What the Science Tells Us About Parenting an Adolescent
Understanding how parental influence shifts in adolescence can help parents, youth-serving professionals, and policymakers support families in ways that bolster the well-being of young people as they transition from childhood to adulthood.
Note: This overview focuses on “parents” because most research on adolescent-family relationships has studied mothers and fathers. However, the findings are important to every caregiving adult in an adolescent’s life.
The research into adolescence highlights several key ideas about parenting during these years:
- Parents, families, and other supportive adults still matter very much to use during adolescence, even as peers seem to take center stage. Adult influence remains strong, but their avenues of influence change.
- Our needs change significantly between the start of puberty and early adulthood. A healthy parent-adolescent relationship should change, too—increasing in autonomy and opportunities for meaningful contribution and decreasing in control as youth mature.
- While there is room for a wide range of personal opinions and approaches to parenting, warmth and connection are essential for our well-being at any age.
Following are some important findings from research into adolescent development that parents and youth-serving professionals should know:
1. Adolescents need warmth and firm expectations.
Research into parenting styles has shown repeatedly that when parents are warm, respectful, and supportive and hold consistent, firm, and rational expectations for behavior, adolescents are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression or to abuse drugs or alcohol than their peers whose parents lack either warmth or clear expectations (or both). They are also more likely to show maturity, resilience, optimism, and self-regulation and to do better in school. These results extend across ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and family structures.
It’s important to note that having high expectations doesn’t mean being controlling or critical. Some studies have referred to this type of parenting as “rational demanding,” where young people are able to experience natural consequences for behaviors and are given explanations for their parents’ expectations. This is in contrast to “coercive demanding” practices, where parents take things away or threaten to impose negative consequences when they disapprove. Decades of research show that adolescents are more likely to respond when parents justify their decisions and demands with logical reason.
2. Adolescents also need respect and a chance to contribute.
Changes that occur after puberty begins make adolescents especially sensitive to respect and status. On the bright side, this sensitivity motivates them toward activities that provide a sense of competence and autonomy, and have value to their family, peers, or community. However, adolescents may feel disrespected by parents’ efforts to control their behavior through punishments or rules that they perceive as arbitrary (“because I said so”). Feeling respected and earning status may be especially important in early and middle adolescence, usually the ages of about 13 through 17.
Understanding this sensitivity can help parents and other youth-serving adults increase their influence when working with adolescents. If young people feel respected, if they believe their ideas and efforts have value to their family, and if they can earn status and privileges by being responsible, they have more motivation to act responsibly.
Family rules are likely to be more effective when adolescents are able to contribute their ideas and perspectives, and when parents give rational reasons for expectations around homework, curfews, or drinking, for example. Evidence shows that simply being told to do something, particularly in a way that makes adolescents feel talked down to, may have exactly the opposite effect.
3. Warmth, expectations, and respect are how parents influence adolescent behavior.
The key word in parent-adolescent relationships is “influence.” Parents still have power during adolescence, just not the kind of power they had earlier in childhood, when friends, diet, fashion, and activities were almost entirely under parents’ control.
The power of parents during adolescence comes from the quality of the parent-adolescent relationship. For example, adolescents who report that they are happy with their relationship with their parents, and who frequently discussed topics related to being in love, sexual relationships, and safe sex, are more likely to wait to have sex, even in the face of the “stimulating influences of peers.” Teen boys who report that their family is close, flexible, and enjoys spending time together are less likely to engage in risky driving behaviors. And good rapport between parents and adolescents, combined with parents’ reasonable monitoring, has been shown to protect against adolescent substance use.
The characteristics of high-quality parent-adolescent relationships observed in these studies included:
- Asking one another for help
- Shared responsibility
- Spending time together
- Reasonable monitoring of an adolescents’ activities (an awareness of where they will be, and with whom)
4. Parents’ warmth affects adolescent mental health.
More warmth and support in adolescents’ relationships with their parents may protect against depression. Adolescent depression is associated with parent-child relationships that are high in parental rejection, psychological control, and conflict, and low in warmth and support. Higher levels of this aggressive parenting behavior in early adolescence predicted more symptoms several years later.
One important finding from these studies is that the context of parents’ behavior matters. Critical, demeaning, or angry parenting behavior when a parent and adolescent are discussing positive topics such as planning an activity seems to be more predictive of depression than the same behavior during an argument. When parents can shift to affection and humor, even after a heated conflict, and especially during positive activities, adolescents do better.
5. Conflict isn’t necessarily bad—but the adolescent years don’t have to be turbulent.
Some conflict may be inevitable as parents and adolescents renegotiate the boundaries and rules of their evolving relationship. Conflict itself is not necessarily a problem, as long as the relationship is still built on warmth and respect. In fact, conflicts that contain a range of emotions—where parents and children express anger and irritation, but also affection, interest in each other’s opinions, and laughter about the conflict—can help parents and adolescents transition through developmental stages into a more equal adult relationship.
Other Science-Based Resources
For more research-based information about parenting an adolescent, we recommend the following resources:
Center for Parent and Teen Communication (CPTC) https://parentandteen.com
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Parenting Information https://www.cdc.gov/parents/index.html
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Adolescent Health https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/