Protective Parenting an Adolescent

Unable to proof their teenager from harm, parents can encourage safe conduct

Posted Mar 30, 2015

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

"Well it's not my fault. If they hadn't of caught me, I wouldn't be in trouble in the first place!"

When it comes to the growing safety of freedom-loving adolescents, two great external protections are the influence of parents and the play of luck, with Chance making more of the calls than teenagers will tell and parents really want to know.

Innocent avoidance, slipping by, close calls, near misses, and narrow escapes are part of every adolescent’s life. No matter how protective parents are, they cannot change this reality. Eager for older experience and in company with like-minded friends, adolescents grow up with more exposures to danger than protections from it. Yet, somehow, most of these young people manage to survive.

As for parents, when they read or see or hear about the latest menace, injury, or act of violence that alters or ends an adolescent life, they tend to feel afraid for their teenager. They tend to worry and want to hold the young person close to prevent similar harm. In general, daily “News” is more alarming than reassuring. 

Now consider the two larger phases of parenting.

First comes the phase of Attachment Parenting the child (into mid-elementary school.) This is done by more holding on to establish basic trust in dependence on parents, to circumscribe safe boundaries of exploratory behavior, and to teach a personal compass of responsible conduct.

Second comes the phase of Detachment Parenting the adolescent (beginning in late elementary or early middle school.) This is done by letting go to risk increased choice/consequence learning of responsibility, to increase the scope of life experience, and to encourage independent decision-making in order to foster a trustworthy sense of self-reliance. The second stage of parenting is scarier to most parents than the first because they feel less in control of what happens, which they are.

When Detachment Parenting an adolescent, parents find themselves caught between the rock of Protective Parenting and allowing too little freedom with too much restriction, and the hard place of Permissive Parenting and allowing too much freedom with too little restraint.  Protective Parenting can be at the expense of building teenage self-confidence, while Permissive Parenting can be at the expense of endangering teenage safety. Speaking personally, as a parent I have erred on both sides, and in my opinion never got the balance exactly right. When to hold on to an adolescent and when to let go is what creates the many hard calls that accompany Detachment Parenting.

So, when it comes to protection, what can parents effectively do? Of course, they are running a home, not a prison, and come adolescence young people tend to spend more time away from family. Parents can provide rules for safety, but cannot force compliance. Command all they want, obedience depends on adolescent consent, and the young person knows this. True, parents can penalize non-compliance with safety regulations, but the teenager may decide that the punishment is worth the crime. And what frightens parents is often the very risk that excites adolescent adventure.

None of this is to say, however, that safety regulations are not important to provide – what to do, and particularly what not to do. Parents always want to arm their teenager with the protection of their prohibitions because sometimes, under peer pressure to act unwisely, a young person will now have a tool for refusal that allows saving face. “I would go along with you on this, but my parents promised if I ever did they’d come close to grounding me forever. So what you want me to do, and what I’d like to do, isn’t worth it.”

Since adolescents are just in training for adult independence, the best protection parents can provide is Preparation, teaching their teenager how to self-manage themselves in protective ways. Just because parents can’t control adolescent choice doesn’t mean they can’t inform it, and they should.

For example, they can weigh in to counter misinformation their teenager is told by trusted friends. “If you inhale it, it can’t hurt you.” “If you’re a minor, they can’t arrest you.” “You can’t get drunk on beer.” “They won’t bust you for shoplifting,” “You can’t get addicted to Pot.” “The first week after her period a girl can’t get pregnant.” It’s not just what they don’t know that can get them in trouble; it’s also what they know that isn’t so.

Parents can’t eliminate adolescent risk taking, but they can suggest how to do it. “Before you jump into some adventure, give yourself a thirty second risk-assessment test. Take less than a minute to ask yourself: ‘Why would I want to do this? What are the possibilities for harm? Are the rewards worth the risks?’ You owe it to yourself to do risk-taking mindfully.”

Parents can’t do away with worldly dangers, but they can anticipate those dangers, and sometimes point out threats a teenager may not see. “Just so you know, although your friends think tagging buildings with spray paint is just innocent fun, it’s actually against the law.” They can also teach the young person to exercise Predictive Responsibility by thinking ahead and watching out. “Since every choice comes with consequences, some good and some not, consider possible outcomes before you act.”

Stupid choices teenagers make are not a sign that the young person is stupid, only that there was a speed of life problem. Living too fast for their own good, they simply didn’t slow down long enough to delay impulse and take the time to think. Parents might advise: “Any excitement that you believe must be had right now is in all likelihood not a good idea.”

Parents usually have their own hard experience to offer if they so choose, and in doing so can be seen as reliable informants by a teenager. They can share about bad choices and hard consequences in their past in the hopes of sparing their daughter or son errors of the parents’ youth. “It took me years to get out of debt that a few months of high living on credit got me into after I moved out from home.”

Parents can be trusted confidants when they are concerned, non-evaluative, non-judgmental listeners to who the young person can freely come when needing help working out a perilous situation. “I want to break up with him, but I don’t want him turning hurt to anger and taking it out on me! What can I do?”

Parents can of course vote with their money, refusing to subsidize what in their judgment are activities which are recipes for high risk taking, in this case of a partying/substance using kind. “No, we will not pay for your going on an unsupervised Spring Break trip with senior friends from High School to celebrate your last year together. Maybe we can talk about some other ways for marking the occasion.”

Parents can also let hard outcomes of high risk decisions bite and teach helpful lessons to remember. “Although we could step in and stave off the consequences, we won’t.  We think from facing them now you can protect yourself for later, learning what no amount of warning from us can teach.”

So even though parents can’t absolutely prevent harm and harmful decision-making, they can still act protectively.

Nowadays, there is much in the news about the greater freedoms parents were allowed as children compared how much less freedom these parents give to children and adolescents of their own.  We read about “overprotective” parents who prefer to keep young people safely in the confines of family as opposed to giving them more risky "freedom to range" outside the home. To the degree this is true, I think a lot of this protective caution is a function of parental fears that today’s popular media can inflame.

In a larger sense, however, I disagree with this assessment that teenagers are often permitted to have less freedom than did their parents growing up. In fact, adolescents today have immeasurably and unimaginably much greater freedom today than their parents ever had: it’s called the Internet. Today young people grow up in two worlds, not one. There is the real world that their parents experienced growing up, and there is the virtual world these parents had no access to.

Even in the supposed “safety” of keeping their daughter or son home, or installed in the home of a friend, parents have absolutely no idea where in the infinite, instantly accessible online world their teenager is venturing – what exposures are being created, what information is being conveyed, what communication is being conducted, what connections are being made, what influences are being experienced, what threats are being posed.  Parents may know where in the offline world their adolescent is; but for the most part they have no idea where she or he is online. When it comes to the Internet, today’s parents set their teenager loose to “run in the streets.”

In closing, that last quoted phrase leads me to the words of the great psychologist, Charles Dickens, reflecting on how much freedom a parent should allow an adolescent to grow.

“I took a good deal o’ pains with my son’s eddication, sir; let him run in the streets when he were wery young, and shift for his self. It’s the only way to make a boy sharp, sir.”

“Rather a dangerous process, I should imagine,” said Mr. Pickwick, with a smile.

“And not a very sure one, neither,” added the son.

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

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Making Parents Proud