Attention Parents: Recent Neuroscience Says Your Teen Still Needs YOU

For some parents, parenting teens conjures up feelings and beliefs that raising an adolescent is challenging and fraught with conflicts and negative emotions. However, an upcoming journal article from the UC Berkeley Institute of Human Development (scheduled for publication in the July edition of Family Relations) cites neuroscience findings which indicate parents should reframe their view to include the rewards and opportunities of maintaining a healthy parent/child relationship with their tweens and teens.

Neuroscientists studying adolescent brain development note that during the transition into adolescence, neuroplasticity (neural connections which are flexible and amenable to change influenced by environmental experiences) provides an essential window of opportunity to shape developing neural networks related to psychosocial development.

The writers state that higher quality of parent/child relationships leads to positive outcomes, including a more positive self-image, emotional stability, and deeper and more meaningful relationships with others. Also, teens who have a positive relationship with their parents tend to be less likely to experience depression or engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, reckless driving, and early and unsafe sexual activity.

A high-quality parent/child relationship is fostered through what is called the Authoritative Parenting Style. This style includes a warm, positive relationship along with guidance and reasonable expectations. Child development experts refer to supervision and limit setting as providing “scaffolding” to provide the necessary structure to support the development of new skills.

By regularly and consistently spending time with teens, the channels of communication remain open, enabling parents to provide support and positive affirmations as well as the opportunity for open discussions related to teen development and life in general. Below are a few suggestions for parents on how to stay involved and connected with their teenagers.

Create an atmosphere and engage in activities that encourage positive interactions and the possibility of open communication. This includes reducing screen time for all family members. Eating dinner together as frequently as possible provides moments for keeping in touch on how all family members are doing as well as discussing issues and topics of mutual interest. During meals and other times, you’re together, take the opportunity to “step into your teen’s world.” Learn about their interests, their current philosophy of life, plans for their future, and any personal concerns they may want to share.

Getting out of the house and going for a walk or driving may provide the right change of atmosphere for more open conversation. Neither activity requires direct eye contact, which may create a comfort zone. Another plus is that periods of silence feel comfortable in either of these settings. One-on-one with either parent may also improve the likelihood for a teen to engage openly. Other ideas that may work are going shopping or out for a favorite snack. You can also go to the gym or to the park to shoot hoops.

Yet another way to connect with your teen is to engage in a community activity together. Depending on where you live, it could be a park, trail, or beach cleanup or other environmental preservation activity. Walking or running together for a fundraiser for a cause your both share is another option.

Encourage your teenager to read. Maybe you could read the same book and compare notes or just have your teen tell you about a book they read and ask what they liked about it. Did they identify with a specific character? If so, why?

Though they may be hard to initiate at first if they haven’t been a common occurrence, hosting family nights promote bonding between all family members. Card games, board games, or multi-player video games can provide fun. Watching a movie together, dancing or family karaoke are enjoyable activities as well.

Regularly providing support and encouragement is a key ingredient in supporting teens. Look for both personal qualities and accomplishments you can praise. Let your child know you love them and are proud of them.

In my new book, The Well-Balanced Family: Reduce Screen Time and Increase Family Fun, Fitness, and Connectedness, you can find more suggestions for connecting with kids and teens as well as improving fitness and wellbeing for all family members.