If you have a teen, it’s hard to know what to do at any given moment. While you love your child, and want the best for them, there are so many grey areas in teen parenting that can leave you scratching your head.
Take school, for example. Your high school daughter comes in seething because she got a bad grade on her literature essay, and you’re not sure what to do. You worked with her on this essay for hours, analyzing the teacher’s instructions word for word. You edited the essay. And when it came to selecting quotes, you even read parts of the book, for crying out loud! Both you and your daughter thought the A was in the bag. Meanwhile, this grade is going to ruin her sophomore average.
You want to call the English teacher and give her a piece of your mind, but you stop yourself: You’re not sure how that will reflect on your daughter for the rest of the year.
It’s Good to Be Involved in Your Teen’s Life
On a simplistic level, parents should be involved in their child’s life. Note that we didn’t say school, we said Life. But school is a major part of your child’s life in adolescence. So more than asking “How was your day?” parents should be asking specific questions about classes, teachers, friends, tests, and anything else related to school that indicate your care and interest in their daily activities.
Research shows that regular parental monitoring is the number-one predictor of positive behavior later on. Appropriately monitoring your teen’s life—whether academic, social or otherwise—can limit major conflicts between families and prevent certain mental health or substance abuse issues from developing. And the opposite is true as well: inadequate parental monitoring (such as a lack of interest or the absence of after-school supervision) may be a risk factor for problematic behaviors later on.
A Fine Line
However, there is a fine line between monitoring and over-monitoring. Studies show that when parents are too involved in school, to the point that they are personally invested in the child’s schoolwork and often take the reins in projects, it doesn’t help the child. At times, it can even be downright negative.
“Most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses…do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it,” say Drs. Keith Robinson and Angel Harris, at the University of Texas and Duke, about their research on parental engagement in school. They’re the authors of the book “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education.”
Even helping your child with homework may not be necessary, they found in a longitudinal study with hundreds of families from various races and cultural backgrounds.
“Consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades. Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.”
Interestingly enough, there were only a few kinds of parent involvement that did help, including discussing what your kids are doing in school and the expectation that your child will go to college.
“The essential ingredient is for parents to communicate the value of schooling, a message that parents should be sending early in their children’s lives and that needs to be reinforced over time. But this message does not need to be communicated through conventional behavior, like attending PTA meetings or checking in with teachers.”
On a general level, research shows that over-involved (or over-controlling) parents are more likely to produce adolescents with mental health, substance abuse, and physical health problems. These children become frustrated, depressed, and yes, even suicidal.
It’s not just limited to grades. Many parents focus on getting their kids into a good college—no matter what it takes. From the beginning of ninth grade (some even start from elementary school), parents are working backward to plan for the Ivy League. While it’s not a problem to inspire ambition in your kids, this mentality can also manifest itself into dictating which classes your child should take, which electives to opt for, which teachers to befriend, and what extracurriculars and volunteering opportunities to participate in. The focus on extracurricular involvement is so high among some circles that one New York Times article called it “the after-school pressure cooker.”
Eventually, all of these demands can produce a teen who’s stressed-out and tired. Obviously, this does nothing good for the adolescent’s mental health, and frustrated teens can find themselves seeking escape through risky behavior. In a study on upper-class teens, researchers found that this unhealthy, pressured attitude towards academic achievement was one of the contributors to eventual problematic behavior, like drug and alcohol use.
Susan Gilbert, author of the aforementioned NYT article, stated that parents can put so much pressure on high achievement and performance that “their kids often develop stress-related symptoms like insomnia, stomachaches, headaches, anxiety, and depression.” And even eating disorders, new research shows.
These studies clearly suggest the stress of performing well and living up to parents’ high expectations takes a toll both physically and mentally.
When Parents Fix Their Teens’ Problems
Elise Guthmann, LMFT, Program Director at Evolve Ojai Residential Treatment Center, adds that another sign of an over-involved parent is the “rescue” approach they take toward their teenagers.
“Many parents today tend to step in an attempt to rescue their teenagers from failure, rather than giving them the opportunity to practice solving problems on their own and tolerating disappointments when they arise.” Ultimately, says Guthmann, it’s the teen who suffers. When parents step in when it’s not their place, their children learn they can just count on Mom and Dad whenever they’re desperate—and the issue will disappear.
This kind of intrusive parenting hampers adolescents’ development later on. A study of more than 400 college students found that over-involved parenting during childhood prevents adolescents from learning how to become self-reliant adults.
When it comes to school, teens need to learn how to solve problems on their own. Whether it’s learning how to prioritize, learning how to ask for help, figuring out how to manage one’s time appropriately, or resolving conflicts, these are things teens need to learn for themselves, so they can then handle similar challenges in adulthood.
So, the takeaway from all this?
In a nutshell, under-involvement in your teen’s life is not good for their wellbeing and academic performance. But over-involvement not good, either. It can result in your teen developing mental health and substance abuse issues. So it’s a fine line. Try to achieve that sweet spot between under-involved and over-involved—just be involved, plain and simple.
Show interest and participate in your child’s life. Ask them about school, about friends, about whether or not they’re enjoying their classes. But maintain your boundaries – and theirs – at the same time.
Be supportive and lend a listening ear when your adolescent wants to vent about homework woes, but don’t start taking projects into your own hands. Let your teen decide what classes and extracurriculars they want – and don’t want – to take. And above all, don’t try to pressure them to do more than they can handle just because you’re thinking about college.