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Don't Be Your Teenager's Friend

Image of two teen girls, one white, the other of south Asian ancestry. Abigail Blackburn Psy.D. talks about Parenting Teenagers

Every year there is a significant number of parents I see who tell me in therapy that they want to be friends with their teenage children. And every year, there is an equal, if not greater number of teenagers who tell me they don't want their parents to be their friends, they want their parents to be parents.

Why the discrepancy? I am not exactly sure, but I think it probably has something to do with the experiences mothers and fathers have had themselves growing up rather than anything their children may necessarily need. It may also have something to do with how the term "being friends" is defined.

Nowhere is this dynamic more prevalent than when it comes to underage drinking. The typical scenario involves a well meaning parent permitting his teenager and the teenager's friends to drink in their home. I frequently hear something like "Well, she is going to drink anyway. All the kids in this town do. I would rather she drink where I can supervise her and she is not going to get into trouble."

Or they talk about being worried that they will alienate their kids if they set limits. Many parents had strict upbringings, some even violent, and recall not being able to communicate with their own parents who could be harsh and punitive. "I never told my parents anything" is common, as well as "I want my kids to be able to talk to me and know I won't judge them."

Never mind the fact that studies on substance abuse suggest that the earlier someone starts drinking, the higher the risk for alcoholism in adulthood. Never mind the legal component of violating state laws that prohibit alcohol consumption by minors or that a number of high risk behaviors are associated with underage drinking.

The fact is, most teenagers feel anxious and stressed when their parents don't set limits and when there are no clear expectations of behavior or consequences. Teens feel safer when they know someone who is fair and loving is in charge, despite what their protestations might sound like.

And yes, in some ways it is important to keep lines of communication open and to let your kids know you are there to listen. But parents who are being responsible are not just listening in these moments; they are also considering, reviewing, supporting, reinforcing, sharing responsibility and when necessary, confronting. All things that constitute more than simple friendship.

Sometimes parents and teens need help with the rhythym of their relationships - when to talk and when not to talk, for example and therapy can be a great place to learn about what works best for you and your family members. But the bottom line is be a parent.

It's what your teenagers want.

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