Protect Teens from Undermining Messages

Celebrate Growth and Protect Teens from Undermining Stereotypes

Adolescents must be prepared to lead us into our shared future. It is our job to guide them to do so. This means that we have to raise them with the commitment to healthy relationships that will prepare them to build strong families and communities. We need to give them the confidence to make a difference in the world while protecting them from negative stereotypes too often associated with teens.

We have to hold our teens to high expectations and support them to be able to meet them. We are talking about the standards of being a good person, doing the right thing, being your best self. We are not saying, “Expect an A and he’ll get an A,” or “Expect a trophy and she’ll earn a trophy.”

We have to celebrate and shape our children’s growth during the developmentally critical teen years. We must be pro-development by supporting all the different stages of their growth. To do so, we have to protect our teens (and ourselves!!) from undermining, even toxic, messages about adolescents. We must be anti-stereotypes.

Stay Empowered Despite Undermining Messages

On one hand, we glorify youth. We all want to look younger and teens drive style. We celebrate our youthful memories. On the other hand, we too often assume the worst of adolescence by expecting years of rebellion, strained relationships, and possibly even danger. These mixed messages make it harder for teens to become their best selves. They prevent some parents from having their greatest influence on their developing child.

Make no mistake about it — negative messaging about adolescents is harmful to their self-perceptions and well-being. As they strive to answer the fundamental developmental question of adolescence, “Who am I?” it is deeply harmful when they absorb low expectations from adults. Teens may question whether they are potentially dangerous, thoughtless, impulsive, self-centered or rude. These are terrible messages to receive during such a critical phase of development.

Perhaps as damaging as the direct effect on your child, is the harmful effect these low expectations can have on your relationship. If you believe society’s low expectations of youth, it will be very hard not to transmit those expectations to your child. That may hurt and undermine your relationship.

You must shield yourself from both subtle and blatant messages that suggest parents don’t matter. Teens deserve empowered parents who don’t question that they are the most important people in their children’s lives.

There are multiple myths (and some realities) that make parents believe they can’t or don’t make a difference to their teens. We must directly confront these myths while honestly addressing the underlying realities.

Take a Vital Role

Parents are the most influential forces in their children’s lives, from early childhood throughout adolescence. The strength of our relationships offers the security from which they launch into adulthood.

It is not just engagement that matters, but the quality and tone that makes the difference. One of the most protective forces in our teens’ lives is their parents’ expectations that they do the right thing. Our expectation that our teens display good character is pivotal to drive them to be their best selves. In fact, even during times where your relationship is being challenged or behavior is less than desirable, it is your understanding of who they really are that will bring them back to you.

All children, adolescents very much included, want to please their parents. They want to get as much attention as they can from their parents and they’ll do what it takes to get it. If you parent from a point of low expectation, and get most heavily involved when your teen messes up, your child learns quickly to do the wrong thing to get attention. On the other hand, when you expect teens to be  high-quality people, they’ll usually meet your expectations.

Be pro-development by celebrating each stage of your child’s growth. Join with other parents in your social circles and communities to change the view of adolescence.

Be Pro-Development

Be pro-development by celebrating each stage of your child’s growth. Join with other parents in your social circles and communities to change the view of adolescence. Hold adolescents to the highest of expectations. They are our future leaders. Believe in our teens’ goodness amidst the onslaught of negative messaging about adolescents. Maintain expectations even during those occasional moments when your teen makes you want to pull your hair out. In order to open your eyes to the undermining messages that exist, we will break them into three categories:

Subtle, Well-Intentioned Messages

The “Casual” Problem Message

As parents, we look towards each other for reassurance that we’re doing our jobs correctly. In an attempt to both teach and learn from other parents in our communities, we offer unsolicited advice. Consider the well-meaning shopper ahead of you in the grocery line who turns to you and your tween and says, “Hold on tight! Get those hugs while you can, they grow up so fast. She’ll become a monster you won’t recognize and may not like.” Ouch! Your anxiety level rises. Your child wonders whether she’ll become a monster and whether this behavior is “normal”. These messages imply that becoming an adolescent is something to fear. We risk our teens internalizing these messages and fearing adolescence. We’ve witnessed disheartening comments from tweens like, “Grandma, I don’t want to become a teenager, they’re awful!” or “Dad, I don’t want to become moody or sad, or mean to you. Do I have to be that way if I’m a teenager?”

