Parent, Adolescent, and Who Knows Best?

Figuring out who knows best can be conflicting, cooperative, or collaborative

Posted Sep 09, 2013

As parents transition from attachment-parenting and more holding on during the childhood years (to instill trust in attachment for a secure dependence) to detachment-parenting and more letting go once adolescence begins (to encourage self-reliance for a strong independence) , the issue of authority is raised not just as a question of who is in charge, but of who knows best? In the spirit of newly felt independence, the adolescent has the answer: “Me!” In the spirit of responsibility, parents have the answer: “Us!” In fact, each side is partly correct.

Begin here. The 13-year-old knows best when it comes to permission to hang out at the local mall Saturday afternoon with his friends. “It’s just a cool place to socialize, that’s all. What’s the big deal?” Well, the parent also knows best about that. “There are risky things that might happen to you wandering a huge mall with your friends. There’s the crowd of older strangers some of whom may be up to no good, there’s what’s for sale not sold in the stores, and there’s trouble your friends could choose to get into like pocketing what they don’t pay for to see what can be gotten away with.”

Now disagreements arise. The adolescent knows best because adventure creates challenge and needed opportunity to grow. The parent also knows best because new exposure puts the teenager at the mercy of inexperience and ignorance. In this case a bargain was struck that honored some of what each knows best. The parent agreed to allow the social freedom with certain protections in place (stick with friends, no going along with dares, carry the phone turned on, call if need help, and be at the pick-up point on time.) The teenager agreed to abide the cautious conditions his parent set in exchange for freedom to go. During the early part of adolescence, much of deciding who knows best is reaching a working compromise between what parent and teenager differently believe.

In later adolescence, who knows best can take a somewhat different turn. Here, as part of letting go, the parent agrees to go along with what the teenager believes she knows best, even though the parent may disagree. So the ambitious high school sophomore, to keep up with her high achieving friends, pushes to take all accelerated classes, which the parent believes is pushing for too much, given the daughter’s academic history. Then along about mid-semester, the teenager is working herself to exhaustion, barely passing two of the classes and failing one. Disappointed in herself, she sadly switches down into two regular classes to ease the load and now makes academic headway again. In this case, the parent went with what the daughter knew was for the best knowing that if it wasn’t, the young woman would learn something important for herself. “Yes,” the daughter agreed, “that I’m a failure!” “No,” the parent disagreed. “You made a wise and courageous choice. Regretting having tried and failed is infinitely preferable than regretting never have tried and later wishing that you had.”

Sometimes parents need to fight the good fight for what they know best, and the “good fight” is one where they hang in there for what they think is in the teenager’s best interests while the young person strongly disagrees and then, unilaterally, goes her own way. Whereupon the parent admits defeat: “All right, you win, you do it your way which I don’t think is the best way, but may work out just fine, and I hope it does.” Thus, despite parental insistence on graduating from high school, a 17-year-old daughter is determined to withdraw after junior year “because there’s nothing more high school can do for me and I’m ready to move on.” “Move on?” asks the parent. “How is quitting before graduation, and not walking across the stage with your friends, moving on?” But the young woman has an answer. “I’ll still have my friends, but this way I can get my GED (General Equivalency Diploma), start taking classes at the community college, and then see where I want to go from there.” And, in fact, that is exactly what the young woman did. Later, transferring to a four year college, she was on her motivated way, in charge of her own life. “Which just does to show,” reflected the parent, “that even though I thought I knew best, she knew better what she was ready for than I did.”

And lastly consider the final stage of adolescence, trial independence (ages 19-23) when who knows best often takes a collaborative turn. Now parent and teenager have reached a point where each believes that in certain ways each other knows best. What the parent knows best is this: they know the adolescent very well since they have known him from birth and they have greater knowledge based on a longer life experience. What the adolescent knows best is the generational world in which he is growing up and he knows himself more intimately than does his parent. By collaborating, and pooling their collective wisdom about what each knows best, sometimes they can benefit from two of them being smarter than one of them.

For example, during the final stage of adolescence, trial independence (18-23), when parents move out of a management role with their teenager and into a mentoring one, the collaboration can be extremely powerful. Now the young person knows what he feels ready for and wants, but lacks the worldly experience to figure out how to make it happen, while parents have that know-how and offer it on request -- from financial to legal to problem solving of all kinds,  Now the parents respect the young person’s right and responsibility for making his own decisions and deciding what’s best, while he respects that they know best in some practical ways that can really be of help.

So who knows best? At different stages, at different times, they both do.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Resistance to Work