Photo by Denise Continenza, Penn State University
All human beings have basic needs in addition to food and water. These basic needs are: Belonging, Power, Enjoyment and Independence. This applies to teenagers as well. Because this is a time of tremendous social and emotional growth, these needs are even stronger.
Belonging means feeling like a part of something, being accepted. Enjoyment is having fun or seeking thrills. Power describes the need to make one’s own decisions. Independence is all about having control over one’s life, being autonomous.
Teenagers will do whatever it takes to get these needs met. Some youth had a stronger urge to fulfill one need more than another depending on their temperament or “constitution”. Life experiences also come into play. For example, one child might be more of an extrovert and have a higher need for belonging. She tends to socialize a great deal while another child might be perfectly content with a small group of friends and infrequent social connections.
Sadly, when young people cannot get these needs met safely through positive peer interactions or their families, they will often seek out negative ways to do it. Drug or gang involvement, risk-taking, bullying or running away are all examples of how a teen might try to meet needs in an unsafe manner.
How can parents help their teenagers to get these needs met? Parents can foster social growth by allowing their child to fulfill needs on their own as well as by providing opportunities within the family.
Allow teens privacy and some personal space. As kids move through the teen years, they spend more time with friends and less with family. This is normal and okay. Teens need to socialize with their peers so they begin to form their own identity and broaden their social network. This does not mean that parents should just let go of their teenager. This is a time when they need the support of parents more than ever. Think of it like flying a kite. It can only fly freely and safely when it is tethered to the holder.
Let you teen make some decisions about how the family might spend a weekend or evening together. Play games together, laugh and have fun. Make the family and home a place of joy as much as possible. Encourage safe risk-taking- things like sports, public speaking, or getting involved in something new.
Give your teen opportunities to make some decisions. Keep firm rules for the things that have to do with safety or family values. Allow your child to make mistakes then talk with him/her without criticizing about the outcomes and what they could do differently next time.
Move from telling your child what to do to asking for his/her input on how something like a chore will get done. This is hard for most parents as they feel they are losing control over their child. Allow your child to opt out of some family activities to be with friends instead. But still communicate to him/her your expectations and rules such as boundaries around drugs and alcohol as well as curfew. During adolescence, the role of parents begins to shift from that of a “life manager” to one of “life advisor”.
All humans have needs, and teenagers are no exception. As emerging adults, they are driven to becoming their own persons. Parents agree that they want their children to become responsible young adults. By helping them meet these basic but strong needs, parents can facilitate growth and move their teens down a path to success.