The Solution

We must remind ourselves, our family, our children and members of our community that this isn’t the way it is, or the way it has to be. Rather, adolescence is a time to celebrate all the amazing changes going on in your teen’s life, body, and brain. It’s also a time to appreciate how the relationship between you and your teens can grow positively. Be pro-development.

The “Incomplete/Not Developed” Problem Message

Adolescence is a time of profound physical and emotional development. But development is uneven in adolescence. Different aspects of development proceed at different paces. This is often interpreted as our teens being somehow incomplete, destined to be hyper-emotional, or unable to make wise decisions. This misinterpretation of the science backfires badly on youth.

The Solution

The science actually supports adolescence as a time of tremendous potential and opportunity for growth. Adolescents are super-learners, highly receptive to new knowledge and sensitive to all that surrounds them. Brain science has allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of, even to visualize, what we have long known. It is important to understand that adolescent emotional development launches early, building empathy and the ability to forge deep connections. Adolescent decision-making capabilities develop at a slower pace, lagging somewhat behind their emotions. This does not mean they are incomplete or incapable. But we can use this knowledge to better inform us on how to communicate with our tweens and teens to support optimal development. When we ensure calm settings for problem-solving and decision-making, we allow our teens to show their capabilities. This should activate us to create the right developmental environment, including the strong and active presence of adults.

Not so Subtle, Maybe Not so Well-Intentioned Messages

The “Bullet-Proof” Problem Message

“You know kids these days, they think they’re invincible. That they’ll live forever.” Unfortunately, this statement is inevitably followed by something like, “You can’t talk any sense into them.” As long as we believe that our teens think they are bullet-proof there is no reason to even try to talk sense into them.

The Solution

The good news is that young people do not think they are invulnerable. They actually worry a great deal about consequences, sometimes even exaggerating the possibilities. It is true that sometimes teens behave as if they think they are unable to be harmed. The disconnect between how they really think and what they sometimes do underscores the vital importance of our presence and guidance. Remain present and reinforce good decision-making and positive choices.

The “Dangerous and Reckless” Problem Message

Too often, people assume that a group of teens spells trouble. Sure, sometimes this is the case, but it’s also true of adults. When was the last time you read a headline that said, “Three adults did ________ .”? We only point out the age of perpetrators when they are teens. This creates an unintended bias in many of us that teens are dangerous or reckless.

The Solution

Groups of teens do wonderful things all the time, like banding together in sports competitions, working to clean up the environment, or tutoring younger children. Spread the word about the good things young people are doing. Make it clear to them that they are recognized. Assure that both tweens and teens have the right perceptions of what it means to be an  adolescent. This will ultimately impact their own behaviors.

The “Thoughtless and Selfish” Problem Message

“All she does is take selfies.” “Does he really think the world revolves around him?” Sometimes, adolescents can appear to be self-centered. But assuming all teens are self-absorbed and unable to appreciate others’ needs is wrong and potentially damaging.

The Solution

Put this in developmental context. Everything is changing from their bodies to their emotions. They are having attractions and wondering if anybody will be attracted to them. They are figuring out their role in the world: “Who am I?” So of course they might appear self-centered! But they also value loyalty and friendships beyond measure. Their levels of idealism are off the charts. They see the world as it is and wonder why it is not as it should be. We need to see them as they really are . . . anything but self-centered in the areas that really count.


How to be Pro-Development

Every stage of development is worth appreciating. Adolescence is a time of great change and rapid growth. When parents support development, teens have the ability to thrive throughout different stages of change. Learn more about being pro-development.


Expect Challenges

They are a necessary part of teens’ development. We need to see these temporary setbacks in the larger context of development and support our teens to learn from mistakes.


