When To Guide, When To Let Go Of Teenagers?

Yolanda Hilario and her teenage son Noel sit on the sofa in their home in South Central Los Angeles on Dec. 15.

Yolanda Hilario and her younger teenage son, Noel, sit in their living room in South Central Los Angeles on Dec. 15. Hilario is trying to balance guidelines and independence for her two teenage boys. Dennis J. Provost for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Dennis J. Provost for NPR

No one ever said parenting teens was easy. And decision-making for and about teens can be mind-boggling. But Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, author of The Parents We Mean to Be, has some advice.

"I think we're in the midst of a giant social experiment," he says. "It’s probably unprecedented in our history and may be unprecedented in the history of humankind. We are trying to be closer to our kids."

And there are clear benefits to that closeness. When we really listen to our kids and spend time with them, we know them better and can better guide them in decisions about academics and social life. On the other hand, parents can easily run into resistance from their teens, who are working toward independence, autonomy and adulthood.

Allowing Independence

Take the situation of Yolanda Hilario, a Los Angeles resident and mother of two boys, one 17 years old and one 11. Hilario describes herself as "often frazzled" in day-to-day decisions about when to step in and actively guide her children and when to let them make their own decisions.

It was so much easier, she says, when the kids were younger. The teen years are scary especially when you consider these are the years kids practice adult behavior and end up making lots of mistakes, she says.

Right now, Hilario is in the midst of a dilemma with her 17-year-old: He wants his mom to drop him off a block away from school. He's yearning for independence and that's probably just fine, Weissbourd says.

"I would respect a teenager's wish to want to be dropped off a block away and for the teenager to look as if he or she is independent," Weissbourd says, adding it's probably important to respect relatively minor requests like this one.

Setting Limits

However, there are times when a parent has to be more active in guiding their teen. Clearly, when it comes to risky and dangerous activities like drug and alcohol use and sexual intimacy, Weissbourd says parents have a responsibility to be clear about when kids cross the line. Teens have to understand their family's values and standards and what is expected of them.

But some situations can be confounding. For Hilario, the process of applying for college became a struggle. She didn't take over the process but she worried constantly that her son was not going to get the applications in on time. He did wait until the last minute, but ultimately got them done. At that point, Hilario had a discussion with him about the real-life consequences of procrastination.

This was "exactly the right move," Weissbourd says. He says that sometimes kids procrastinate because they really can't achieve the concentration they need. Sometimes they really don't want to do something, including applying to a particular college their parents might want them to go to.

But discussing consequences after the fact is valuable, Weissbourd says. "It’s important to be able to explain to your child that there are consequences of doing things in a shabby way and too late," he says, adding that, in future situations, parents might want to help kids map out a plan and timetable.

The concern about Hilario's younger son is more worrisome. Hilario lives in South Central Los Angeles, a tough neighborhood known for gang violence. She worries her 11-year-old is vulnerable to peer pressure. She already sees that when he opts for tough play on the playground instead of going to the library or music room to practice his clarinet.

He sometimes gets into trouble as a result of the tough play, and Hilario worries that he could end up in far more dangerous and risky activities as he gets into his teen years.

Weissbourd suggests Hilario explore more opportunities for her son to pursue his interest in music. If kids feel real accomplishment in an activity valued by other kids and adults, then, Weissbourd says, self esteem will follow, along with the confidence to say "no" to risky behavior.

Books Featured In This Story

The Parents We Mean To Be

How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development

by Richard Weissbourd

Hardcover, 241 pages | purchase

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