The Dance of Parenting Adolescents

by Robert Auger, LMFT
| Excerpted from The Vine, Fall 2010 |

To any of us sitting along the side-lines of a high-school soccer game or catching up at Back-to-School night, it will come as little surprise that parenting teens can be a dicey endeavor. The “war” stories that are exchanged can be at the same time comforting and crazy-making.

So many factors come into play as we approach this time of parenting which requires more tactical moves, yet at the same time some very subtle nuancing. Two important factors to consider which are having an impact during this period are the concept of locus of control and the physiological development of the pre-frontal lobe.

The long-studied psychological concept of locus of control by Julian Rotter in the 1950’s posits that each of us have a built-in mechanism for perceiving control in our own lives. Some of us view our lives as externally controlled, guided in large part by decisions made by others and leaving us with little sense of self-agency. Others have a stronger internal locus of control. People oriented in this way generally sense that their life circumstances are guided by their own decisions and choices.

While there have been some studies which indicate that locus of control can change over time, and considering that there are many factors which can influence one’s tendencies in this area (familial predisposition, cultural influences, etc.), there are also developmental factors that can reinforce or change one’s general orientation in this area.

One such factor in teens is the imbalance between two developing physiological systems. There has been much study over the last few years of the impact of the development of the frontal lobe of the brain during the time of adolescence. This part of the brain includes the pre-frontal cortex which controls such things as assessing consequences, planning and controlling impulses. Is it any wonder that the parental barrage of :”What were you thinking?” –or- “How can you not be sure what time the movie is?” –or- “How could you have thought that was a good idea…” are some of the most frequently uttered questions of parents of teens?

In addition to the slow development of the frontal lobe (now generally thought to reach full maturity in the early to mid 20’s), teens are faced with the physiological reality that their limbic system develops early on and is thought to cause adolescents to reason from a fairly emotional and impulsive position. Without the added controls of a developed frontal lobe, the physiology of this arrangement alone allows us to see how we are dealing with a time period which is ripe for problems.

Most of us begin our relationships with our children at birth, welcoming them into the world as a fairly helpless bundle that has no real reason to believe that they can “do” for themselves. We feed them change them, wipe their runny noses, change their diapers and provide for their every need. While most of parenting requires many successive steps back from control on the part of the parent to allow greater independence, (walking, crawling , first day of school, taking the bus,… you get the picture), we take a giant leap forward in parenting our adolescents. Suddenly our helpless babes are asking us for cell phones, car keys and permission to stay out all night.

Our role as parents, over the span of the adolescent years, becomes a dance of sorts. While we have been “leading” in the dance for so many years, during this phase it is time to negotiate the hard process of letting our kids learn to lead. Sometime our kids are open to letting us teach them the steps and how to lead. Other kids may say… “I know, I know!...” and then proceed to step all over your feet.

The point is that each adolescent matures at a different rate, and factors such as locus of control, pre-frontal lobe development, etc, are all at work either helping or hurting the process (partners in the dance, if you will). One of our goals in this phase of life is to become comfortable in the process, finding ways to continue moving the agency to our children, rewarding their efforts with praise and privilege, as well as helping to make course corrections (natural and logical consequences) when the stepping on the feet becomes too painful.

This gentle guidance, coupled with some parental “chance-taking” is never an easy go. Sometimes one teen will respond splendidly and reward our efforts with a stellar dance, quickly allowing us to relax and let go. Other teens will require a much longer period of switching “the lead” back and forth until they have matured, developed and learned the lessons necessary to be ready to go it on their own.

For more information on teenage brain development consider the following resources:

  1. NIMH Fact Sheet
  2. "Inside the Teenage Brain," A 60-minute PBS: Frontline edition, January 31, 2002