Adolescence and the Powers of Parental Supervision

Although often tiresome for parents to do, supervision is valuable work

Posted Dec 02, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

During a child’s adolescence, giving adequate supervision becomes a challenging part of parenting. Supervision delivers three valuable services.  

  • It provides oversight to monitor what’s going on in the teenager’s life. 
  • It invests in an adequate pursuit to see that what needs doing gets done. 
  • It gives support when some need for assistance arises. 

The three support questions are: What’s going on?” “Did you do as requested?” “Are you in need of help?” Parental supervision can be resisted by the independent-minded teenager on all three counts. “It’s my business, not yours.” “I don’t need to be reminded.” “I can handle it myself.” 

Why would parental supervision be resisted? 

Think of it this way. As in organizational systems between superior and subordinate, so in family systems between parent and child/adolescent, supervision presumes a positional power difference between the overseeing and the overseen. “Your life is partly our responsibility.” “Our job is to get you to do yours.” “We don’t want you to get in over your head.”

While the superior has vested authority over and responsibility for prescribing the subordinate’s conduct; the subordinate is obliged to follow the superior’s directives and to live on her or his terms.  For the parent, this supervisory responsibility can feel unappreciated and exhausting; for the teenager, it can feel invasive and objectionable.  Some tensions from this inequity are unavoidable. 

Not only is supervision tiresome to give, but it is tiresome to receive. For example, in testimony to this dislike, both teenagers and parents often agree to give the same negative name to the pursuit function of this onerous activity, “nagging” they call it. 

“I hate having to constantly nag you,” complains the parent who, acting for the teenager’s best interests, is treated like they are acting against them. “I keep after you to get your homework done because your school performance is at stake!” 

“Well, I hate having you nag me all the time,” resents the teenager for having parents on her or his case all the time, which with constant supervision they often are. “I said I’d get it done, and I will – when I get around to it.”

Oversight and pursuit and support can feel like burdensome parental responsibilities (“I get so tired of having to keep track of you and keeping you on track”); while having to follow directions and fit in can feel like harassment to the adolescent (“Why can’t you just leave me alone”).

Because supervision can be exhausting to do (oversight takes attention, pursuit demands persistence, support requires helping out), with two parents in the family, it needs to be shared. Otherwise, a teenager will see the supervising parent as harder to get along with than the non-supervising parent. Now the relationship between parents is likely to suffer when this comparison takes hold. 

Oversight and pursuit and support are the principal names of this supervisory game that needs to play out over the course of parenting an adolescent.  

Oversight

Adolescence is typically an age when, protecting more freedom of privacy, the teenager becomes less openly forthcoming and honestly confiding to protect an increasingly important separate life. One function of parental oversight is to assure that by listening and asking and checking they are still kept in the know. The message: “We are not trying to pry, but we need to be told enough to evaluate what is happening and what is wise to do.” Supervisory oversight is given so parents can stay adequately and accurately informed.  

Pursuit

Adolescence is typically an age when, in pushing for more freedom of action, the teenager becomes more actively (with argument) and passively (with delay) resistant to parental authority. One function of parental pursuit is to use their insistence to wear this resistance down. The message: “We will stay on your case until you obey the rules and do as we asked.” A supervisory pursuit is an act of follow-through that shows parents mean what they say. Punishing for non-compliance or non-completion (although tempting for frustrated parents) is far less influential than their relentless supervision. "When my parents want me to do something, they won't quit until I get it done." 

Support

Adolescence is typically an exploratory and experimental age when older information is of increasing interest, more worldly experiences are sought, and more life management skills must be developed. There is much to learn, and when mistakes, mishaps, and setbacks occur, parental help is often required to emotionally recover and turn this trial and error education to constructive use. "What does this hard experience have to teach?" Parental supervisory support not only helps cope with hardships but also takes predictive responsibility by helping an impulsive young person connect present choices with future risks. "Before you go ahead, take a moment to consider what to watch out for."  The message: “Treat us like a second head upon your shoulders, we are always standing by to help you cope with hard experiences and figure out your way.” With this supervisory support, the teenager does not have to grow up going it alone.  

So, in the best of all possible experiences, looking back on parents during her or his adolescence, the young person can appreciatively say:

  • “I could tell my parents what they needed to know”
  • “They kept after me about what was important” 
  • “They were there whenever I needed help”

 When supervision is given, a job is well done.