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Don’t Expect the Worst from Teens—Or You Just Might Get It

Turning 13 can be a big thrill for kids. At last, they’re teenagers, and they’re feeling quite grown up and proud of themselves. But for parents, it may mean dread. After all, everyone has been warning us for years that parenting a teenager is going to be awful. We’re bracing ourselves to expect the worst of our teens in their adolescent years.

Well, parents, we might want to stand up for our teens—and double-check our own attitudes about the teen years, too. It turns out that negative expectations about teenagers can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.

How To Raise A Teenager: Don’t Expect The Worst

Dr. Christy Buchanan, professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, has studied this phenomenon for years and found that parents’ expectations of risky behavior can lead to higher engagement in risk-taking behaviors like experimentation with alcohol, drugs, and sex. Similarly, expecting teenage years to be a time of emotionally charged “storm and stress” makes it more likely that the teen years will be just that.

Simply put, don’t buy into the stereotypes.

Psychologist Dr. John Duffy, author of The Available Parent and host of the new podcast Undue Anxiety, agrees. “When parents lower their bar of expectations for their children in most any area, kids will recognize that as a show of no-confidence in them.”

Plus, it’s exhausting for teenagers to hear only the negative—what you’re currently doing wrong, or what you will eventually do wrong. Buchanan reminds parents not just to have high expectations, but also to focus on the positive things kids are already doing, such as managing schedules packed with school, homework, activities, and chores. “How often do we give them a really hearty pat on the back?” she asks.

Of course, it’s true that high-risk behaviors can increase in the teen years. Both Duffy and Buchanan recommend that parents, in addition to avoiding negativity, also avoid being naïve. Parents should be realistic about the risks in adolescence, and they should talk to their teens openly about them.

Talking about risky behaviors does not increase the chances that teens will participate in these behaviors, Duffy says. Instead, when parents maintain open channels of communication (not just periodic or one-time “talks”) and clearly communicate their standards and expectations, teens are more likely to make choices in line with their parents’ values (see our sidebar below for ways to change the conversation).

Benefits To An Attitude Shift

There’s another upside to dumping your “expect the worst” mindset: It just might bring you closer to your teen in the end. When your teen screams at you in a rage, and you write off the moodiness, mouthiness, and rebellion as just normal things to be endured, you can lose sight of what’s going on with your teenager under the surface. Is something truly wrong? Or is it just a bad day? You won’t know if you minimize their emotions as teenage nonsense.

“Clarify the expectations about what [behavior] you’ll accept,” says Buchanan. She suggests, for example, that parents might make clear that yelling is not an acceptable way to communicate. Parents can set limits like this while still taking the time to understand why their teenager is so upset. “Understand the human experience behind that behavior,” adds Buchanan.

The key for parents is not to expect the worst from their teens. Instead, focus on positive expectations and healthy limits for their teenagers—and respect them as individuals, not cardboard-cutout, moody, rebellious adolescents. Ultimately, everyone wants respect and belief in their ability to do good things, no matter their age.

Changing the Conversation

1. Talk about family values.

Don’t ignore tough topics and assume your teen will automatically make the right choices. Talk often and early about your values, starting even before the teen years. (But it’s never too late to start.)

2. Model the behavior you want.

Live up to the values you expect your teen to adopt. If, for example, you preach no drinking, but you drink every night and to excess on weekends, your words won’t carry as much weight.

3. Inquire about peer behavior.

When you suspect risky behavior in your teen’s peer group, frame your conversation as an inquiry into what classmates might be up to, rather than interrogating your teen about her possible involvement in the worrisome activities.

4. Set clear expectations.

Let your teen know you expect him to follow your family’s rules and values, but acknowledge that it will sometimes be hard. “Blame it on me,” you can say. “Tell your friends your dad is such a drag and you have to be home.” Make it easy to do the right thing—and that may mean your teen feeling free to call you for a ride, even if he’s somewhere he’s not even supposed to be.

5. Don’t make generalizations about teens.

Just as you shouldn’t expect the worst from your own teen, don’t complain about teens in stereotypes, especially to your teen or within her earshot. Each one is an individual, and she should know you don’t expect her to follow the crowd, even if what you’re saying truly is accurate about most teens in your community.

6. Give your teen responsibilities.

Give your teen responsibilities, and emphasize that you believe he is capable. Maybe your teen is the electronics expert or the baking guru in your house. Whatever it is, make sure he knows you respect and appreciate his maturing talents—and him, of course.


Sharon Holbrook

Sharon Holbrook is managing editor of Your Teen.