Support Exploration

Teens must push limits and test boundaries. It’s how they experience and learn to bounce back from failure. It gives them the knowledge needed to become an independent adult. As parents, we must work to keep them safe, but not stop them from seeking new experiences.


Champion Strengths

Don’t believe the negative myths that paint adolescence as a time to survive. Teens need us to believe in them and hold them to high expectations. Create a community that is committed to building on the strengths of our adolescents.

Reality-Based Challenges Related to Adolescent Development

The “I Hate You!” Problem Message

There’s nothing that hits a parent in the heart harder than hearing their teen say, “I hate you!” Even when we know they don’t really mean it, it still hurts. If we respond to their rejecting us by assuming they’ve become bad people, then we push them away. They’ll come back once they can stand on their own. But reacting or taking this personally will not help improve relations.

The Solution

Remember, our teens are trying to figure out what role they play among family, friends and society on their journey towards adulthood. Part of the answer to “Who am I?” simply has to be “I am not my parent.” There is no way that an adolescent can move towards independence if they don’t first move away from you and distinguish themselves from you. Sometimes our kids hate us — (temporarily!) — precisely because they love us so much that it hurts. Continue to see them as good people, and they’ll return for a healthy interdependent relationship with the people whose love remained unwavering.

The “I’m Just Going to See What Happens” Problem Message

It may seem as though adolescents are constantly pushing limits. When they push our buttons enough, we may put our hands up in the air in frustration. We may feel like giving up and letting the chips fall as they may. But unmonitored, our children are at risk of danger.

The Solution

Adolescence is the stage of development where young people prepare to take some big risks: 1) Flying from their parents’ nest and towards an unpredictable world; 2) Deciding what unique contribution they want to make in the world; and 3) Imagining finding a life partner. These leaps require a tremendous degree of bravery. The only possible way to prepare for them is to go through a period of heightened risk-taking and seeking new experiences. This is a necessary developmental task of adolescence. We must understand the need for taking chances and expose them to healthy opportunities. Remember the best learning happens right beyond the boundaries of previous experience, and young people are super learners. We must set very clear boundaries beyond which they cannot stray, while expanding those boundaries as they prove responsible.

The “You’re All Hypocrites!!” Problem Message

Adolescents very quickly transform from worshiping the adults in their lives to noticing EVERYTHING they might be doing wrong. As frustrating as this can be, we mustn’t allow this to push us away.

The Solution

Remind ourselves that teens seeking self-discovery are in need of role models. When we don’t fit the bill they tell us. We have a golden opportunity to model healthy behaviors and choices and to care for ourselves as we hope they will learn to do for themselves. It is the idealism of youth that is designed to lead us into the future. They have not yet learned to avert their eyes to what’s wrong in our communities. This is what should give us hope. Sometimes, young people have not yet learned the language of diplomacy, or the one-step-at-a-time strategy of change. But we must celebrate the depth of their caring and nurture in them the belief that they must continue to do the work of building a better world.

A Pro-Future Movement

It’s not uncommon to see political polls showing Americans unhappy with the performance of  Congress. Yet, they like their individual representatives. Why? Because we know our own member of Congress. Similarly, we often see youth generally as problems, but love our own children. Why? Because we know our own children.

Our disdain for government can undermine civil society, because we hold low expectations for what can be done. Similarly, when we look at “youth” in general and make assumptions about them, we lower the standard and create an undermining environment for all adolescents — including our own.

Understanding what drives certain behaviors in teens positions us to optimize our involvement and to continue to play a critical role even during challenging moments. Start with your teen. Remember the fundamental developmental question of adolescence is “Am I normal?”  Young people do what they think is normal to fit in. We must create a picture of normal for our children that recognizes and celebrates the good within them so that they rise to that standard.

This is about more than your child. It is about all of our teens. Hear this call to start a movement that protects, nurtures, and builds adolescents to be their best selves. Spread these high expectations throughout your neighborhoods and larger communities. We can raise a generation prepared to lead.

For the sake of your children, for the sake of our common future, share this post with your friends and family.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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