Swimming with my daughters at our neighborhood pool, I watched a mother and father play with their preschool-age girl. The child was having the time of her life: "Let me see you go under water Daddy... Mommy, will you catch me when I jump off the side?" The love in this family was unmistakable. Yet, I couldn't help but be concerned that these parents might not understand that their girl would need this strong family bond even as she grew older. That's because popular myths are convincing many parents that teens should detach from their families. The consequences are tragic.
Myths that Deny Teens Family
Parenting books and blogs correctly urge parents to form close bonds with their toddlers and school-age kids. But the advice dramatically shifts for the raising of older children, as pop-culture pundits suggest that it's normal for teens, and even preteens, to disengage from their families.
"She lives on her phone in her room," Kelly, the mother of 14-year-old Meghan, told me. "But what can I do? It's her phone and her life." Like many parents, Kelly was convinced to take a weakened role in her teen's life. But this left Meghan alone to attempt to navigate hormone-induced mood swings and the shifting sands of peer politics. Feeling overwhelmed, Meghan had begun cutting on herself.
Kelly told me that she wanted to bring Meghan closer to family, but was paralyzed by messages telling her to let her daughter go. In fact, many parents are allowing their teens to disconnect from family because of three common myths:
- teens need their friends more than parents
- teens don't need tech limits because they know how to use tech better than parents, and
- any parental involvement in teens' lives is helicopter parenting
It's considered normal today for teens to seek comfort and direction primarily from peers, often via social media and text, rather than getting help from parents. Yet, while it's great for kids to have friends, the belief that friends are more important than parents is a setup for heartache. Even the best of friends may switch alliances or turn their backs when the going gets tough. The result is that teens feel deserted and sink into despair. In contrast, parents are deeply invested in their kids and would give their lives for them if needed. Such unwavering support is what our teens need to find their way on the rough road of adolescence.
The popularized digital native-digital immigrant belief suggests that teens don't need media limits because they know more than parents about how to use technology. The result is that most parents don't provide their teens any media limits, and teens now spend a disturbing eight hours each day playing with phones and entertainment media. The truth is that while teens may be able to flip through devices with an ease that moms and dads can't, parents' greater brain development allows them to understand something teens cannot: how the overuse of gaming, social media, and texting pulls kids away from family and a focus on school.
Too many parents shy away from engaging with their teens, as they have been convinced that any involvement in teens' lives is helicopter parenting. Yet, decades of research have shown that authoritative parenting gives us the best chances of raising teens who are emotionally healthy and do well in school. Authoritative parents are loving and responsive, yet they also provide teens high expectations and limits to support those expectations. The bottom line is that teens need our guidance.
A Lost Generation
Popular culture writers claim that this generation of teens is thriving because of their unrestrained online lives, which allow them to escape supposedly repressive parents. The reality is that it's a mistake of grand proportions to turn teens loose just as profound hormonal and brain changes render them acutely vulnerable to life's insults.
The number of suicide deaths are way up for teens, actually tripling for 10- to 14-year-old girls from 1999 to 2014. Rates of teen depression and self-injurious cutting are also remarkably high. Moreover, disconnecting adolescents from family is denying them the support needed to focus on their number one job: school. In the latest Nation's Report Card assessment, an unsettling two-thirds of American eighth graders score "below proficient" in reading, and this same percentage score "below proficient" in math. Clearly, this generation of teens is losing its way and needs our help.
Provide the Family Your Teen Needs
"But he pushes us away," Mark, the father of a 15-year-old son, told me when I suggested the importance of family. "He's also moody and has a quick temper." As the father of an adolescent myself, I understand the challenges of parenting teens. It's helpful to understand teens' actions for what they typically are: not a sign for parents to go away, but rather as an indication that life gets really tough sometimes. These same teens privately tell me how much they need their moms and dads.
What's critical is that we don't respond to our teens' emotional dysregulation in kind, which I know is easier said than done. If we maintain our composure, our teens are better able to recognize their own misbehavior and make improvements. And for the inevitable rough patches between teens and parents, it's crucial for teens to have an extended family of caring adults--such as grandparents, teachers, and coaches--who also offer support.
Providing teens authoritative parenting means giving them autonomy to make choices within the structure of a home that fosters a connection to family and school. This can be accomplished by limiting teens' use of smartphones and other gadgets, and by being mindful not to overuse tech ourselves. Also, carve out family time amidst hectic schedules. Simple moments such as walking the dog or sharing pancake breakfasts on weekends work wonders. With our love and support, we can decrease the suffering of this generation of teens and instead help them lead happy, successful lives.