Amazing Adolescence: Expert advice for parents of tweens and teens

Illustration of mother and daughter hugging

Eye rolls, arguments, friend drama—these are some of the things we identify with adolescence. But Psychology Prof. Catherine Bagwell wants parents to know that adolescence has gotten a bad rap.

It started with G. Stanley Hall, whose 1904 tome, Adolescence, launched a new area of scholarly research. That influential book characterizes adolescence, now understood as the period from roughly 10 to 18, as a time of “storm and stress.” The negative stereotypes stuck.

While adolescence may pose some challenges, Bagwell says, it’s also a time of enormous growth and learning.

Bagwell, the Virginia Lasater Irvin Professor of Psychology, studies adolescent social development and peer relationships. Here, she offers advice for parents and caregivers of adolescents.

Illustration concept of parents nurturing children's minds

Nothing Personal

Neuroscience has played a huge role in the way we think about adolescence and adulthood. In terms of brain development and learning, the adolescent period is second only to the first five years of life. Unused neural networks are pruned away, while others are strengthened. The prefrontal cortex, the command center for our thoughts and actions, continues to develop well into our 20s.

“Different parts of the brain are developing at different rates, and some of that helps explain the behaviors that sometimes parents think of as exasperating,” Bagwell says. “It makes sense when you think about the fact that the limbic system, which controls emotions, is developing much faster than the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to have control and executive function.”

On average, conflict between parents and children increases in early adolescence and peaks around the ages of 13 or 14, Bagwell says. Those experiences can become a dominant framework for how parents and caregivers think about adolescence, when in fact the conflict is an indication of cognitive development.

“Autonomy is one of the goals of adolescence,” she says, “and so you actually want them to be questioning and asserting their own opinions and ideas, and maybe thinking differently than you are as a parent.”

Bagwell, who is the parent of an emerging adult and an adolescent, gets that it’s not always easy to approach conflict with the cool detachment of a scientist observing a chrysalis give way to a butterfly. “In the moment, it’s really hard when they’re arguing with you about every little thing to be like, ‘Oh, this is great. Look at how you’re showing your abilities to think in more complicated ways.’”

But sometimes, a little perspective can go a long way.

Illustration of teen on a snow ski

Risky Business

Teens have been known to engage in risky behavior. Bagwell says research using fMRI technology has illuminated what goes on in the brain when adolescents make decisions, and how that brain activity differs from that of adults.

“It used to be thought that adolescents are just not as good at weighing consequences of actions and really thinking through the pros and cons of different decisions as adults are,” Bagwell says. “What we see now is that they’re actually pretty good at that. They can make the same sort of pro/con list that an adult can—what’s different is how they evaluate it.”

Bagwell says research shows adolescents are much more drawn to rewards, have a difficult time delaying gratification and are much more attuned to immediate (rather than long-term) consequences.

It’s not that they can’t rationally think through the risks of a decision, she says. It’s just that they then evaluate the risks differently from adults.

Illustration of teen sleeping at the computer

Shifting Shut-eye

It can be a little baffling when the kid who once popped out of bed at first light to watch cartoons or play video games turns into a night owl who can’t be bothered before noon. Your adolescent is not lazy—with maturation comes changes to the duration and quality of the types of sleep we cycle through each night.

“In connection with puberty, there are changes in melatonin release,” Bagwell says. “The need to sleep is delayed two hours, on average. So, adolescents biologically are driven to stay up later and wake up later.”

Start times for middle- and high-schoolers in most school districts don’t track with what we know about this stage of brain development.

Bagwell says some school districts have experimented with delaying start times, to positive effect. One Colorado school district saw significant decreases in reports of drowsy driving by students, and those reports were backed up by the data—motor vehicle accidents decreased in tandem with the delayed start times.

On top of the physiological changes responsible for the shift, adolescents using electronic devices before bed may get to sleep even later and experience poor sleep quality—that’s why Bagwell and others recommend keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom. 

