Parents’ Role in Monitoring Teens

Parents Critical Role in Monitoring Teens

Parents have a need to know what their children are doing. It’s our job to make sure they are being safe and responsible. On the other hand, tweens and teens have the need to stretch boundaries. It is a normal (even necessary!) part of development for adolescents to push against limitations as they move towards independence.

There is a built in tension between parents’ need for control and teens’ need to grow. We strike the balance when we do three key things:

  1. Set clear boundaries beyond which our children cannot stray.
  2. Allow for lots of opportunities for trial and error within those boundaries.
  3. Stretch boundaries as teens demonstrate their ability to handle more independence.

If we don’t allow for failure and recovery while our children remain under our watchful eyes they may make mistakes later with greater consequences . If we are too controlling, our teens will be more likely to test their limits and rebel.

It’s Not What We Ask. It’s What We Know.

What we know is what our teens choose to disclose to us. The secret to monitoring is twofold. First, be the kind of parent your child will choose to talk to openly and honestly. Second, know where your teen is. Ensure they have places to go where responsible adults are present and there are things to do that will keep them busy and happy.

There is one more layer of complexity — technology. Computers, smartphones, and other digital devices allow us to communicate in new and different ways every day. These technologies offer wonderful opportunities for growth and potential peril. Our watchful eyes must learn to adapt.

Teens welcome advice from their parents about learning how to navigate the world and thrive within it.

Twelve Tips for Getting Teens To Talk

1) Use a balanced parenting style. Parents who clearly express warmth and clear rules know the most about what is going on in their children’s lives. Why? Teens talk to parents who they know care and who watch out for their safety.

2) Make rules about safety. Teens don’t listen to parents who interfere with or micromanage their personal business. In fact, they hide their whereabouts to gain privacy. On the other hand, they seek guidance about how to stay safe.

3) Make rules about how to get along in society. Teens welcome advice from their parents about learning how to navigate the world and thrive within it. If your teen makes a choice that is personally distasteful to you, don’t make it about why you don’t like it. When you do, you place it squarely in personal territory and that will likely backfire. For example, if your teen knows you reject the idea of their getting a nose ring or ear gauge because you don’t like the way they look, they’ll resent the encroachment on their personal territory (their appearance in this case) and might just get it anyway. On the other hand, your gentle, but clear, guidance about how their appearance affects their likelihood of getting a job may be welcomed.

4) Avoid over-empathizing. If you express your hurt every time your children are hurt they will learn to hide things from you to spare your feelings.

5) Avoid guilt. If your child feels as if they have hurt you every time they don’t do what you would have liked, they’ll avoid the drama by not sharing what they’ve done.

6) Avoid catastrophizing. Perhaps you have a tendency to blow your children’s missteps out of proportion. Maybe you’re quick to take situations to the extreme. You say things like, “Now you’ll never…” or “This could lead to…” You tend to treat every situation as a catastrophe. If these actions or impulses describe you, your children may quickly learn to avoid telling you things. They’ll want to spare you from the pain (and lower their own stress levels).

7) Listen and be a sounding board. Teens want more than anything to be listened to. They want to know that you trust that they can figure things out on their own, with a little guidance.

8) See your child as an expert. You have the wisdom that comes from experience. Our teens have expertise in the worlds they live in and the challenges they confront. Be a learner. Your children will teach you. And in the process you’ll know what is going on in their lives.

9) Be flexible. We need to let our teens win sometimes. If a reasonable argument is automatically rejected, there really is no reason to make one. If a rule is rigid, there is no reason to try to demonstrate that you deserve flexibility. We learn what is happening in our children’s lives when they can argue for more responsibilities and make the case that they have become worthy of expanding privileges. We want to reward them for planning wisely and demonstrating responsibility. When we do, they’ll keep doing the right thing. And talking to us about what they are doing.

10) Know where your child is. No, we’re not suggesting you microchip your children. Create as many opportunities as possible for them to be in safe, enriching environments that are actually fun. Young people are most likely to get in trouble after school before you get home. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids says, “This is prime time for experimenting with drugs and alcohol,” and that, “Having an adult around during those hours is one of the most effective ways to prevent drug use.”  It is possible you can’t be around during those hours. That is why you should trust other adults to fill that role. There are many after-school activities that involve little or no cost. Look into clubs and sports at school, Boys and Girls Clubs of America sites, and other community-based organizations. Teens involved with these types of organizations and other after-school activities have chances to learn more about areas in which they excel. They can enhance their strengths and open up new life opportunities.

11) Monitor electronic device usage. Social media offers plenty of opportunities for connection and creative expression. But, there are some dangers in the virtual world and many adults are relative newbies to that world. Don’t be a stranger! Find yourself on social media platforms in which your children operate. Don’t stalk them, but do check in every once in awhile. Just knowing that you have the ability to see what they’re up to may make them think twice before putting things out there they later regret. And remember that preparation is protection for the future. Make sure they know that what is put online can spread quickly and lives forever.

12) Get some help. You deserve some help coming up with appropriate boundaries and considering how best to maintain them. How about engaging your tween or teen in the conversation? They can guide you about the limits that will keep them safe and can share the freedoms they think they can handle. This negotiation style doesn’t give your power away. Quite the contrary. Young people engaged in self-advocacy with their parents keep communication open, and their parents know more about their lives. That makes for some pretty powerful and protective connections.

Stay In-the-Know

Take this critical role seriously and choose to stay “in-the-know” about your teen’s life. You’ll help further ensure their safety and well-being far into the future. Your own well-being will improve as well, knowing your child is not only safe, but on the way to becoming a trusted part of the larger community.

Image by: Samantha Lee/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

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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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