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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.

Understanding the Adolescent Mind

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.

How does parenting change when adolescence begins?

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.

Why do teens take so many risks?

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.

Why Teens and Parents Clash

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.

Why do teens want to be left alone?

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.

Why do kids rebel?

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.

Staying Connected to Teens

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.

Why do teens become less physically affectionate with 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.

Why are teens so critical of their parents?

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.

Having Difficult Talks with Teens

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.

How can parents talk to teens about drug and alcohol use?

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.

How can parents talk to adolescents about vaping?

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.

Letting Go When Kids Go to College

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.

What do parents need to tell children about mental health before they go to college?

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.

How does helicopter parenting affect college students?

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.

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