Part of adolescent development involves gaining independence, making good choices and learning the skills required to successfully move into adulthood. As a therapist and parent of two older children, I have experienced—both personally and professionally—the dilemma of not knowing whether to intervene or stay away when a teen is having trouble.
As parents we have a daunting challenge to strike a balance between hovering on the one hand and being too distant or disconnected on the other. From a psychological point of view, it is very important that we let our kids have the autonomy to make mistakes on their own. It will improve their self-esteem and ability to cope in the world and will increase their skills set to take on more difficult challenges in the future. That said, a hands-off approach can leave a teenager feeling lost, un-cared for, and can even leave them in situations that might be detrimental to their emotional or physical well-being.
Parents often need to become detectives who gather information and awareness of what is taking place in their children's lives so that they can better decide if and when help is needed—and if it's needed, how much to give. Here are some guidelines to help you decide when, whether and how much to get involved.
1. Know your teenager
Take a moment to truly assess the type of teenager you have. Is she easily influenced? Oblivious to dangerous situations? A risk taker? Someone who doesn't often think through the consequences of her actions? If you have answered yes to any of these questions then it is important for you to be more aware of what's going on and more involved in your child's life. Invest time to learn the details of your child’s day-to-day activities. Look for these potential warning signs, but at the same time, teach her more life skills she may be lacking and look for signs of improvement and growth so that you can shift toward the positive when you interact.
2. Assess your relationship with your teenager
3. Be aware of your teen’s environment
What activities is your teen involved in, and who does he or she hang out with on a regular basis? Do you know her friends? If your teen is in situations that hold the potential for emotional, social, financial or physical danger, it is important for you to increase your level of involvement. (Often a parent will see potential danger where a teen sees none; that's part of the job.) A parental or trusted adult presence, be it emotional or physical, can be a strong deterrent for risky behaviors and can also provide a feeling of support.
4. Examine your own emotional well-being
Even though we are older, wiser and more experienced than our children, emotional distress can make us vulnerable and impact our own decisions about when and whether or not to intervene with our kids’ lives. Look inside to see if your own difficult childhood, or simply something negative you are going through at the present time, might be affecting your involvement (or over-involvement or lack of involvement) in your teen’s life, and see if you might need to make corrections.
Stacy Kaiser is a licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is also the author of the best-selling book How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know and an editor at large for Live Happy. Stacy is a frequent guest on television programs such as Today and Good Morning America.