“Our oldest is just in fifth grade, but we’re already worried about middle school and the ‘terrible teens.’ Some of his friends already have earrings, and he kids us (sometimes I’m not sure he’s joking) about getting green hair. We’re scared about drugs and alcohol, who his friends will be, and whether he will stay on track with school and his life. Right now we can still talk together, but how long will that last?”


That word alone can send shivers up a parent’s spine. It makes you think of loud arguments, sullen silences, hormones amok, and risky behavior. Parents wonder: “What happened to that nice kid who used to sit in my lap?”

Some ups and downs are inevitable during the teens. But adolescence is also a time when psychological difficulties can settle in as stable aspects of the personality, behavior can be annoying at best and dangerous at worst, and poor choices can have lifetime consequences.

Being a skillful parent while your kids are teenagers is obviously important. But the best approach is preventing problems during the elementary and middle school years. That time is a special opportunity to lay a foundation – before the sap really begins to rise! – for family harmony and reasonable behavior.

The key problems of adolescence are isolation, conflict, and mediocrity. Their best solution is loving intimacy, effective problem-solving, and developing internal motivation. Adolescence today is an extraordinary challenge. Prohibiting its pitfalls is not enough. Teenagers need to be attracted to positive alternatives.

In this series of columns in the Family News, we will explore how to do just that. This first column describes the nature of adolescence and a teenager’s underlying positive wants and needs. In following columns I will describe specific ways that parents can promote intimacy, problem-solving, and meaningful interests, especially before their kids hit the “terrible teens.”

Teenagers are from Pluto

Sometimes teenagers can almost seem like a separate species, mysterious and a bit frightening. Understanding the normal process of teenage development is the first step in preventing the problems of adolescence.

Numerous important and healthy developments occur during adolescence. They include emerging: Abstract thinking, personal values, sexuality, important relationships with peers, gender identity, physical stature and abilities, sense of personal identity distinct from parents, and scrutiny of and skepticism toward familiar authority. Adolescence can combine the best of childhood and adulthood.

Adolescence also normally contains a significant amount of intense reactions, inexplicable or eccentric behavior, wild emotions, and confusion. Teenagers are supposed to go through the kinds of things that drive their parents crazy. That’s how they separate from parents, discover who they are, and learn some hard and enduring lessons in preparation for adulthood.

It’s hard to be “teen”

Unfortunately, the negative aspects of adolescence have been worsened by a variety of social developments. In two generations, we have created a discrete social class – teenagers – that is generally isolated from adults yet supposed to respect them, flooded with frightening information yet expected to remain optimistic, and tempted every day at school with captivating pleasures yet supposed to just say no.

Adolescents today rarely have much access to an enlivening and inspiring adult world of intimacy, large-heartedness, and wisdom. They are shunted off to reservations, enclaves of hired help and other teenagers, such as schools and malls. They have little access to meaningful contact with adults beside their parents or the world of work. They are generally not drawn into healthy gender culture (in contrast to more “primitive” cultures that usually put young men and women in close contact with adults of their gender).

Teenagers have a negative status in our society: If you want to insult someone, you tell them “Don’t be so adolescent about it!” Adolescents have few opportunities for productive work for pay, and chances for other kinds of contribution are scarce.

While the doors to positive experiences and relationships for teenagers are mainly closed or barely ajar, they are wide open to dangerous escapes and consolations such as drugs and alcohol, premature sexuality, and a cynical and tawdry youth culture.

Adolescence is a transition from childhood. But what is it a transition to? What can we offer our kids to compete with the very real pleasures of mall culture, punk attitude, goofing off, sex, drugs, and rock and roll??

Practicing what we preach

This is the tough part: The best way parents can help their kids prevent the common problems of adolescence is by living themselves a life that attracts their children toward intimacy, effective living, and productive self-expression.

How are you a model of intimacy for your children? How are you not? When your kids look at your marriage, what do they see?

How are you a model of good-hearted and effective approaches to conflict for your children? How are you not? When your kids watch you and your spouse trying to solve problems together, what do they see?

How are you a model of pursuing meaningful interests for your children? How are you not? We ask teens to exercise their will every day to persevere in the face of frustration, bear discomfort gracefully, and turn away from temptation – so when they reflect on your drive, determination, self-control, and willpower, what do they see?

In sum, are your child’s parents living a life that would be attractive, in broad outline, to a teenager? As a teenager, would you have been attracted to your life today?

Facing these questions openly honors our children and ourselves. Kids peer right through the fatuous rationalizations and sermons of adults to what’s actually true behind the veil. We ask them to renounce so much in immediate gratification in order to attain the “goodies” available in adulthood. Well, our kids ask, where’s the beef? And if there’s not much between the bread in the lives of the adults they know best, then it’s a tough sell.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.