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Adolescence and the Power of Parental Supervision

Supervision mixes oversight and pursuit to follow up with rules and requests.

Of all the responsibilities that come with thankless parenting of an adolescent, supervision of teenage behavior is usually close to the top of the list. Sometimes we get so tired of keeping after our adolescents that we wonder if it’s worth the aggravation.

I believe it is.

In addition to teaching skills and guarding against dangers, another purpose of supervision is a corrective one. This is to combine parental oversight to monitor what the teenager is doing with parental pursuit to influence what she or he needs to get done. (“You still haven’t finished what I asked, so I am telling you again.”)

The High Cost of Supervision

Supervision takes a lot of parental attention and a lot of parental effort, and it is generally disliked on both sides of the relationship. On the receiving side, the young person can find it invasive and oppressive; and on the providing side, the adult can find it aggravating and exhausting.

There can be this youthful complaint: “Stop checking on me; I hate it when you keep reminding and reminding me; I said I’d do it an hour ago!” And there can be the adult response: “I appreciate what you said, and I get tired of repeatedly asking. However, I won’t stop checking until you take care of what I requested.” So why did the teenager finally comply? “To stop their bugging me, I finally did what my parents wanted!”

Particularly to counter the seemingly endless adolescent capacity for delay, the byword for parents is: “If it’s important enough to ask for or require, then it’s important enough to follow through and see that it gets done or is complied with.” Supervision is a specific act that has a lot of symbolic value. It goes to show that:

  • Parents mean what they say
  • Will insist on what they want
  • And routinely follow through on rules they set and requests they make

The Importance of Consistency

What can undercut their influential power of supervision is when parents use it inconsistently, keeping after a rule on one occasion, but letting it go on another when their attention is elsewhere or their energy is lacking. In this case, the teenager can be encouraged to conclude: “Sometimes they mean what they say I have to do and sometimes they don’t.” So the next time the adolescent comes up against a selectively enforced requirement, she or he is likely to bet on “they don’t.”

Consistently applied, parental supervision can have shaping value, instilling important habits in both child and adolescent. For example, consider the weary parents who came in for coaching, in disrepair over having to deal with a very strong-willed 6-year-old. “She totally defiant!” they declared. “She automatically refuses everything we ask!”

“That must be very frustrating,” I said. “It sounds dangerous. You can’t even drive with her safely in the car, with her refusing to wear a seatbelt, I mean.” “What are you talking about?” they asked. “She knows to always buckle up in the car.” “Really,” I replied. “I thought she refused to comply with any of your rules.” “Well, not that one,” they admitted. “And how did you get her to use her seat buckle?” I wanted to know. “We didn’t give her a choice,” they explained. “It’s too important. We just kept after her and after her until she finally decided it wasn’t worth fighting us about it anymore.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “That’s your model for getting important compliance with your headstrong daughter. You must consistently supervise what you most want until she gives in and decides to routinely do it. And now she is free to fight you about something else. Since a willful child is likely to become a willful teenager, it’s best for you to have a well-practiced history of consistent supervision in place when a strong-willed adolescence begins.”

The Hard Work of Supervision

Supervision is the drudge work of parenting, it is even given a bad name. As most adolescents will tell you, it is “nagging.” However, it sometimes takes this ongoing investment of attention and energy to pursue the more resistant adolescent whose actions seem to say: "You can tell me 'what,' but I will tell you 'when,' and when I get enough 'when' I'll do what you want—maybe." In this sense, the delay is partly a gamble: Perhaps parents will forget what they asked for or simply tire and give up. So the teenager needs to know from past experience that parents will stay on her case about matters of importance like when it comes to ensuring safety, meeting commitments, following rules, providing help, discharging responsibilities, and maintaining wellbeing.

Sometimes it takes a “full-court supervisory press” to help the young person accomplish what needs to be done. For example, consider how parents might rely on supervision to overcome a performance problem that commonly arises in middle school: the Early Adolescent Achievement Drop.

This problem occurs when a dedicated child, who studied hard in elementary school and conscientiously strove to achieve well, becomes a more disaffected young adolescent who explains to parents how it should be enough to just “get by” because now social relationships matter more. So, grades start to fall.

The telling question at this point often is: “If your teenager completed and submitted all of his homework, would his grades be any better?” If the answer is “yes,” then an achievement drop is occurring. The usual explanation is that homework fails to be consistently done by a young person who feels he has better things to do. It is denied (”No homework tonight!”); it isn’t brought home (“I forgot!”); it isn’t completed (“I did most of it!”); or it isn’t turned in (“I lost it!”)

Letting a temporarily academically disaffected early adolescent underperform in this way is not responsible parenting because self-image in the present and educational options in the future can be at stake. So perhaps parents might say something like this"

“We understand that at this time in your life, other parts of your life can seem to matter more than studying—like staying connected to friends. But our job is to help you maintain the level of performance you are capable of achieving when all homework is faithfully and fully done. Therefore, we will give you our supervisory support to get it well take care of. If you thought there wasn’t homework and there was, one of us will meet with you and the teacher and together help clear up any future confusion about your assignments. If you can’t manage to bring it home, one of us will meet you after class at the end of the day and together help you pick up all the homework from your teachers. If you can’t manage to do it fully at home, one of us will sit together with you until it is adequately completed. To keep it from becoming lost at school, one of us will accompany you to school in the morning and together help turn in your assignments. If for any reason this supervision of your school world provides more togetherness than you want, you have only to show us that you can take care of homework independently, and we will back off this support.”

How to Apply Supervision

Come their child’s adolescence, parental supervision needs to be done steadfastly and matter-of-factly, and without exasperation or taking offense. Couple it with impatience or frustration or anger and now the parent just emotionally empowers the resistance they are trying to discourage. “I can get them upset when I put off what they want.” Best to treat supervision as a necessary act of follow-through that backs up rules and requests with calm, resolute pursuit until consent and compliance are finally given. “They just keep after me until I do what they ask.”

My favorite approach to supervision was given to me by a mom whose unfailing cheerfulness came through when discharging this hard responsibility. "Active waiting," she called it. "Active waiting?" I asked because the concept was new to me. "Yes," she smiled. "I use it when I ask my son to do something and he says he will 'in a minute,' only to promptly go into his room and shut the door, So after a minute, I follow after and silently, stand by the bed, smiling down as he lays there playing with his smartphone. "Mom! Why are you here? What are you doing?" "Just waiting," I answer, "for you to do what I asked." "I said I will in a minute!" he objects. That's when I reply: "I know, and that's fine. I'll just stand in your company wherever you are until you do." "And that's how active waiting works?" I asked. "Like a charm," she said. "And by now, when his frowning stops, he does as requested, and usually sees the humor in what his waiting has caused me to do." Then she laughed: "When it comes to keeping after him on something important, he knows I've got no quitting sense."

Supervision is nagging, applying relentless parental insistence to wear passive adolescent resistance down. Tiring to give, if there are two parents in the home, and they agree on what the teenager needs to do, supervision needs to be shared. Otherwise, inequity of effort can become a source of discord in the marriage.

There are times of persistent adolescent delay when supervision simply needs to be done. On these occasions, parental nagging is honorable work.

More from Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
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