Not only does positive parenting make for a happier family life, but it also enhances children’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development going forward. A recently published study shows that this remains true through the teen years, and that it’s particularly important for kids at risk of substance abuse.
Adolescence is a time of rapid and critically important brain development, a time during which positive parenting leads to better self-regulation, cognitive processing, decision-making, and judgement. The developing brain can be nurtured by positive parenting, and it can also be damaged by drug or alcohol abuse, very much including binge drinking.
Research Findings Support Parental Closeness During Adolescence
In a recently published study, Gayathri Pandey and colleagues investigated whether parents’ closeness to their children aged 12 to 17 had an impact on the teens’ binge drinking behavior. They found that young people at risk of alcohol abuse were less likely to be binge drinkers, and more likely to show signs of healthy brain development, if they felt close to their parents through the teen years.
There were some differences by sex (e.g., closeness to mothers was more strongly related to avoidance of binge drinking; closeness to fathers showed a bigger impact on neurocognitive factors), but in general both parents’ closeness to their adolescent child made a difference in the likelihood of binge drinking and healthy brain development.
Pandey and colleagues concluded that, “Positive parenting and parent–child closeness promote children’s efficient executive functions and self-regulation, which in turn reduce risky drinking and other externalizing behaviors.”
How to Practice Positive Parenting in the Teen Years
- Take good care of yourself. It can be very challenging to be the parent of a teenager. In order to maintain a patient, loving relationship with your child, do your best to get good nutrition, enough sleep and exercise, and time for yourself.
- Be positive. The teen years are filled with anxieties, insecurities, and self-doubts, as well as a heightened alertness to possible criticism. No matter how challenging it might be, look for ways to show your approval every day, and be careful to avoid critical judgement.
- Show up. As much as possible, be there for your teenager. Quality time is important, but so is the amount of time you’re present and available.
- Listen. Your teenager may not always want to talk to you, but when they do, listen with an open heart, without criticism or judgement. Do your best to avoid lecturing or pontificating. Just listen, with empathy and (as much as possible) approval.
- Be calm and confident. It’s normal and healthy for you and your teen to see things differently and to argue about that. No matter how you feel at the time, it’s good for their development if they contest your attitudes, beliefs, and values. That’s the best way for them to hear why you think the way you do. If you can be calm and confident about your position, you’ll increase the likelihood they’ll see things your way.
- Respect your child’s autonomy. Treat your teenager as the young adult they are in the process of becoming. Give them as much respect and independence as they can safely handle. Let them learn from making small mistakes now, as a way to prevent larger mistakes later.
- Support your child’s solution-finding. Even if your child asks for advice, if they come to you with a problem, be empathetic and start with questions that help them define their own solutions. “What do you think you should do?” is always a good start. Followed by, “What do you think would happen if you did that?” After that kind of conversation, if your child still wants you to weigh in, or if they haven’t come to a good solution, you might say, “If I were you, I think I’d probably…”
- Set expectations, rules, and consequences collaboratively. Discuss with your child what you need from them, and what they need from you, to keep your home running smoothly. Make as few rules as possible, and make sure they’re clear and understood. Get your child involved in deciding on consequences for violations. Rather than removing privileges like screens, discuss additional chores as possible consequences.
- Be a good role model. You may not realize how closely your child is watching what you do, how you relate to others, how reliable and trustworthy you are, whether or not your actions match your admonitions to them. They learn so much more from what you do than from what you say.
- Stay connected. Keep your focus on your connection with your child, not on the mistakes they make, or the bad judgement they show, or the disrespect they show for you and others. What matters most in the long run is their feeling that you love and support them, that you believe in them, not whether or not they fail a grade, drink too much at a party, or stay out past their curfew.
There are many good reasons to practice positive parenting with your teenager. These new research findings show that supporting their healthy brain development and reducing the likelihood of substance abuse are two more.