What Adolescents Really Need from Parents

October 19, 2016

I have just been reading an article posted in the Greater Good website run by Berkeley University.

As we head into the summer season, many teenagers might be as focused on New Year’s Eve as they are on their upcoming exams.

Do we let them head off in a car to Rhythm and Vines, or camping with friends up north? What are the right boundaries? How old should they be? What alcohol limits are in place? How do we keep them safe? And as they get older overseas travel becomes a part of their lives.

The article linked above, written in an interview style by Jill Suttie and Ron Dahl, might provide some insights and advice.

Fun for the teens, frightening for their parents?


A parent of adolescents, Jill Suttie often worries about their health and happiness. She notes that they are under a lot of social and academic pressure, and is looking for guidance on supporting their move towards independence and autonomy while also guiding and helping them so they don't fall prey to anxiety and depression. In the article, she talks to Ron Dahl, a neuroscientist and professor of human health and development at the University of California, Berkeley who has spent years studying depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders in adolescence, using intervention studies and, more recently, fMRI technology to increase our understanding of what’s going on. His findings have helped uncover the neural underpinnings of adolescence and have led to some interesting discoveries about the role of social supports in teen life. They point the way toward helping our young teens get what they truly need during this very risky yet exciting time of life.

Just what is going on in that teen brain?


There is no way around the fact that teens will experiment. I kept an open door policy at my place where everyone was welcome to bring a sleeping bag and kip down if they were drinking. I always kept to the law though so they had to be 18 to be drinking at my place. I can't remember any real disasters, just a sticky floor, stale chips for breakfast and some bottle tops under the couch.

Sam in a happy place a few years ago.


I'm a self-confessed helicopter parent so I had to work hard to get the balance right between downright dictatorship and a good form of democracy with Sam. (And of course I didn't always get it right). I strongly encouraged Sam to go into student accommodation even though he was studying in his home town, as I thought this would help him become more independent and to widen his strong friendship base.

And I no longer had to care about the state of his bedroom....


Today, half a dozen years down the track he is flatting with three people he met in student accommodation and he has also maintained strong links with his school friends.

Dahl says that the way to get adolescents to listen, is in principle, very simple but applying it is "very, very challenging".  It is not the same for us all however. Believe it or not, Sam probably listened too much to me! I had to step back and get him to reach his own decisions about a university pathway, for example. I was the one who encouraged (read "forced") him to get his driver's license at a young age and I know I was not the only parent to do this. My reasoning was that he was a sensible person and I would rather he drove than get in a car with someone I didn't trust as much. These days I prefer that he drives me.

Interestingly, police commented at a school presentation I attended, that they were quite happy with the young age New Zealand teens can drive as they are usually under the guidance of parents when they first begin and they are more likely to adhere to the restrictions around a learner's license and be driving a safe and warranted car (ie mum's). If the driving age goes up to 18, it coincides with the age at which young people are legally allowed to drink and may also be leaving home and they felt this was a lethal combination.

Dahl also talks about the importance of teens "igniting their passions", something that gives them an "expanded sense of self". Sam played sport and was heavily involved in music, musicals and choirs at school. He eventually had to choose and went the music path where he had a wonderfully supportive and creative friendship group which took up most of his spare time and remains strong to this day.

Music played a huge part in Sam's social life as this passion was shared by many of his friends.


Regarding depression and anxiety, Dahl comments, "I think increasingly our models around depression are less about diminishing the negative and more about promoting the positive."

Depression and anxiety didn't feature much in Sam's own life teen years but I did find the monosyllabic responses hard to read and didn't really know what he was feeling. I found it reassuring that his peers seemed to offer great support to one another and I think that some of them would have come to me if they thought there was something I needed to know. As a widow, I did worry about the lack of male role models and encouraged Sam to seek out trusted male friends if he had anxieties he didn't want to share with me. I kept in mind the old saying "this too will pass", and it did, all too quickly.

Teens often get a bad rap but I love their passion for causes; music, poetry, sport and social justice issues. They get involved in Students Against Drunk Driving, Habitats for Humanity, LGBTI issues, and Youthline. They complete Duke of Edinburgh medals, life saving awards, cultural pursuits, compete in sport to a high level, Stage Challenge and so much more. My one fear is that impulsive streak when they are overtired, exam-stressed or whatever and they make a bad life choice in a moment of distress. All we can do is watch and listen and guide and also hope that we are there to pick up the pieces in those moments. We also need our support network and to forgive ourselves as I think the majority of parents are always doing their best.

Sam had a break and a stint overseas for a semester and the image below is a photo of some graffiti he saw. As long as our teens care about others we must be doing something right. Our teens are all different and judging by the number of great young adults out there we are succeeding.


I love the quote by Maya Angelou: ‘People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ I think that’s particularly true of kids of  this age. To feel expanded has tremendous salience. As soon as you catch them taking a positive step in the right direction, you’ve got to recognize it and admire it, and not step in and tell them, “You’re going in the wrong direction.” As you soon as you do that, you lose them.

Ron Dahl

As always, I would like to hear from parents with comments and advice from their own experiences.

More on Parenting Adolescents
Discover three surprising truths about adolescents.
Explore five ways to influence your adolescent (and five more).
Learn how the adolescent brain transforms relationships.
What kind of connection do you want to have with your kids? Try the Best Possible Self for Relationships exercise.

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