Illustration of mother and daughter using technology

Tricky Tech

For parents, keeping up with new social media platforms might feel like running a race with no finish line. But, Bagwell says, parents need to stay on top of what their adolescents are doing—the platforms they’re using and how they’re using them.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to adolescents and social media use. Bagwell recommends discussing digital literacy—for instance, how to trust sources of information—as well as asking social media-specific questions. 

“You might ask, ‘You’re seeing all of these pictures of your friends and they look a certain way … how are you kind of just getting a piece of what they want to present to you?’” Bagwell says. “I think we sometimes assume that kids understand, but they don’t necessarily.”

Use your powers of observation. Think about why your kid might be using a particular platform or engaging in a particular way. Is it because it provides an easy way to connect socially with other people? Is the way they’re using it contributing to them feeling bad about themselves? Are they actively creating content, or are they just kind of lurking and looking at other people’s content?

Cultivating an understanding of how your kids are using it, what they’re getting out of it and how they think about it is important.

And, Bagwell says, parents need to practice what they preach.

“We need to be aware of how we’re modeling our technology use and making sure that we’re not sending the “do as I say, not as I do,” kind of message,” Bagwell says.

As adolescents grow and change, so too should the rules around social media use.

“You constantly have to negotiate and renegotiate what your family thinks about social media,” Bagwell says, “and what your family rules are about how these things are used.”

Research shows that parts of the reward circuitry in the adolescent brain shift into hyperdrive when a social media post accumulates “likes.” The adult brain’s response is more measured. We don’t fully understand how social media affects adolescents, but the desire for affirmation and immediate feedback can lead to problematic use.

Bagwell says parents need to be aware of signs that social media use might be problematic. Some things to look out for: they are not wanting to engage with people in person, they don’t want to go to a friend’s house because they would rather stay on their device, they’re not willing to go outside, they’ve been on their phone for a while and they’re in a really bad mood afterward, it seems to be making them feel worse about themselves.

The key takeaway? Stay engaged.

“The most important thing is for parents to say, ‘Look, this is an important part of their lives, it’s going to be there, and I need to understand it and I need to have conversations about it, and I need to be aware that it’s constantly changing.’”


Illustration of friends playing game on a computer together

Parents to Peers

Adolescents want to spend more time with their friends and less time with family. Parents may take an unfavorable view of the shift because of concerns about peer pressure and negative peer influence.

“I don’t mean to downplay those concerns as unimportant,” Bagwell says, “but establishing close, intimate friendships and really engaging with peers and friends in meaningful ways is incredibly important for adolescents.”

She says parents can help by creating opportunities for positive peer relationships to flourish.

“Parents get annoyed or frustrated that they want to spend all their time with their friends,” Bagwell says. “That’s something they need to be doing.”

Illustration of family spending time together at the movies

Staying Connected

Don’t let the sideways looks fool you—your adolescent might want to spend more time with friends, but they still crave connection to family. 

Building those connections before adolescence will go a long way to maintaining them throughout the developmental period, Bagwell says.  

“In terms of creating that closeness and communication, and being interested and involved, some of it is just trying to maintain what you’ve established already,” she says. “Creating time for the family to spend together takes effort. Even though it gets challenging, and it seems like your adolescent might be brushing you off, you have to keep on it. It could be as simple as family dinner time, but maintaining that closeness is really important.”

They still need you in their lives, she says. “You’re incredibly important to them, even though it doesn’t always feel like it.”

Illustration of mother releasing butterfly

Hello, Butterfly

Yes, it’s a period of significant growth and development, and with that comes change. But, Bagwell says, we need to get beyond the conception of “storm and stress” and celebrate adolescence.

“It’s fun to spend time with them, and to see how they are different from you, how they are starting to have their own opinions,” she says. “It’s exciting.”

Her final words of advice:

“Embrace all of the incredible, amazing changes that are happening that allow kids to turn into the wonderful human beings we want them to be.”

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.