Parenting The Adolescent

By Kerri Rhodes, School Psychologist (Clinical & Forensic Psychologist)

Parenting an adolescent is a complex balancing act and can be an anxiety provoking time with fears about judgement from ‘society’, peers and family. Criticism has been voiced about ‘helicopter’ and ‘lawn mower’ parents, ‘free range parents’, ‘tiger parents’ amongst others, but often the behaviours that contribute to these labels are born from good intentions. DW Winnicott’s concept of a “Good Enough Mother”, while not without criticism, might extend to Good Enough Parents – where parents don’t strive to be perfect nor expect perfection from their children but respect and understand them for who they are. Parental warmth and empathy play a vital part in scaffolding the next steps in development.

Parenting tends to be peppered with expectations prior to and during the experience. While there are challenges and rewards throughout the parenting journey, parenting adolescents is often characterised by adjustment and the need to adapt. Change is an essential feature of adolescence. Independence and individuation (developing a distinct and separate entity) are major goals.

Adolescence is an important phase of development with rapid physical, cognitive and social changes. Neurological structure and function undergoes substantial transformation, contributing to variable mood and risk taking behavior. Further, maturity in cognitive development with expanded capacity for abstract thought and complex reasoning flourishes throughout adolescence. It can be a time of egocentric awareness as part of the process of your daughter finding her identity. Snowballing dependence on peers for intimacy and support is normal along with subsequent reduction in time spent with parents and questioning of family values. Social roles also alter, feeding this distancing, such as with added autonomy in part-time work and dating.

Parents are influential in their adolescent daughters’ development. The quality of the relationship and connection is important. Parental sensitivity, attunement and capacity to respond appropriately to her emotional needs assists in developing a healthy view of herself, confidence in her competence and perception that others are dependable. Healthy transition through adolescence and toward independence is facilitated by feelings of security and emotional connectedness to parents, which fosters exploration, rather than simply a detachment from parents. Some of this exploration may include experimentation with her appearance, behaviour, expressed views, friends and interests. While it can be extremely challenging for parents to accept some of these experimental identities, feeling she has your approval is likely to be immensely important. Being involved and showing interest in your daughter’s friends and activities can be a balancing act, enabling support but also allowing space.

Adolescence requires a significant adjustment in parenting, moving away from the childhood requirement of being close by and physically available to comfort and soothe. The alteration includes providing appropriate amounts of freedom, with incremental increases in independence and clear boundaries that are not defined physically but rather articulated and understood at a more conceptual level.

Renegotiating the parent-adolescent relationship to allow for enhancement in maturity, independence and role is an ongoing task required during parenting an adolescent. Maintaining relatedness and jointly held goals and values is necessary in maintaining strong connections, and the constant is shared values. Conflict can occur as part of the changing dynamics in communication but does not always need to be experienced as negative or as rejection. At times it might be about adjusting boundaries and limits. Sometimes it is about redefining the intellectual gap between parent and daughter, as she tries to demonstrate her developing intellectual prowess. Validating and showing empathy for your daughter’s point of view, while confidently presenting your own opinion contributes to affinity in the relationship.

Adolescents’ awareness that parents are supportive, believe in them and have regard for their developing independence is important. When your daughter makes mistakes (and she inevitably will by virtue of being an adolescent), being there with encouragement to take responsibility, to guide her through the consequences, while supporting her to find the way forward, without guilt or heightened sense of shame is a valuable role.

There can be gender differences in how parents relate to their daughters and be aware that how you model adult behaviour is a life lesson for your adolescent. Responses to conflict, reaction to problems, coping with and regulating emotions in a healthy way are all modelled through your behaviour. Healthy behaviours such as exercise and self-care are communicated just as easily as less healthy coping strategies like excessive alcohol use or smoking. Further, implied messages such as how mothers speak about their body shape and weight, along with others’ appearance, may denote to daughters how they too may be perceived and accepted. Similarly, how fathers speak about women, treat women and communicate boundaries, affection and respectful attitudes toward relationships, will play a role in how daughters view their emerging sexuality and relationships.

The adolescent phase of development provides an opportunity to take on the very special role of ‘Parent’ and while daunting, never give it up for an attempt at ‘friend’. Your daughter will have many friends in her life, they will come and go, but the role of Parent is a privileged one that lasts forever. If you’ve already negotiated the whirlwind of rapid change in childhood, establishing effective behavioural boundaries and a loving, respectful relationship, you’re well positioned for this experience too.

D. W. Winnicott (1973). The Child, the Family, and the Outside World. Penguin, p. 173