A close friend recently confessed that she was struggling to figure out what mothering busy teenagers really meant. Her daughters left early for school and didn’t get home from their sporting and other activities until 7 p.m. By that time they had to focus on homework. Each of them seemed happy, and they were obviously involved with good things — So honestly, she thought, what kind of parenting did they really need? With a busy career herself, it was hard to feel any urgency to leave the office. Should she really hang around the house waiting for them to tell her they needed something?
This mother certainly isn’t alone in wondering what parenting teenagers should look like. The teenage period is well known for its busyness and insatiable need for independence — especially independence from parents. That’s partly why so many were surprised when MTV and Associated Press released poll findings in 2007 showing that most young people see their parents as an overwhelmingly positive influence in their lives. Nearly half of the 1,280 youth ages 13-24 who were interviewed identified one of their parents as their hero, and when asked what one thing made them most happy, they were most likely to say, “Spending time with family.”
But it may be hard to see obvious signs that teens really do need to spend time with their parents. In fact, the White House Conference on Teenagers YMCA Survey in 2000 found that, although youth said having enough time with their parents was their greatest concern, parents’ greatest concern centered on threats such as alcohol and drugs. Almost tragically, parents worried about what their teenagers were doing when they were away from them, while teens worried about how much time their parents were actually able to be with them.
Other findings also counter the cultural assumption that youth always want more distance from their parents. A 2012 study of youth over a 7-year period found that the stereotype of teens growing apart and spending less and less time with their parents was indeed, “just a stereotype”. Although youth seek to gain independence and become more involved with their peers, they also seek to maintain close relationships with their parents. In fact, time with parents decreased across adolescence, but one-on-one time with mothers and fathers actually increased around ages 13 and 15.
That increased time ended up being very important — especially because mothers and fathers each offered something unique to their adolescents’ development. Previous research found that more time with mothers predicted less depression. In the 2012 study, it was time with dads that emerged as critical. More time with dads in social settings predicted greater social competence, while more one-on-one time predicted greater feelings of self-worth. The joking, teasing and other playful interchanges more typical of interactions with dads may be especially important in building adolescent confidence in social skills, while the perception that dad enjoys one-on-one time enough to make extra efforts to do so seems to be key to feelings of value.
Protecting that time can be challenging during adolescence but these findings and others confirm that it is well worth the effort. And it often just means protecting ordinary family rituals like eating together. For years, the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) has released an annual report showing that family dinner at least 5 times a week dramatically reduces the likelihood of adolescent substance abuse. Of course, eating dinner is often a marker of other family characteristics like closeness, effective communication, and spending more time together. But family dinner is unique in providing a consistent ritual for building feelings of cohesion and identity. It is not surprising then that regular family dinner by itself predicts less depression among adolescents.
For my friend, the answer became very clear when her 15-year-old daughter gently told her, “Mom, I need you to be home. I feel like there is a lot that I carry — and I need to share it with you.” All of the sudden being home with busy teenagers wasn’t just a formality on a parenting checklist. It was what actually allowed the interactions that are so central to adolescent well-being and development. To enable this to happen better, they determined to sit down together to eat as a family rather than just eat individually at the bar. Like so many things in family life, it is those small things that make all the difference.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.