Fearful parenting of adolescents

Fearful parenting of adolescents makes everyone afraid.

Posted Feb 28, 2011

One of the hardest parts of parenting adolescents, who are more independently acting and minded than children, is managing parental fears for their teenagers' safety as young people spend more time away from home, in the company of peers, and out in the world.

The common fear statement sounds like this. "Parenting is much more scary now than it was for my parents when I was growing up, or for my grandparents raising my parents. There are so many more hazards for teenagers today than there were back then!"

Remembering my parents' stories about growing up in Prohibition/Depression era America, however, I'm not sure I agree. The roaring twenties and the crashing thirties certainly offered their share of risks. None-the-less, the current parenting perspective seems to be that we live in more dangerous times.

Managing fear in general is really complicated. At worst, fear can be an unwise starter or an unhappy stopper.

As a starter, fear can cause people to panic, impulsively losing rational control over their actions, making a bad situation worse. For example, in fear of arrest, the teenager gives way to panic and runs from the police, stimulating a dangerous pursuit that leads to one charge being added to another. Running from fear, people can run into a lot of trouble.

As a stopper, fear can cause people to forsake doing what they really want, avoiding a challenge that feels too daunting to dare. For example, in fear of public exposure and possible failure, the teenager refuses the high school try out for an activity he or she would really love to do. Giving into fear, people can give up opportunities and dreams to their present loss and later regret.

At best, fear can be a good informant and a lifesaver. It can warn people about real threats and it can energize an effective survival response. For example, alert to the danger of her drunken friend who is about to grab the wheel of the car, the sober teenager quickly takes the keys and declares she will do the driving.

Parents saying, "Don't be afraid" (be brave) or "Don't take any risks" (be cautious) to their adolescent is not the answer. They don't want their child to have no fear because then, without any sensitivity to danger, misfortune or even tragedy can become more likely to occur. But neither do they don't want their teenager to become so fearful that healthy adventuring for growth is timidly curtailed. Parents need to find a middle way.

They need to teach the adolescent to respect fear as an informant, but to not rely on it as a decider. "Don't think with your feelings," they might say. "When feeling endangered, take the time to think with your head. Take the time to ask yourself, ‘what would I choose to do in this situation if I were not feeling afraid?' Then consider doing that." As for jumping into excitement without thinking, take the ‘three-question test.' Take five seconds to ask yourself: "Is there any danger?" "What are the risks of harm?" "Do the rewards make the risks worth taking?"

Fear is contagious. Frightened parents can frighten their adolescent with excessive warnings that provoke anxiety. Typically, the young person will respond with bravado - "You worry too much!" "You're being overprotective!" "Nothing bad is going to happen to me!"

However, from what I've heard in counseling, the troubling effect of parental fears for the young person is making life more fearful than before. "When my parents start acting anxious, I get anxious too!" So at least parents need to be selective and not share their fears of everything that alarms them in the young person's world.

And when they do feel impelled to point out a danger, they might want to tone their delivery down and give reasonable explanations to support their concerns. For example, about one aspect of the danger of substance use, they might say something like this. "Something you might want to think about is not allowing yourself to be driven by any friend who has been drinking alcohol or smoking pot. The reasons are because alcohol can affect physical coordination and pot can effect depth perception, and people need unimpaired coordination and undistorted perception to safely drive."

One common response to parental fear is holding on to one's teenagers, often inspiring teenagers to hold on to parents, as opposed to each risking freedom and letting the other go. Perhaps this is one reason why census figures suggest that more last stage adolescents (ages 18 - 23) are returning and living at home longer and in greater numbers than before. As I suggest in my next book, "Boomerang Kids" (August 2011), fear of the future can make it increasingly scary for young people to live on their own.

Of course, another common response to fear for their child is parents becoming more controlling of their child. The more frightened the parents, the more they need to know and the harder they hold on. "Preventive parenting" by the anxious adults now becomes "overprotective parenting," at least for the young person who wants more running room as an adolescent. A frustrating interaction can now arise for all concerned.

As fearful parents become more limiting of freedom and and more needfull of information, a determined teenager becomes more secretive and deceitful, lying to get illicit freedom, to elude discovery, or to get out of trouble.

These lies scare parents who now really feel out of control and become even more suspcious and restrictive than before. "If you want more freedom," demand the parents, "you must tell us the truth about everything!" But the adolescent has a ready response. "If I told you the truth about everything, you wouldn't let me do anything!" Now the hard bargaining begins, parents risking more permission in response to the adolescent risking more honest disclosure, as firm agreements and trustworthy assurances are negotiated out.   

What gets parents so scared? The world and what they read and hear and see about it in the papers, over the radio, on the TV, or through the Internet. The time-honored editorial principle for deciding what story is most news worthy still holds: "If it bleeds it leads." Thus, as multiple media compete for public attention by dramatizing the most sensational stories of the moment, parents who daily consume this alarming information do labor under a tyranny of terrible possibilities.

They didn't used to call newspapers "worry sheets" for nothing. "Whatever happened to anyone else's child could happen to our own," parents think, and this may be true. But the sane question to then ask is this: "How likely is this to happen to our child?" Fear can cause them to exaggerate the severity and probability of the threat.

Fear can also drive parents to make extreme responses. Consider the father who so feared failure for his only child son, and the mother who so feared accidents, that they excessively prepared and protected the boy. From this over anxious parenting the youngster emerged with a lack of confidence and reluctance to act independently for fear of failing or getting hurt on his own.

As for the value of taking security measures, they are problematic. In preventing what is feared they provide evidence that we should feel afraid. It's like going through airport security - a grim reminder of the terrorist perils we face during flight. Security precautions and protections can help guard us against danger, but not without causing us to feel under threat at the same time.

I am reminded of a student whose dad sent her off to college with a handgun to protect herself just in case. She finally decided to get rid of it so she could stop feeling anxious and start feeling safe.

Of course, fear has an enormous psychological upside when people - parents or adolescent - choose to face it down, and the name of that benefit is ‘courage.' Whether trying something new or simply daring to speak up, acts of bravery, no matter how small, never fail to build self-esteem.

As for parents who harbor fears of their child's future adolescence, remember this. You are not destined for agony when this period arrives. You must only adjust your parenting to help your son or daughter on the next leg of their journey to growing up. This is an exciting and rewarding period to parent as you get to see your little boy or little girl miraculously transform into the young man or young woman they will become.

Offering this explanation to an anxious parent of a seven-year-old, I was impatiently corrected. "Easy for you to say! I'm afraid you don't understand the dangers of the teenage world!"

"Don't be afraid," I replied. "Use your fears to keep a weather eye out for dangers; but don't let fears cause you to parent scared."

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

Next week's entry: Adolescence and parental favoritism.