• Robert D. Cohen LMFT

Parenting Adolescent Development for a Successful School Experience

With the school year underway, middle and high school students are facing the

challenge of navigating new territory. These young folks are not only handling the

expectations of a new grade in school, they are simultaneously dealing with vast

changes occurring physically, emotionally, intellectually, and socially.


Adolescence is a time of great development and upheaval. An enormous

transformation occurs as adolescents have the highest dopamine and lowest serotonin

levels they will ever experience. This combination creates great risk from a brain

development perspective, with impulsivity and an over-willingness to take chances.


Adolescent brains view the world through amygdala based perceptions. Processing

their information emotionally leaves teenagers feeling twice the emotion of adults. The

adolescent brain is still under construction. When an adult brain fully develops, it will

utilize frontal lobe based perceptions to process information logically using the

prefrontal cortex. Thus adolescents and adults literally see the world differently.


Advancing to Middle or High School brings about many changes. There is a new

campus with new teachers and new expectations. Adolescents may experience

increased concern about looks, style, and feeling accepted. Adolescents tend to spend

less time at home as they navigate out for social activities with new peer groups.



For a young person to successfully make this transition, their planning and

organizational skills need to evolve. School grade progression requires more student

responsibility with each new grade. Adolescents must learn to manage their time well to

structure academic work. Impulse control is key as they grow their independence and

ability to be trusted. Parental involvement should decrease as children go up the

academic ladder. To develop autonomy requires adolescents to fail and learn from their

mistakes. This process is essential to learning how the world works.


Resiliency is a very important characteristic for adolescents to build. This means having

the ability to tolerate stress and develop frustration tolerance by staying with a problem

and not giving up. It can also mean being able to correct course when heading down

the wrong path. How well your child overcomes obstacles will tell you a lot about their

future success.


Successful adolescents are able to learn and employ anger management skills. They

can be assertive without being aggressive. They can hear the word “no” without an

explosive response. Adolescents who flourish employ expressive communication skills

to interact with parents, teachers and classmates. They have the self control to put

down their technology for a conversation where they can look you in the eye. They

utilize listening skills without interrupting others when having a discussion.


To help adolescents prosper, parents should create consistent structure. Parents must

not be vague about expectations. What are the explicit rules in your home? Are they

written where your child can see them? How late can your children stay up? How much

sleep do they need? How much technology is allowed? What time does it get shut off?

When is homework completed? What chores are required? If you have answers to

these questions you give your adolescent a better chance to succeed.


Behavior must be monitored and consequences enforced when rules are not followed.

It is incredibly important that parents administer consequences and not punishment

When we know what will happen to us before we do something, that is a consequence.

When we do not know in advance, that is experienced as punishment. Consequences

actually change behavior. Punishment only suppresses behavior.


Increasing your child’s independence as they grow older requires a “different” not

“distant” relationship from parents. If both parents can be on the same page, they

ensure giving their children a consistent message. Even if there are two homes.

Children succeed the most when parents are of one mind.


Parents have incredible influence when it comes to their child’s academic success. The

Rosenthal effect of self fulfilled prophecy shows that other’s expectations significantly

effect actual performance. If parents create the expectation that their child will go to

college, it is more likely that child will go to college. Thus parents should make clear

what their values are and share this information with their child.

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