The teenage years are marked by paradoxes. Even as teens’ cognitive and problem-solving capacities are expanding, many adolescents experience declines in academic performance, coupled with an increase in behavioral and mental health concerns. Research shows that parental involvement helps stave off these negative trends — but it also reveals that parents’ school-related involvement drops during these years as teens seek greater independence. To add to the challenge, parents may find that strategies that worked in elementary school are no longer effective.

Into this mix comes a recent study of middle and high school students that highlights ways that parents can effectively adapt their involvement to meet the changing needs of adolescents. Teens and parents are on a “paired journey,” marked by shifting family dynamics. The key for parents? Engage teens in a way that honors their autonomy while also providing structure and support.

“The good news is that youth still want their parents to be involved,” says Harvard University Professor Nancy Hill, one of the study’s co-authors. “This involvement doesn’t have to be a power struggle. Parents need not be afraid to allow teens to try and succeed or try, fail and try again. Parents are in the single-best position to cultivate, encourage and affirm their teen’s development.”

Hill and her colleagues identified specific types of parental involvement that were associated with increased grade-point averages, decreased behavioral concerns and reduced depressive symptoms.

Scaffold Independence

Scaffolding, says Hill, “means letting teens try out things independently, with a ‘safety net.’ ” This includes giving them opportunities to try — and fail at — new endeavors, waiting for them to ask for help before rushing in to provide it, and talking through choices and potential outcomes and then allowing them to make their own informed decisions. Parents of younger adolescents can start this process by letting them choose between options that the parent thinks are equally good, and then increasing autonomy from there.

Of course, there will still be times when parents need to step in and provide extra support, but they should examine their motivation for doing so. “When parents jump in and micromanage homework because they are frustrated, it is probably not helpful and may be counterproductive,” Hill says. “If they are helping because the teen asks for it or agrees they need help, then it can be highly effective.”

Provide Structure at Home

Parents can support academic achievement by providing time, space and materials for teens to manage their own schoolwork. This also includes establishing family expectations regarding homework and leisure activities and providing academically enriching family activities.

However, this structure should also honor teens’ growing autonomy. For example, Hill cautions against over-involvement in homework, even when students are struggling.

“It is not easy to watch — or let — your son or daughter fail to complete assignments or not earn grades that you know they are fully capable of earning,” says Hill. “If you can stomach it, let them wait until the last minute to do the big assignment and don’t jump in and rescue them until they ask. Yes, it is hard. But, in the process, they might learn the bigger lessons about the consequences of their actions and how to recognize when they need help.”

Link Education to Future Success

Multiple studies have observed that a parent’s expectation that his or her child will attend college is associated to academic achievement. Parents can help teens connect the dots between their current academic efforts and their future success. This requires ongoing conversation about their career goals and about how teens’ current schoolwork is relevant to these aspirations. Parents who engage in this dialogue help children find meaning in their academic efforts, which is a key ingredient to internal motivation.

Demonstrate Warmth

Perhaps it’s no surprise that teens benefit from a supportive parent-child relationship that balances emotional closeness, structure and autonomy. But according to the Harvard study, parental warmth has an amplifying effect on each of the other strategies. When parents demonstrate warmth and love, they provide a safe base from which students can “tackle the academic and psychological challenges of secondary school.”

And here’s one more silver lining for parents: These strategies remain effective even when teens distance themselves from parents.

When teens push themselves away, says Hill, “it does not mean that they don’t want and crave their parents’ acceptance of their identities and interests. One of my colleagues said parenting teens is like hugging a cactus. Even as the ‘warm fuzzies’ are not often reciprocated, teens still need them, still need to know they are loved unconditionally. Don’t miss the opportunity to say or show love, warmth and affection toward even your most prickly teen.”

