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Harvard Public Health Review/Summer 2002

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Teen Revolution, Parent Evolution

From television to movies to the popular press, parents of teenagers are often given the message that their role is basically done, that they should "let go" so their children can move on with their lives. Yet this perception can be extremely harmful to the maturing teen. "Both research and teen testimony indicate that teens want a real connection with their parents,” says Rae Simpson, who authored the recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication, Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action. “Teens want their relationship with their parents to evolve, but they don’t want it to go away.”

In the report (available online at www.hsph.harvard.edu/chc/parenting/raising.html), Simpson, chief consultant to the Center for Health Communication's Parenting Project, synthesized over 300 recent studies about adolescents and their parents and found "remarkable" agreement about what works with teens. "There is widespread agreement in studies that cut across diverse cultural, ethnic, and economic groups," asserts Simpson. As a result, the report offers parents, policymakers, practitioners, and the media clear messages about how to parent teens successfully.

Some findings? "Parents need to continue to monitor their children's activities into the teenage years," Simpson says. "Keeping track of their school work and their after-school activities is critical--as is offering guidance and limits." Staying involved while remaining flexible and acknowledging the teen's growing maturity can have a major impact on reducing the risk of drug abuse and delinquency. "It is a false perception that by the end of early childhood, the child's key elements of development are all in place," she remarks, explaining that a teen continues to move through major developmental stages in adolescence. To support the teen during these changes, research has found that family activities and rituals continue to be critical, although the report also encourages bringing teachers and adults outside of the immediate family into the teen's life so the parent doesn't have to be the only role model.

Simpson concludes that the report isn't about so-called "mistakes" that parents make: "Parents are doing a lot of things right--the report can help them affirm they're on the right track and give concrete suggestions on what works which they can integrate with their own values, cultural perspectives, and individual circumstances."

Gabriele Amersbach

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