to hide or deny it, and the best ways to get help. Eating disorders typically bring teens a great deal of shame and anxiety, and sufferers may feel hopeless or overwhelmed. Parents should approach a conversation with their teen gently, expressing general concern but being specific about what they’ve seen and why they’re worried. They should be open to their child’s responses, remaining calm and, eventually, encouraging small changes and first steps toward treatment.
For more, see Eating Disorders.
A child’s move to college is a time of clear separation from parents, and while it can lead to personal growth, it also can be scary and stressful. Many experts believe we are experiencing a campus mental health crisis, as the number of students who report feeling depressed has steadily risen and schools have struggled to meet a demand for services that finds anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the student body seeking counseling. Young people who pushed themselves to achieve in high school may feel burned out by the time they get to campus, and those raised by helicopter parents may feel unprepared to live on their own. Overall, it is estimated that at least one in three students arrives at college with a prior diagnosis of mental disorder. Experts urge parents to listen closely to their children’s communication from campus and to encourage them to seek university mental health services or access other routes to care if they are feeling depressed or exceedingly stressed.
According to surveys, in the past year, almost half of college students felt moments of hopelessness, almost a third felt so depressed it was difficult to function; and nearly 8 percent considered suicide. And some young adults may experience the first signs of depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder while at college. Parents should encourage students to pay attention to symptoms like sadness or worry they can’t shake; a lack of interest in things they used to enjoy; extreme highs or lows; and excessive confusion or fearfulness, and to resist the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs and instead talk to someone about it, even if it’s not their parents.
Parents who are controlling, smothering, or generally too involved in their children’s lives, may have a difficult time letting go when their children go off to college. But it’s important that they try, because research suggests that students whose parents remain heavily involved in their lives at college have a more difficult time coping with academic or social stress, struggle to make decisions, and have lower levels of self-sufficiency.
Parents may be disappointed at how little they hear from their children when they move to college, but often this is a sign that things are going well, and that social and academic pursuits are filling their days. Experts suggest, in fact, that when parents give students the space to find their own way on campus, their children appreciate it and become more likely to check in with parents over time.