Focus on the Family

Why Parents Want to Control Their Teens

Here are 5 things that make it hard for parents to give up trying to control their teens.

by Tim Sanford

The baton is being passed from you, the parent, to your teenager. This has to happen if he or she is going to be a healthy, adult human being. And it has to happen whether or not you think your teen is ready for it. It's easier to let go when you like the way your son or daughter is decid­ing and doing things. It's harder when you don't.

But it's not your job to make your child turn out "right."[FotF1] 

This disconnecting from parents, this preparing to leave the nest is going to happen. It needs to happen, is already happening. So how can you work with it and not against it?

In some ways it's like one of my favorite activities, whitewater raft­ing. During years as a wilderness guide in Colorado, I learned that when you're in a little orange rubber raft, you'd better go with the flow. Don't try to paddle upstream; don't fight the current. Instead, use it to navi­gate through the rapids to your destination.

The key to staying upright is knowing that you don't have control over the river or its direction — but you do have control over your actions and placement of your raft. You work with the river; you go with the flow.

In the same way, you can learn to go with the flow of changes in your teenager. It's not easy or smooth; it usually happens faster than the parent is ready for and more slowly than the teenager thinks he's ready for. But you can go with the flow, and keep paddling, too.

Five Obstacles in the River

If whitewater rafting were just a matter of floating downstream, it wouldn't be much of an adventure. So it is with the journey to adult­hood. Just as every interesting river contains rocks and waterfalls and "strainers" that threaten to trap you underwater, the path you and your teen are trying to navigate includes some hefty obstacles. Here are five that make it harder for parents to keep their fingers off the "control" button.

1. Teen brains aren't finished yet. The frontal lobe of the brain — the part responsible for decision-­making and reasoning — isn't fully developed until a person's early 20s.

According to Abigail Baird of the Laboratory for Adolescent Stud­ies at Dartmouth, the human brain continues to grow and change into the early 20s. "We as a society deem an individual at the age of 18 ready for adult responsibility," she states. "Yet recent evidence suggests that our neuropsychological development is many years from being complete."1

As a result of this physical reality, your teenager is caught between two worlds: that of being a child (with simple, incomplete thinking and a minimal data bank of experience), and that of being an adult (with more complete, mature thinking and a bigger data bank).

Teenagers can and do act like adults at times. This is normal. And they can and do act childishly at times. This is also normal.

This aspect of neurology doesn't mean your teenager has an auto­matic excuse for wrong behavior or poor decision-­making. But your relationship will be less troubled if you realize this yo­yo behavior and these thought patterns are to be expected — and that you'll have to deal with them.

2. We're over-­stimulated. We live in an over-­connected society. You can take the entertainment industry wherever you go, fitting thousands of tunes and hundreds of video clips in your shirt pocket. You can surf the Internet on your cell phone — or just talk or text constantly on it. You don't have to miss a TV show, thanks to cable and dishes and the trans­formation of "Tivo" into a verb. You can claim "friends" you've never actually met through online gaming and social networking sites. The assault of advertising is endless.

Then there are the after-­school sports, the scholarship contests, the oboe recitals and the laser tag parties.

It's just too much.

And it's a formula for agi­tation, rudeness, being constantly "on edge." Over-stimulation also drives impulsivity; that much data can't be processed. There's no time to think, so a person simply reacts. The result: poor decisions.

When you react on impulse, you're no longer in control of yourself. Not a good idea, whether you're a teen or a parent.

3. We're tired. The mayhem of modern life keeps many of us from getting enough rest. Sleep deprivation leads adults and teens to exhibit chronic mental and physical fatigue. It wears down a person's ability to reason. In extreme cases, it can lead to psychotic episodes.

How can you tell if you or your teenager is sleep­-deprived? Just answer these questions:

If your answer is yes to either of these, you may be sleep deprived. Talk to your family physician about how you might handle that problem.

A little rest can make a big difference in family relationships.

Whatever happened to the idea of a day of rest — not as legalism but as a sanity-saver? What happened to going on a picnic in the park or taking an afternoon nap? Ignoring your need for rest affects the level at which you and your teenager exercise sound, wise control.

4. Young adults have permission to stay irresponsible. Due to the num­ber of people in the workforce, your teen's generation might be consid­ered unneeded. The workplace is already crowded and competitive, so there's no rush to bring young people aboard. This is one factor leading to the acceptance of a much longer stage of adolescence.

Our culture grants teenagers permission not to grow up, not to be responsible, not to be mature. Many skirt responsibility for their finances, decisions and behaviors — not to mention the idea of moving out on their own.

In short, your teenager is being encouraged to avoid independence while you're trying to guide him or her to be a responsible, independ­ent adult. Can you hear the tension?

5. The culture doesn't support your values. "Growing up" isn't the only subject on which teens hear mixed messages. You might urge your kids to stay away from alcoholic beverages, while many sports celebrities pitch beer. Youth groups teach teens to abstain from sex before marriage, while TV shows present premarital sex as the norm.

This issue isn't new, and the tension between Christianity and cul­ture has always existed. But the impact of over­-stimulation and the per­mission to remain immature make the problem much worse. Your teenager needs time to think things through and wrestle with his or her belief system — but time is in short supply. Faced with a constant barrage of contradictory messages, it's no wonder so many kids don't know how to grow mature and act wisely.

The Right Direction

You're not going to eliminate these obstacles by reading this article series. But recognizing them gives you an advantage when assisting your teenager through these difficult years, now and in the future.

Remember, don't fight the river. Go with the flow. Paddle vigor­ously in the right direction.

Yes, the currents are making your job that much harder — and you can't control them. That's why it's vital not to lose control over the things that are rightfully yours — as a parent seeking to raise a responsible teenager to adulthood.


1Grossman, Lev, "They Just Won't Grow Up," Time, January 24, 2005, pp. 42-53.