by John Hoffman (originally published 3-16-2018)

A few years ago, The Psychology Foundation of Canada asked me to write a parenting booklet about raising teenagers. The first thing I did was to go and talk to some teenagers and ask them what I should put in the booklet. Some of their answers were really interesting, and, I think, instructive for parents.

Some of what they said was predictable. They want parents to trust them and give them more freedom.

One girl said, “My parents wouldn’t give me any leeway to start with. I’d say, ‘Can I go to this party?’ They’d say no and I’d ask why not. They’d say they didn’t trust me to go to that party. And I’d say ‘But you’ve never given me a chance to earn the trust. If you let me go to the party I can prove to you that I will be responsible for myself and won’t do anything idiotic.’”

A boy summed it up like this, “Parents should have confidence in the foundation they laid when their kids were younger.”

These statements zero right in on one of the great dilemmas of raising teens. The girl had a point. There is no magical point where teens are fully prepared to navigate risky situations (you know: sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll). They can only learn from experience (and hopefully, with some parental guidance and support). However, allowing kids to go into situations where drinking and drugs might be part of the picture (and that is often true!) is really threatening for parents.

I’m not going to tell you whether or not to let your kid go to “that party.” The one thing I would suggest is that you keep talking about these sorts of issues. Because, if you keep talking, you have a chance of having at least some influence over what your teenagers do and how they go about it. If you’re not talking (and I mean listening as well as talking) you will have very little influence. Here’s what one boy said about that:

“Most kids are pretty comfortable with breaking rules, so if there’s something you’re really concerned with, you’re going to have to have a real serious and possibly uncomfortable conversation with your kid. Teenagers are very influenced by peers. You need to find a way to be an influence too.”

He was right. Canadian sociologist, Reginald Bibby has been doing surveys of Canadian young people since the 1980s. One question he asks is, what are the important influences in your lives. Almost all teens (86%) say friends are important, while about only half (48%) say what parents thought about them was important to them.

So, if half of kids don’t care what their parents think about them, that means half of parents are going to have a very hard time influencing their teenagers. And much of the time that will be because their relationships with their kids aren’t all that good.

The teenagers I talked to told me that one big thing that got in the way of good relationships with parents was unreasonable, overly restrictive discipline. For example:

“The kids whose parents are most restrictive are the ones that care the least about what their parents think of them. They feel like their parents are always going to be pissed off at them anyway. So they learn to not care what their parents think.”

“Controlling parents push kids away and the control usually doesn’t work anyway. So that makes it less likely that controlling parents will be able to influence their kids.”

Make of that what you will. Some people might say this is just teenagers telling adults, “Butt out and let us do what we want.” Maybe, but what these kids said meshes very well with my own experience. I knew several teenagers who had very poor relationships with their parents (particularly with Dad in a couple of cases). The parents were usually decent people who cared about their kids and tried really hard put limits on their kids. And they came down pretty hard when kids fell short of expectations—came home late, didn’t call to say where they were etc.

My observation was that this hardline discipline seldom worked. The kids and dads had a lot of conflict and spent a lot of time mad at other. The result I saw was sad kids and frustrated Dads who couldn’t figure out how to talk to each other. I don’t think that’s what anybody wants.

I’m not saying let your kid do absolutely anything they want or that you should avoid conflict at all costs. In fact, most dads and teenagers will have conflict. (I’d actually tend to worry if you didn’t have any conflict).

But, whatever you do, whatever your rules and curfews are, remember that your ability to understand and influence your teenager starts with a good relationship. A good relationship helps you talk to each other, including conversations about rules and expectations. Here’s what one boy said about that. “Kids need to know the reasons. They need to know that your rules are at least somewhat reasonable, even if they don’t like them.”

I realize none of this is exactly a blueprint for how to raise teenagers. I’m not sure there is a blueprint. Although, not to sound like a broken record, if there is a blueprint, it’s laid out on the foundation of a relationship. So always keep that at the top of your mind.

I just want to add that raising teenagers isn’t always super hard. I’ve known a lot of awesome kids who got along really well with their dads and moms. I hope you experience that. A good relationship will help you.

If you want to do more reading about raising teenagers, the full text of Straight Talk About Teens, the booklet that John Hoffman wrote for the Psychology Foundation of Canada, is available for download free-of-charge on the Foundation’s website here.