I think there is a common belief within our culture that as kids evolve into adolescence they need less and less guidance and supervision. After all, their primary developmental milestone is letting go of earlier self-statements such as “I want to be a ballerina or a cowboy when I grow up,” and moving in the direction of forging an identity that will impact their choices about higher education, work and career, friendships and intimate relationships. Adolescence is a time to challenge parental core values and decide if they still resonate, need to be modified, or rejected and replaced with values that might come from peers, or other adult mentors in their life. Figuring all that out requires greater degrees of autonomy and risk taking, so it makes sense that many parents begin to take a backseat, encouraging their teens to navigate challenges and choices more independently.
In theory, this seems like the right approach. But there is one factor that actually calls into question the idea of providing less input and direction: the adolescent brain. It seems a cruel trick of nature that as teenagers grapple with peer acceptance, identity, and choices that will impact their future, their thoughts, moods, and behavioral choices are mediated by a brain that is wired for four fundamental things: aggression; impulsivity; risk taking; and pleasure-seeking. Think for a moment about the confluence of those four variables! Rather than leading from thought processes that accentuate higher reasoning, abstract thinking, or cause and effect analysis, the adolescent brain is seeking novelty, reward, and immediate gratification.
Adolescence and the Brain’s Myelination Process
This is not in any way a critical or judgmental statement about teenagers. It’s a statement about the brain’s myelination process. We are wired to survive first and do higher reasoning last, so the more primitive parts of our brains- brain stem and limbic system- come on board, fully function and fire before the pre-frontal cortex does. This means that a teenager’s ability to problem solve and make complicated decisions is coming from a less evolved part of their brain. And the guiding force that drives their choices is often driven by the need for peer approval and pleasure rather than influenced by practicality, safety, or the impact it will have on their future. Left to their own devices adolescent brains are more likely to make decisions that are impulsive, meeting needs “in the moment.” Given this reality I suggest that teens actually need more guidance, input, and adult supervision. They need to lean on and be influenced by the pre-frontal cortex and more evolved reasoning of a grown-up.
The physical and emotional presence of an adult makes teenagers feel safer…
Although it can be a delicate balancing act, giving teens space to grow and then stepping in to exert parental direction or authority when necessary, it’s far better to navigate that dance than to trust the adolescent brain to navigate the complicated challenges of adolescence on its own. Despite teenagers’ protests about parental involvement or “interference,” in my experience teenagers are secretly grateful when their parents can step in to set limits and boundaries. It’s far easier to make a parent the bad guy by claiming that they can’t participate in an activity because their parent said “No,” rather than having to say ‘No” to a peer themselves. The physical and emotional presence of an adult makes teenagers feel safer, and decreases the likelihood of house parties spiraling out of control. When parents are actively present in their teenager’s life it communicates that they’re important, worthy, and take priority over the many obligations and distractions that pull at an adult’s schedule and compete for their time. The bottom line is not to take it personally when a teenager wants to be “left alone,” and to respect their growing need for privacy and autonomy. And at the same time, parents and other adult mentors should maintain a watchful eye and remain on standby, ready to step back in to offer support, process decisions, and lend an adult perspective to the adolescent brain.