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Stereotypes About Teens Can Undermine Parents' Confidence

Parents, don't let your views of adolescence get you down.

Stereotypes about adolescents can make moms and dads feel less confident about their parenting skills right at a time kids need their parents to be present in their lives.

Raising teens is commonly perceived to be a total drag. Indeed, moms and dads of adolescents report feeling less capable than parents of younger children. And what parents think about adolescence can affect how competent they feel when dealing with their teens.

When moms and dads believe they can manage their children's issues and encourage positive behavior, they are more likely to parent effectively. That, in turn, makes it less likely their adolescents will act out, according to developmental psychologists Terese Glatz of Örebro University in Sweden and Christy Buchanan of Wake Forest University.

But parents feel especially stressed during adolescence, explains Glatz, as they expect those years to be difficult. This reputation is not entirely fair: On average, difficult behaviors and negative emotions increase during adolescence, yet overall the levels remain low, says Buchanan. "Adolescents are a group for whom negative stereotypes are still tolerated," she adds.

To discover what undermines parents' confidence, Glatz and Buchanan queried a diverse group of nearly 400 American parents three times over three years, beginning when their children were in sixth or seventh grade. This mix of moms and dads answered questions about how they viewed their own parenting skills; how competent they felt dealing with discipline and other tasks; and whether they believed they could influence their children's behavior.

The group also described their children's stage of puberty, their expectations for adolescence, their kids' current behavior and their views on how well they communicated with their kids.

Overall, parents' feelings of competence and their belief in their influence declined from the early- to middle-adolescent years, Glatz and Buchanan reported in the October Developmental Psychology. They found that parents whose children were less physically mature — and likely witnessed changes related to puberty during the study — experienced a larger decline in confidence than did parents whose children were more physically mature.

Moms and dads also felt less effective if they found it difficult to talk to their adolescents. And the stereotype of teens as risk-takers had an impact: Parents who expected their adolescents to engage in risky behavior were less comfortable handling discipline and conflicts. "These expectations matter above and beyond the child's actual behavior," says Buchanan.

Adolescents need their parents to be engaged in their lives and to give them opportunities to assert their independence, the researchers explain. It is not a time to pull back over anxiety or misconceptions.

"If we can change society's ideas of adolescence as a period of storm and stress," notes Glatz, it may be possible to help parents stay involved. "We have to be realistic, but not overly negative," adds Buchanan. "There is a lot of good that happens in adolescence."

Aimee Cunningham is a freelance science journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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