How to Sort Through “Advice” on Raising Adolescents

Research on adolescent development is still somewhat in its infancy, as much of the research to date in the field of child development has focused on younger children.  Thus, many of the ideas we have as psychologists (and as parents) about adolescence as a stage of development were not actually examined empirically until relatively recently.  For example, early clinical writings on the topic emphasized this period as one inevitably characterized by “storm and stress” – in other words, not a lot of fun, and lots of parent-teen conflict and adolescent moodiness.  Within the fields of developmental and clinical psychology, it was believed that adolescents had to actively reject their parents in order to achieve optimal psychological adjustment. Other early researchers characterized adolescents as driven by “raging hormones” that turned them into surly and disagreeable people to be around.

Interestingly, these notions about adolescents were around for decades (and then some) before researchers attempted to put them to the test.  And then, surprisingly, it turned out that there wasn’t much actual evidence to support any of these still very commonly held beliefs about what drives teenagers’ behavior.   Which is not to say that adolescence is necessarily a smooth and easy developmental stage to navigate – for parents or for teens themselves.  More that, the explanations that have been relied on over the years for why adolescence can be a trying time didn’t hold up to empirical investigation.

In recent years, a multitude of books have been written for the general public about adolescents and about how to successfully parent them.  Unfortunately, many of these books fall victim to the same issue that the whole field of developmental psychology suffered from for decades: the ideas they present intuitively match casual observations about teenagers, but haven’t a shred of research evidence to back them up.  In an age when many parents seek guidance from the media, it is often difficult to sort out which sets of advice to follow (after all, most of these books are written by people with lots of letters after their names, who should know what they are talking about).

Thus, one more word of advice is to try to be informed consumers regarding the vast amount of literature that is out there providing advice.  For example, check on the authors: Are they affiliated with a university or reputable research center? Do they have active research programs? Check on their sources: Do the authors provide data to back up their claims about teens and/or their ideas about parenting?  Do they give citations and/or references to research that supports their advice? And finally, check in with your own knowledge base:  Does the advice match with what you know about your own child? Advice is not necessarily “one size fits all”, even if it is backed up by research.  Finally, if you feel like you are struggling in parenting your teen and aren’t sure which sets of advice to follow, a consultation with a mental health professional can also be helpful.

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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