Controlling Teens: Does It Work?

In the previous post I suggested that being in control of our selves as adults is  better starting point for building healthy relationships with our teenagers. In this post I want to briefly outline why the issue of control is a vexed one where teenagers are concerned.

One of the most significant tasks of adolescence is for the teenager to establish an identity that is separate from their parents.  This sense of autonomy or independence is crucial to a person moving from childhood to adulthood.  At the end of adolescence an adult is someone who is able to define themselves as being distinct to their parents. An adult is a person who owns and can take responsibility for their emotions, their behaviour, their values, and their choices.

The challenge for parents of adolescents is allowing this process to happen. This is no easy task.

Adolescence and Control

Adolescence is like gravity – it is a lot easier to work with it than against it.

Teenagers need to feel like they have control over their life, it’s natural and right.  Parents who focus on trying to control their teenager are working against this natural process.  Sure they can do it, but it takes a whole lot of effort and can result in some spectacular crashes.

Maybe you are a parent who thinks that you are willing to put in the effort if it means your teenager is safer, better behaved, and has less chance of getting hurt or making dumb choices. I get that, we all want to protect our kids – but trying to control teens will not achieve what you hope.

Why Controlling Teens Doesn’t Work

Firstly everyone makes mistakes, its how we learn and grow.  No amount of control or supervision will stop your teen from making mistakes, being disappointed, or being hurt. Do you really want to raise someone who does not know how to fail and try again?

Secondly the amount of unnecessary conflict generated by trying to work against the natural  need of teens to make their own choices and develop autonomy will often make life worse not better. Controlling your teen will set up a permanent power struggle with you and the teenager pulling in different directions.  Soon simple tasks and gestures will become sources of conflict and resentment.

Thirdly how do teenagers learn to make decisions and take responsibility for themselves if it is their parents who are in the ones in control.

Finally  the research confirms that controlling parents produce worse outcomes for their teenagers. Studies show that this desire to control teenagers will actually produce the results most parents are trying to avoid.

  • In a study published in 2009 in the journal Child Development researchers found that teens interpreted high levels of control as intrusive and as indicating that they mattered less as individuals.
  • A study published in Journal of Adolescent Health examined the results of an annual survey of American teens. The researchers looked at the survey results for 4,980 teens and used a number of statistical techniques to try to pinpoint the effects of various parenting styles. One of the findings was that teens seemed to be less sexually active if their parents did not engage in “negative and psychologically controlling behaviors.”  Researcher Rebekah Levine Coley said “things like eating dinner together as a family or engaging in fun activities or religious activities together” — seemed to make risky sexual activity less likely.

Experience and research demonstrates that if parents have solid respect based relationships with their teenage children the language of needing to control them becomes redundant.

Towards a Constructive Agenda For Parents of Teenagers

Parents wanting to exercise their responsibility to raise their teenagers well are better served striving to develop relationships of trust and understanding with their teenager. Teens who feel safe, secure and loved by their parents are significantly less likely to engage in destructive, risky, or anti-social behaviour.

Part of these goals do include what the psychologists would label “behavioural control” strategies. Behavioural controls are concerned with establishing and maintaining clear boundaries, affirming appropriate behaviour, responding constructively to inappropriate behaviour, and clearly communicating expectations. However such strategies make more sense when they form part of larger relationally based approaches to parenting.

If you are looking to understand how you can have a more positive influence on your teenager consider the following questions:

  • Does your teenager know and feel loved by you? Would they say this love is unconditional?
  • Does you teenager feel safe and secure within your home and family unit?
  • Does your teenager have a clear understanding of your expectations regarding behaviour? Is your behaviour consistent with these expectations?
  • Does your teenager have a forum within the family to express their disagreement or offer contrary opinions confident they will be heard?
  • If your teenager was to disclose or confess something they have done that they know you disapprove of what response would they expect? Is it a response that would prevent them from sharing with you?
  • Do you make time to spend with your teenage on a regular basis?

Answering these questions and being consistent in demonstrating how much you value and respect your teen will have  a far more holistic benefit for them and your relationship than implementing control techniques.

Be interested to hear what your opinion’s are about these posts, so please feel free to offer your opinion or pose questions in the comments below.

Image by Raul Tejero
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  • Mikey

    I have an 18 yr old stepson, and I admit that I am a little over controlling at times. I ride him a little too much when he loses or destroys nice things (not intentionally) we buy for him, probably because I never had things growing up. I know he is feeling pressure and he is not good at letting me know. I usually find out on facebook (kind of ironic how I am online now, eh?). I see a lot of myself in him and don’t want him to make mistakes, but I have a hard time letting go I guess. Besides prescription meds, can you give some constructive feedback for me? I am having a sit down with him tonight to better explain why I have done some of the things and why I have not let him do some of the things in our family. I think we are on the right track. Thanks, Mikey

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