As Teens Push Away, What Can Parents Do To Support Them? 24 September,2015Deborah Farmer Kris

  • This gives me hope for the teen years! Loved the cactus analogy

  • Walt Bonczek

    What concerns me is that an article such as this even has to be written..most of the concepts are common sense endeavors that should have been instilled long before by our parent’s parent’s parent’s ad infinitum…Our society has become extremely “dumbed” down in my opinion…Through media, poor education, and fluff propaganda…Example: The largest words used in this article itself are “autonomy”, “reciprocated” and “paradoxes”…The “de-volution” of mankind is scary…

    • K

      You don’t have to use “large” words to say something important. Also, what seems as common sense may be just that, but needs to be executed in different ways than our grandparents did since the world is so different (e.g., kids hooked on technology, easier access to information, different expectations of genders since our grandparents times). Sadly, this article didn’t really address these things. Examples would have been great to illustrate these “common sense” suggestions by the author.

      • Walt Bonczek

        I agree with you on one of your points such as the world is different, yes it is but as the world has become different does the basic techniques of compassion, empathy and altruism need to be different too?…These in my opinion are lost in our parenting skills and are much more important to instill in children….Also your statement about the use of “large” words just supports what I was attempting to explain…basic understanding and communication of our own language is being lost because technology has made things so much easier for everyone…So as less and less “large” words are being used words that mean something maybe similar, yet different, less and less actual communication of points that are important to get across are coming to fruition…hence, confusion occurs rather than ease of understanding because the words being used are not targeting the necessary ’emotive” and “cognitive” responses and conflict occurs…And I concur with parent in MA and NJ’s response…The problem I also see is with this dumbing down and technological wonder we have, few and few people actually put real work into their research…Article’s like these, with no real depth of anything that isn’t already known offer up basic “fluff” answers…Too many people “copy and paste”…”file and save” and then forget it and go home and stare at the television or FACEBOOK..

        • minuialear

          Instead of complaining “you should have used more ‘large’ words,” how about explaining why? What large words were not, but should have been, in this article? What portions of the article would have benefitted from using “larger” words?

          And the loss of understanding of various concepts arguably is not due to “technology,” but due to the fact that we have failing schools. And more spending on prisons and military expenditures than on public schools and university education. Having an easier time of reaching a wide audience arguably does not translate to using less sophisticated language, in and of itself.

  • parent_in_MA

    This article fails to touch on one thing…trust. Many teens push away because they as they grow older and mature they realize that their parents have been deceptive or manipulative. Not usually anything serious, but lies of convenience (little white lies to make life easier or Santa Claus/Easter Bunny, etc.,). It is difficult to be open and honest wit someone you don’t trust. If you don’t already have a trusting relationship with your child don’t expect everything to fall into place when they are a teen!?! Parents need to start doing these things much earlier in their child’s life. BTW, how is a mother of 2 young children an expert on parenting teens?

    • NJ

      I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere that the author is an expert in parenting teens. I think she’s summarizing her research.

  • Endra

    I was hoping for the magic answer. If parenting teens is like hugging a cactus, parenting teens with learning disabilities is like dancing with a shark.

    I am guessing this study showed that the parents who did these things had a higher likelihood of good outcomes. You know what I am guessing it didn’t show? That doing all the right things guaranteed good outcomes. That’s the hard part, made harder by learning disabilities. A teen who decides not to succeed at something is almost certainly not going to succeed *no matter what you do. * No matter how much scaffolding you provide.

    I am shocked by how many people suggest an authoritarian response to the struggle, though. There’s a technique that worked for no parent ever.

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  • Love the general sentiment. Seems like the trick is in finding that delicate balance. Knowing when it’s time to step in – and the specific ways to provide just enough support.


    I deal with teens with special needs a lot as I do Estate Planning for Children with disabilities. It would be nice to mention how you deal with special needs children when they are teenagers.

  • Pingback: Emotional Agility as a Tool to Help Teens Manage Their Feelings | MindShift | KQED News()


Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris has taught elementary, middle and high school and served as a charter school administrator. She spent a decade as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibilityresearching, writing, and consulting with schools. She is the mother of two young children. You can follower her on Twitter @dfkris.

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