Healthy Families - Healthy Teens

Published 27 October 2010

Adolescents tend to get a bad press. Some believe that the media continually focus on a small number 'bad pennies' and ignore the positive behaviour of most adolescents.

The goals of adolescence include developing an individual identity, gaining increased autonomy from parents and developing mature relationships with peers, including exploring romantic relationships. The goal of most parents is to raise young people who can make good decisions and stand on their own feet, who have similar values to themselves, are co-operative and helpful and care about other people.

Adolescents can also be a cause of concern for their parents, because of the increased conflict between them and their parents that is part of the process of gaining autonomy and independence. Adolescents are also likely to be more moody than when they were younger and to take more risks such as driving under the influence of alcohol or driving very fast, engaging in extreme sports or, even sailing around the world like Jessica Watson.

Because of their striving for more independence, adolescents need to develop a new kind of relationship with their parents involving a greater sense of equality, but they also need the support of their parents. For this reason, the style of parenting they experience is crucial. There are generally four parenting styles (authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and uninvolved) discussed in the developmental literature and these are based on two dimensions: parental responsiveness and strict control. The best parenting style based on the research is the authoritative style that involves high parental responsiveness and moderate to high control. This style of parenting has been shown to protect against heavy smoking, premature sexual activity, depression and suicide.

Despite what modern culture would have us believe, fathers are very important in the family. Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely than other adolescents to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy for others, engage in pro-social behaviour and avoid high risk activities such as those mentioned above. On the other hand, those young people without fathers are more likely to be poor, use drugs, experience a range of problems, be victims of child abuse and engage in criminal behaviour.

The Bible does not have a lot to say about parenting, but Paul does instruct fathers not to provoke their children to anger. What behaviours of fathers might provoke young people to anger? Adolescents tend to complain that fathers don't listen to them, that they tell them what to do rather than help them work through to their own decisions, and are generally too controlling.

What other aspect of family environments might be unhealthy for adolescents? Mental health problems of parents, marital distress or serious conflict, violence against themselves or their mothers, economic stress, too lax or too strict control and lack of appropriate monitoring or supervision are all issues that impinge directly on adolescents.

One of the problems we have in our culture is that parents tend to surrender to the wishes of their children. Parents often condone under-age drinking, for example, because they feel powerless to control their children's drinking. There have been many examples of young people going off to 'schoolies week' with a carload of alcohol, including spirits, provided by their parents. Yet research shows that where parents set standards in a climate of respect, adolescents are less likely to get involved in drugs, drinking and other problem behaviours. Another issue is that parents worry about drugs like heroin and ignore the problems with alcohol that are killing our kids.

Adolescents tend to react badly to too much or too little control. Too much control can lead to rebellion and too little can lead to over-indulgence in a range of problem behaviours. Moderate control in a climate of respect from supportive loving parents is the best recipe for healthy adolescents who are likely tobecome responsible adults. These young people are also the ones most likely to follow their parents' Christian values and come into a relationship with Christ.
Patricia Noller, Emeritus Professor, School of Psychology, University of Queensland -

3 September 2010 - based on an elective presented at the 2010 ACC conference held in Camden, NSW.