Parents who want to be "friends" with their teenagers tread heavily on traditionally sacrosanct ground, crossing old lines established to clearly mark the parent-child relationship – and, perhaps, at the same time, do considerable damage to acceptable codes of conduct and the crucial concept of discipline.
So, questions arise: Is it absolutely wrong for parents to be best buddies, trusted allies and tell-all confidants with their teenage sons and daughters? If not, are there contexts that can make this approach workable? What are the potential risks and possible rewards?
And, overall, is the idea of parents and their teens being "friends" a healthy one?
"I believe it's important to always have open communication between parents and teenagers, but that parents shouldn't rely on their children as 'friends,' " says Stacy Riegler, LCSW, of American Day Treatment Center, in Exton, part of the Main Line Health System.
"One main reason is that parents often end up confiding in their teenage children, which may be inappropriate since they may share 'adult information' with children who are simply too young to hear such details.
"Also, being friends can mean that parents become enmeshed in the lives of their teens, which isn't healthy since a part of parenting is the idea of letting go."
Still, the "friends" concept is more prevalent than ever today due to three factors, she adds:
• There are more single-parent families around.
• Both parents may have full-time jobs.
• Teenagers often have a chaotic high-school schedule, which may mean kids are in and out of the home a great deal, leading to less of the formal parent-child structure.
From their perspective, Riegler notes, teens may be confused about what being friends with their parents is all about.
"I believe that teenagers say they think it would be great to be friends with their parents because they believe they wouldn't have to follow either rules or limits, and would have the freedom to do whatever they want to do,"she explains.
"But, I've heard a lot of teenagers, who've had younger parents, for example – [they've] taken [on] more of the friend role either because their grandparents have raised them or they are from a single-parent family – say they wish the … parents in their lives would just act like parents."
This brings up the question of discipline: "Friends do not discipline friends, so if parents are friends with their teens, the children probably will not be disciplined for their poor choices.
"Everyone has to deal with consequences for the choices they make in life. Teenagers need to understand that and have to know that if they break the rules there are consequences for their actions that should come first and foremost from their parents."
Overall, the best way of parenting is to keep lines of communication open and to always take a nonjudgmental approach, says Riegler. This kind of conventional parental wisdom can also make the "friends" notion more workable. If things don't work out, professional counseling for either parents, teens or the family is available, she adds.
The Key? Mutual Respect
For Ellen Harris Sholevar, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry/director of child and adolescent psychiatry, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Temple University School of Medicine, there are three key elements to effective parenting of teenagers.
"Love and caring, appropriate supervision, and appropriate limits and boundaries are the three ways parents can be most effective," says Sholevar, who has held clinical and administrative positions in academic medicine for more than 20 years, and has been in private practice in child and adolescent psychiatry.
"The first aspect also means mutual respect – parents for their children and children for their parents. Appropriate supervision by parents entails knowing what their children are doing, with whom and where, including going out late at night. Establishing and enforcing appropriate limits can mean things like telling teens to be home by midnight or by 10," adds Sholevar.
In putting these steps into practice, the goal, she continues, is to develop the kind of parent-teenager relationship that allows parents first to be parents, and their teenage sons and daughters to have every chance to enjoy their teenage years in healthy, wholesome ways. Such a system should be set up early in the life of the family, she claims, so, once in place, it's easier to use and easier to succeed with it.
"Look," concludes Sholevar, "there is really no magic about this. It is simply common sense for parents [to work] with their children to create a safe and loving home environment, one in which issues can be addressed and resolved in a friendly but firm fashion."