Parenting Adolescents — 10 November 2003
Should parents be their teen-agers’ best friends?

Some adolescents state with pride that their parents are their best friends. It may then be assumed that these parents have succeeded in their role. Actually, being our teens’ best friends is inappropriate and a disservice to our growing young men and women.

Some adolescents do not actually mean that their parents are their equals, they only use this phrase to connote a close, warm and good feeling they have toward their parents. This, of course is a healthy and most desirable connection.

However, in some families, one or both parents do create parity between themselves and their children. “My mother is a single parent, she and I talk about everything, my dates, her dates, her problems at work, my problems at school, her financial problems, her trouble with my father’s child support payments or anything else.” This young woman’s mother does indeed treat her high school age daughter as a best friend.

Best friends are composed of trusting, mutually appreciative equals who feel at ease about sharing their lives’ joys and woes with each other.

When parents create this kind of a relationship with their children, they burden their youngsters and deprive them of the guidance, protection, and parenting that they are entitled to.

Adolescents who are living at home need to be parented. They are entitled to receive their parents’ help, support, guidance and role modeling for adulthood. It is inappropriate to expect teens to act as friends to their parents.

Needing to be emotionally supportive and help parents solve their problems, frightens adolescents. Parenting is a one way street from parents to teens — and not vice versa.

Research indicates that parents who “adultize” their children create great insecurities, fears and inadequacies for their youngsters. The protection children deserve from their parents covers their physical well being, their safety and their emotional health. Children who are supported by protective parents grow to be more confident, emotionally secure and healthier adults.

Protection comes in the form of loving authority that sets the guidelines for teens’ conduct. Parents need to make clear what is or is not an acceptable behavior and explain why.

They need to expect their children to develop skills that are age appropriate and assign responsibilities and privileges that expand with maturity. Adolescents need those guidelines, even if they test their pliability. Teens need to know what parents expect as basic boundaries, against which they may choose to rebel.

When parents do not set rules of conduct and do not expect certain performance levels, their youngsters have to provide these boundaries for themselves. Most of them are ill-equipped to do so and become bewildered.

When youngsters have complete freedom regarding their study, friends, socializing, curfew, television, sleep or chores, they may brag about their freedom to their friends, but internally feel uncared-for, ignored, abandoned and even unloved. Adolescents need limits — not full rein to determine their own lives.

“I thought my parents didn’t care about me, because they let me do whatever I wanted and never questioned me about my actions. I felt scared and very much alone.”

This particular teenager ended up getting into drugs to numb his painful feelings. He did not see his parents’ non-involvement as a sign of their trust in him, he felt ignored and unworthy of their attention. His parents thought they were helping their son by not setting rules or imposing restrictions. They truly felt that freedom would spur their son’s healthy growth.

Some parents want to be loved and approved of by their children and thus refrain from setting limits. Parenting is not about the parents’ needs but about helping their children mature well.

Helping children with their emotional growth requires listening, questioning and responding respectfully to their children’ questions. Many parents withdraw from conversations with teens because youngsters make it so hard to converse with them. Regardless of how difficult it is to get teens (especially boys) to talk, parents must continue to ask and stay involved. When parents talk, kids listen — even when their nonverbal attitude is sullen, disinterested or put-upon.

Parents who keep communications going with their teens help them develop their own opinions, values and morals and avoid trouble.

Parenting is a huge job, for which most people receive no training. We need to rely on research, role models, other parents, leaders, and most of all upon our intuitive sense born of our love for our children.

We must not give up, be our teens’ friends or let them find their own way. We must parent, guide, expect, reward and punish, listen and talk. Above all, we need to be there for our children and not expect them to be there for us while they are still struggling to grow up.

To be a good parent to your teenager:

  • Remember that you are the parent — not your child’s best friend.
  • The parenting goal is not to be liked by your teen-agers — but be respected as their source of guidance and strength until they develop their own.
  • Relying on your teens as friends is unfair and deprives them of the opportunity to mature gradually.
  • Provide expectations, guidelines, rewards and consequences for your teens — it will help them grow healthily.
  • Listen and talk to your teens — even if you can’t talk with them.
  • The fruits of your parenting labors come many years later. Your child may grow up to be an adult who will eventually become your best friend.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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