Why Trusting Your Teen Can Smooth the Path Through Adolescence

Teenagers, by their very nature, are risk takers. Developmentally, they’re at an age where they are trying to gain independence and may resist suggestions or direction from adults,  especially their parents or caregivers. By the time they are around 14 years old, teens are more readily influenced by peers than by the adults in their lives and this continues to be the case until young people are in their early 20’s. Most parents and caregivers struggle with the parenting shift needed during adolescence and young adulthood.

It’s important to strike a balance between giving your teen autonomy and helping them gain the knowledge and skills they need to care for themselves and begin to move through life more independently. These skills include building positive relationshipsmanaging stressbalancing nutrition, maintaining healthy sleep habits, and basic life skills like money management, housekeeping, and organizational skills.

Although it is natural to have the impulse to control your teen and dictate specific choices and behaviors, parenting strategies focused on control fail to give teens the autonomy they need to learn successful strategies for adolescence and young adulthood. Importantly, control-focused parenting also threatens to erode the relationship of trust that teens need to have with their caregivers so that they can ask for adult support when they need it most.

“Ironically, the less we try to control our teens and the more we state our values and ask our teens to make decisions that keep in line with our values, the more likely they are to do the right thing,” says Suzanne Button, Ph.D., senior clinical director of JED High School Programming.

Instead, parents and caregivers should make an active effort to develop a space of trust with their teen. One simple way to do this is to show interest in what they’re interested in. Ask them questions about their interests and really listen to their answers. Try to validate their views instead of shutting them down. Validation doesn’t necessarily mean agreement—sometimes it’s simply letting your child know, “I see you, I hear you, and I understand you.” If your child rebuffs you when you show interest, circle back and try another time. Remember, teens are constantly trying on different opinions, feelings, and thoughts, and you will build more trust if you avoid shutting them down when they say something you disagree with.

It’s also important to note that not all teenagers are risk-takers. Some are a bit more timid when it comes to gaining independence from their parents or caregivers. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has only made this tendency more common. Over the past two years, many teens have not had crucial developmental opportunities to separate from family, due to health and safety concerns. In addition, anxiety levels among adolescents and teenagers have dramatically increased during this time. In a national survey conducted by JED and Fluent Research in 2020, 28% of teens reported that they had experienced anxiety in the last month. This has undoubtedly stalled some adolescents on their path to autonomy.

So what can parents or caregivers do to help? Some teens may need additional scaffolding and support to get back out there into the world. If your child is having trouble separating and taking risks, you can try suggesting plans that will push them out of their comfort zone and help them gain independence. You might suggest, “Hey, why don’t you text your friend this morning to hang out today? I can drop off and pick up wherever you plan on meeting.” Eventually, they may start taking this initiative on their own.

However, if your child is experiencing high levels of anxiety about separating from you or getting back into social and community engagement, you may want to seek professional help. “The good thing about anxiety is that we have lots of treatments that work for it. There are short-term psychotherapeutic treatments that can help youth master fears that may have worsened during the pandemic and social unrest of the past two years,” says Button.

Adolescence and young adulthood can be messy, and part of the journey of growing up is falling down and getting back up. The best thing that a parent or caregiver can do when their teen makes a mistake, shows an error in judgment, or experiences a perceived failure or rejection is to maintain perspective and offer support. When your child gets a bad grade, has a tough breakup, or changes their hair color, it’s not always indicative of a major cause for concern. However, it is important to know the signs that your child is struggling and needs additional help.

It’s also important for parents and caregivers to make sure that they’re prioritizing their own self care and mental health promotion. “Parenting an adolescent is not easy. It can be a bumpy ride and the steadier you are, the better it’s going to go for everyone involved,” says Button.

Suzanne joined JED after 20 years of working with adolescents, children, their families, and the systems that serve and educate youth. She is a licensed clinical psychologist in New York State. Before coming to JED, Suzanne was a Policy Fellow with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, and supported the implementation, monitoring and sustaining of large-scale procedural and practice changes in behavioral health, social service, and educational settings.  She has published, presented, and trained nationally on such subjects as effective EBP implementation in public service systems, the infusion of collaborative practice into the treatment and education of disadvantaged youth and families, and the use of technology to transform clinical practice. Suzanne received a B.S. from Hunter College/CUNY, a M.Ed. from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.