Hugging a Cactus: What Research Says About Parenting Teens

If I were to cast my vote for the “Most Brilliant Title of a Parenting Book,” I would pick this gem from 1992: Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall. Middle school students — and by extension their parents — often feel the push and pull of wanting to feel connected and wanting more independence. And that tug-of-war can sometimes strain relationships.

This summer, I read about a fascinating study out of Harvard University that identified the types of parental involvement that work best for adolescents. We know that kids benefit when parents are involved in their education, but — as this study reveals — the form this involvement takes can and should evolve as kids get older.

I’ll admit that I read the article about this study with particular interest because it was written by Deborah Farmer Kris, who happens to be both my wife and a former TVS English teacher.

Here was the study’s bottom line: Teens thrive when parents engage them in a way that honors their autonomy while still providing structure and support. They need room to be independent and they need to know you are there for them. Dr. Nancy Hill, the study’s lead author, said, “The good news is that youth still want their parents to be involved. 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.”

In their research, Hill and her colleagues identified four parenting strategies that correlated with students’ academic success:

  1. Scaffolding independence
  2. Providing structure at home
  3. Linking education to future success
  4. Demonstrating warmth

Here’s what you need to know about each of these (click here to read the article in full).

Scaffolding 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.”

Providing 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.”

Linking 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 . . .

Demonstrating 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 [and middle] school.” And here’s one more silver lining for parents: These strategies remain effective even when teens distance themselves from parents.

When you send your child to Trinity Valley School each morning, you know that you are sending them to a place where they are loved and challenged. We don’t let kids fall between the cracks, and this safety net can give you confidence to honor your child’s growing autonomy, even when it isn’t easy! I think my favorite observation was this comment from Hill: “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.”

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