earthquake seismograph

Danger: Teenage Earthquake Zone

Sometimes, it can be hard for parents to accept that their children will one day be able to live independent lives, and not have to ask for permission to do so.

Of course, it doesn’t just happen on one particular day. It’s best viewed as a gradual process that parents who are tuned in to their children’s development will recognize and facilitate.

It’s not always a smooth path, though. It’s a bit like living in an earthquake zone, with one force pushing one way and the other resisting it. It tends to work out better when there are many small readjustments: things might be uncomfortable for a while after a minor tremor, but then they settle down with a new equilibrium.


But things can go wrong when parents resist the pressure to change for too long. When two strong and unyielding forces meet head-on, the result can be a major disaster and sometimes families never recover.

Our society and legal system impose restrictions on teenagers to prevent them from being regarded as adults. These include age restraints on a whole range of activities such as smoking, drinking, driving, having sex, voting and consenting to medical treatments to name just a few. There are minor variations from country to country and state to state but the general pattern is similar.


It’s as if some people expect every teenager to spend 17 years and 364 days being treated as a child, and then have them magically wake up on the morning of their 18th birthday as a complete fully-functioning adult. In reality, the skills required are learned gradually over time, and every child is different. In many ways, imposing uniform, artificial, politically-driven age limits on everyone is problematic, because:

  • Those who are already competent are unable to do things like leave home or take on certain jobs for no good reason, wasting great potential and creating stress and resentment; others may reach the age-limit still poorly prepared for adulthood, but are given their 'ticket' regardless!
  • Many teenagers are as physically, sexually, socially and emotionally mature as many adults. Artificially preventing them from taking on adult roles causes considerable resentment, much of which is then directed at parents and often at society at large.
  • The best way to learn to be a competent adult is to spend time in the company of competent adults. So what do we do? Allow our kids to be warehoused for many hours and many years, socializing only with large groups with their peers, who are the least capable of modelling how to be a competent adult. The education system fails many teenagers, and for some, what they do learn is either quickly forgotten or turns out to be unhelpful in finding meaningful employment in our fast-changing world.


This is where parents come in. Many parents think that their influence is largely over by the time their children go into high school as their child’s peers start to take over. This is only true if parents allow it to be true.

In fact, this is the time when parents can have a major influence on guiding their children to adulthood – but it requires some changes.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that if teenagers are treated like adults, they will behave like adults. However, this won’t happen overnight. There will be times when they will slip back. Parents need to create as many opportunities as possible to spend time with their teenagers in ways that signal they are now moving towards being treated more like an adult than a child.

This means doing things like:

  • Frequently asking for their views and opinions, as respectfully as you would to anyone.
  • Encouraging them to either be part of, or solely responsible for, family and personal decisions.
  • Including them in supervised adult activities. This doesn’t mean allowing them to do whatever they want, but challenging them to explore the likely consequences of their actions in various situations, both for themselves and for others. It also means allowing them opportunities to succeed, and fail, in ways that gradually shift the burden of responsibility from parent to emerging adult.


The bottom line is this: adolescence is a time of gradual transition, not a sudden leap. If parents refuse to acknowledge this, it’ll be left to those often poorly-equipped (think TV shows and movies, school and other teenagers) to do the job of guiding teenagers towards adulthood.

As parents, you know your child best, and what values you’d like to encourage. Rather than having your world turned upside down because you’ve taken a hard line, you’ll have more success if you allow for some little shifts in perspective along the way.