Inside the Teenage Brain

Moody, risk-taking, depressed, rude, impulsive, distant...however we think of adolescents, neuroscience is now coming up with reasons to explain their behavior by tracing it to the brain. Read on about teenagers' transition to adulthood, experiences of bullying, marijuana use, and disorders du jour.

Parenting Adolescents and the Power of Prohibitions

Being told by parents what not to do can have some helpful value for adolescents

Starting with the child, and still with the teenager, parents provide instruction about basic choices to make and not to make in life.

Increasingly transferring responsibility for this decision-making as the young person detaches from childhood and grows through adolescence, parents do so to prepare the young person for the day when she or he will graduate their care and assume self-managing independence.

On a very basic level, parents teach what to do and what not to do. To this end they give commands about what must be done, and they give prohibitions about what must not be done. “You must face the consequences of your actions.” “You must not hurt other people to get what you want.”

Commands give directions and prohibitions set limits. Together these pronouncements are intended to provide boundaries within which the teenager can constructively gather more freedom of choice to grow.

Prohibitions are under discussion here – rules that parents impose to help keep the young person from doing wrong, experiencing harm, and making serious error. Relatively straightforward to provide a child, prohibitions become more complex when given to adolescents. Consider why.

One difference between Attachment Parenting of children and Detachment Parenting of adolescents is how the teenager’s view of parental authority tends to change with more mutual letting go. Still awed by parental power and holding on to it for security, the child often wants to believe submission to their authority is a given: “I must do what I am told.” The more independent-minded adolescent, by contrast, usually knows that parental authority depends on her or his consent. “You can’t make me or stop me unless I agree to go along with what you want.” The adolescent is more inclined to let some traditional compliance with parental authority go. So the adolescent is likely to feel freer to delay a command and defy a prohibition than was the child.

Sometimes adolescents take more offense with prohibitions than commands because they limit freedom, as was pointed out to me. “I don’t like being told what have to do, but I hate being told what I can’t do!” As for parents, giving prohibitions does not yield much popularity. “Ban something for my teenager and the battle is on!” Prohibitions can be harder to give and take once children enter adolescence. So why give prohibitions at all?

Prohibitions can provide an adolescent some very practical protections. At a period of growth with rapidly expanding exposure and experience in the larger world, they set some guiding limits when it comes to knowing what is wrong, unhealthy, unsafe, unwise, or illegal. For example, “Don’t cheat to achieve,” “Don’t deal with unhappiness by doing yourself harm,” “Don’t mix drugs and dares,” “Don’t sign a contract without first reading it,” “Don’t break a law to beat the system,” they might say. It’s like parents placing “Posted – Don’t Do” signs on certain activities, and obey them or not, the adolescent tends to keep them in mind.

When possible, providing reasons that make these restrictions make sense can increase their persuasive power. Even personal examples can help. “One time in high school I let myself get caught up in a fast driving competition and was lucky I didn’t get hurt any worse. So my advice: don’t let anyone else set the risks you dare to take.”

Around mid-adolescence (about ages13-15) when a young person knows they have more freedom than they can safely manage, having the protections of parental prohibitions (that she complained about to them) can be very helpful. For example, when, lacking the social confidence or courage to refuse participation in some group risk taking or wrong doing, the young person says, “I’d like to do, but if I did and my parents found out they’d ground me forever!”

What her friends of the moment don’t know is that her dad had given her permission to lay the blame on him for refusing to go along with them. “Remember,” he had said. “If you are ever in a situation where you feel you can’t say ‘no’ for you, you are always welcome to say ‘no’ for me. Feel free to use me as the bad guy, even make up what I never said you couldn’t do, and what punishment I’d give if you ever did, if that will keep you out of trouble’s way.” Particularly during the mid-adolescent passage, when peer pressure can be intense, teenagers need the protection of parental prohibitions to resort to, so don’t be shy about setting them.

Finally, here are some musings about the complexities of using prohibitions with adolescents.

PROHIBITIONS PATROL PARENTAL VALUES. Even though on this occasion your teenager does what you forbid and puts down a younger sibling in a mean and hurtful way, he needs to be told again how you stand for having a safe family in which no one is subjected to mistreatment or emotional harm. Disobedience does not destroy a prohibition’s value.

PROHIBITIONS ARE ALLURING. By creating the forbidden, they excite curiosity and temptation to try. Banning exposure to R-rated entertainment increases its allure, for a while keeping possibly disturbing material at bay. Prohibitions now can encourage participation later.

PROHIBITIONS ARE THREATENING. Should a teenager do what parents have specifically forbidden, it is understood that natural or applied consequences of an unwanted kind will occur. "Refuse to answer your cell phone when you are out, and we will ask for it back." Having to suffer consequences for violating prohibitions are part of what keep them in influential place. Getting off with a sorrowful promise not to violate again risks weakening the power of that and other prohibitions. 

PROHIBITIONS DELAY MORE THAN THEY DENY. Much of what parents forbid is age-related, so what is not allowed for the teenager in high school becomes permissible soon after. Thus some young people mark turning the magic age “18” by marking their bodies with a tattoo or body piercing, for example, which the young person now has the “independent” legal right to do, and which parents have long opposed.

PROHIBITIONS PROVIDE NO PREPARATION. In general, if it’s worth prohibiting a choice now that the young person is going to have later, it’s worth demystifying and deglamorizing the activity, like drinking for example. Discuss how it comes with risks and might be safely managed when the time to do it finally arrives. Since most prohibitions warn of possible dangers, provide due preparation.

PROHIBITIONS CAN HAVE PROTECTIVE VALUE. I believe parental prohibitions influence choice points for an adolescent. Under peer pressure, the young person may factor in what they have been told when deciding on a course of action. "Don't go along with what the group wants when individually you don't think it's wise or right."

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Older Adolescence and Setting One's Own Curfew


Inside the Teenage Brain