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Info for Parents Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Tips for Parents On Building Healthy Relationships with their Teenagers

Group of teenagers

From Dr. David Wolfe, RBC Investments Chair in Children's Mental Health & Developmental Psychology

1) Be honest and open.

Talk to your teens about dating and sexuality.  The research shows that the more open and honest you are with your child the more communication there will be about dating and sexuality.  And this is very important because it has been found that a good predictor of less adolescent sex is directly related to how much parents and teens talk openly about sex. Richer discussions about dating and sexuality are one mechanism by which a better quality parent-teen relationship influences adolescent choices to delay sexual activity. 'Richer discussions' means including messages about your attitudes and values about sexuality, advice-giving, and warnings about potentially negative consequences of teenage sexual activity.

2) Be authoritative not authoritarian in your parenting style.

Show an authoritative (not authoritarian) parenting style, which involves a combination of warmth and firmness. Set high standards and have high expectations for your teens regarding their behaviour, and enforce these standards with consistent discipline. However, you should provide an atmosphere of acceptance and psychological autonomy where the teen's views and individuality can develop freely.

(see #3)

3) Think "harm reduction," not zero tolerance.

When it comes to a teens' experimentation with adult privileges (substance use, sex, romance, etc.) it is unrealistic to assume that they will not experiment. Parents who try and enforce absolutes are often in conflict with their teens and most often are kept in the dark about their activities. The alternative is to discuss choices and the pros and cons of these new-found opportunities in a non-threatening manner, and obtain their understanding in advance of consequences for breach of trust. Convey to them that you want them to be safe which implies that they must take personal responsibility for their actions, use their own judgment, and make their own choices.

4) Don't believe everything you read or hear.

The media would have us believe that drug-use, heavy drinking, violence and underage sex, are occurring at rates far greater than they actually are. These misconceptions can lead to a sense of dread as your child approaches the teen years, and may influence how you react to your child's behaviour and actions.  This is especially true if you automatically assume that they will become involved in high-risk behaviour.  Make sure to get the facts and examine the misconceptions you may have about your teen's behaviour and actions before you jump to any conclusions.

5) Monitor and supervise your teen's activities with parental sensitivity.

Parental supervision is recognized as a key factor that can moderate adolescent problem behaviour. Monitoring must be balanced with parental sensitivity so as not to become over-intrusive and unnecessarily invade your teen's privacy. You can monitor your child's behaviour simply by being present (before and after they go out, for example) and asking a few simple questions in a neutral (non accusatory) tone. Too much supervision and monitoring can lead to greater teen problem behaviour because teens may then rebel and act out to exercise their right to some freedom from parental constraints.

6) Accentuate the Positive.

Try to initiate positive communication with your teenager whenever the opportunity arises. If you are experiencing conflict with your teen over rules, chores, school, peers, etc. talk to them about it, but also attempt to have positive conversations with your teen about other things. Because there is conflict does not mean that every interaction has to be negative. Actively attempt to build in genuine positive interactions throughout the day or week so that your teen learns that you are unhappy with their behaviour and not with them as a person.

7) Encourage your teen to be involved in extracurricular activities.

Studies have shown that greater extracurricular involvement at school or in the community can have a positive influence on academic achievement, and pro-social behaviours such as voting and volunteering in young adulthood. Be aware! Girls drop out of sports and other physical activities at an alarming rate when they get to high school, because they are pressured into believing that being athletic is not feminine. Speak with them about these pressures and why it is important to make your own decisions.

8) Encourage flexibility in gender roles and behaviour.

Teens are under considerable pressure to conform to their peers' (and sometimes family's) expectations as to what boys and girls "should and should not" do. Gender-role rigidity is very high in early to mid-adolescence, with boys (in particular) having a heightened sense of the importance of being "masculine." Speak to them about these pressures and their views, and encourage them to recognize how some of their choices (of friends, sports, etc.) may be misdirected by fears of being ridiculed. Overly aggressive and controlling behaviour in teens, are often signs of their strict adherence to society's expectations, which can sometimes be inadvertently communicated by parents ("be a man," "tough it out"). Discuss ways to respond to teasing in a lighthearted manner.

9) Address any abusive or inappropriate language with a firm and clear message.

Today it has become acceptable in teen culture to swear and verbally abuse others like no other previous generation has! While parents can't totally prevent abusive language from their homes (in music, television, and other media), teens appreciate knowing the limits. Language is a powerful means by which teens control the actions of others, including dating partners, parents, and peers. Be especially vigilant for expressions that put down others, no matter how "innocent" or "joking" they may seem, and point out what these expressions really communicate.

10) Be an active participant (to a point) in your teen's life.

Know your child's interests. If they like hockey, take them to a hockey game if you can.  If they play hockey, watch them play - in a non-critical way.  If they like opera, ballet, whatever their interest is, plan a day when you can be together to do something special.  Or if a movie comes on television that you both like - watch it together.  Not a lot of words need to be spoken.  It is being together that counts!

Dr. David Wolfe is the RBC Investments Chair in Children's Mental Health and Development Psychopathology at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

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