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Adolescence and the Power of Parental Prohibitions

Usually unpopular with adolescents, parental prohibitions can be of helpful use

When a daughter or son is still in childhood (up to about age 8 or so), the purpose of a parental prohibition is to protectively limit the child’s behavior by forbidding certain actions.

A prohibition can be reactive, “Stop doing that,” or proactive, “Don’t ever do that.” In general, it is best when giving a Reactive Prohibition to couple it with positive instruction: “Try doing this instead.” It is best when giving a Proactive Prohibition to couple it with a persuasive explanation: “The reason for not doing that is this.” Come adolescence, however, the management of parental prohibitions becomes more complex.

When the child separates from childhood and enters adolescence (around ages 9–13), she leaves the Age of Command (when she believed that she had to do what parents said) and enters the Age of Consent (when she knows they cannot make her or stop her without her cooperation.) Now parents who were used to easy compliance start encountering more resistance in the form of argument and delay. Seeing their authority less readily obeyed and more actively and passively contested, they can start wondering if what they say to do, and particularly what NOT to do, has any power anymore? Are parental prohibitions worth it anymore? Do these forbidding statements have any constructive influence at this more independent-minded adolescent age? I believe the answer is definitely “Yes.”

Think of parenting this way. Parents provide a compass for navigating adolescence by giving a constant reference and direction to the young person about what actions they believe are and are not in her best interests. Prohibitions are one part of this reference they provide, often an unpopular part because they are denying freedom at a time when their adolescent wants it more. An adolescent doesn’t usually say to parents, “Thanks for the prohibition.”

And yet, sometimes the teenager can feel grateful none-the-less, even though they are self-respecting enough not to say so. For example, consider the mature looking high school freshman who has just answered a phone call from a high school senior, whose eye she has caught, inviting her to attend a college party next weekend. Talk about life in the fast lane, how exciting (and how scary) is that? So while telling the guy she’d love to go and just needs to check with her parents, she mimes with her mouth to her mother “Say No! No!” Quick to comprehend her daughter’s silent request, the parent obediently says, “No, you are not allowed to go to a college party this weekend or any weekend you are in high school, period!” At which point the young woman flies all over her Mom: “You’re so overprotective! You never let me do anything!” Then she thanks the guy for the invitation, hangs up, storms out of the room and slams her bedroom door. Feeling unable to say “no” on her own behalf without losing social face at high school for refusing such a great chance to act older, she uses the protection of her parents’ prohibition by blaming them to excuse her from having to take responsibility for electing not to go.

The benefits of a parental prohibition include these. It gives a stand by parents about what not to do and why. It gives the adolescent a parental protection to invoke and rely upon when he needs the support of an outside authority to base a personal refusal on. It provides an inner parental voice that can contribute to his own thinking when considering what to do and not to do.

Of course, like most parenting decisions, it is also partly mixed. “No, you can’t work a part time job in high school because that will interfere with time you need to study.” Parents can’t forbid some freedom without sacrificing possible growth from that experience (in this case learning a number of employment responsibilities.) Even so, I believe that during adolescence parents still need to provide the protection of their prohibitions.

Parents who totally let go and give up this reference responsibility abandon influence with the young person who is now more susceptible to other voices like peers and popular media who are persuasively speaking up and weighing in about what choices to make. I believe the best parents are those who keep speaking up and do not shut up about what is and is not in their teenager’s best interests from their caring and more seasoned point of view. This doesn’t mean they are always “right,” but it does mean they can always be counted on to give their reference.

Why would parents give up this reference responsibility? The answer I most frequently here is this: “My teenager doesn’t listen to me anymore, so what’s the point?” Then I ask, “How can you tell you’re not being listened to?” And the answer is something like this: "He looks away or rolls his eyes at me like what I’m saying is totally random and has nothing to do with him. And then lots of times he doesn’t keep from doing what I say!” But this is no reason to abandon prohibitions. From what I’ve seen, although parents often don’t listen to their teenager, the teenager usually listens to what parents have to say, even when he appears not to be. As for not acting on what they say, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t heard and hasn’t filed it away for future reference.

Sometimes it helps to soften the delivery of a prohibition by stating it in less dogmatic terms. For example: “You do not have our permission or blessing to do certain things. Here are what they are and why.” Even softened in this way, parental prohibitions are tricky to manage partly because of the varieties of bases they can have.

There are Rational Prohibitions which parents base on knowledgeable experience with the world: “YOU CAN NOT play any more collision sports because that past concussion puts you at increased risk of possible brain injury.” A rational prohibition can provoke a reasonable argument with an adolescent: “You don’t know for sure that another knock on the head will permanently hurt me. That’s only a ‘maybe.’ And it’s not fair to keep me from playing a sport I love more than anything just based on a possibility!”

There are Ethical Prohibitions which parents base on convictions about what is right and wrong: “YOU SHOULD NOT have sexual relations with anyone until you are married to that person because to do otherwise we believe is immoral.” An ethical prohibition can provoke a value difference with an adolescent: “Just because you believe sex before marriage is wrong doesn’t mean that you are right. Times change. And today lots of people have sex before marriage, and with people they don’t end up marrying!”

And there are Fearful Prohibitions which parents base on ignorance of the unknown and imagined dangers. “YOU MUST NOT help or seek help from strangers because they might take advantage of you in harmful ways.” A fearful prohibition can provoke angry opposition with an adolescent: “Why should my freedom depend upon your fears? Not every stranger is a danger. Besides, if I distrusted every stranger I’d never travel, meet anyone, or make any new friends!”

To make parental prohibitions even more complex, some prohibitions are to protect the adolescent, but others are to preserve the family. “There are expectations for conduct we want and prohibitions against conduct we don’t want. Both come with living at home. No, you can’t do unmindful or deliberate harm to other members of the family. No, you can’t just ignore family needs and satisfy your own. No, you can’t simply use or take what belongs to other family members without asking for permission first. No, you can’t simply come and go at all hours as you please. No, you can’t just make up your own rules and ignore ours. No, you can’t just benefit from the family without also contributing to it as well. Violate family prohibitions and there will be consequences of our choosing.” Some parental prohibitions patrol the healthy conduct of family life.

So what can parents say about their prohibitions? They might begin by stating something like this. “A prohibition is just a protection we are providing you, and we stand ready to explain any one we set and hear any questions or objections you may have. Of course, ultimately you decide whether to use this safeguard or not. That is up to you, as is facing the consequences from life and from us when you do not. Prohibitions are just an unpopular part of the responsible parenting we have to give.”

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

Next week’s entry: Why so Sensitive? Adolescence and Embarrassment

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