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Six Adolescent Needs… Meet Them or Else

In no order of things is adolescence the simple time of life.

— Jean Erskine Stewart

Parents of a teenage boy watched their son walk out to the father's truck, get in, and drive off. “But I was firm with him,” said the husband to his disbelieving spouse. “I did better than last time. For a couple minutes there, I had him thinking he wasn't going to get the truck keys.”

How many times have you felt the same way as this frustrated father? It can be very difficult when trying to deal with an adolescent. Adolescence! The name alone can send chills up the backs of many parents. It may seem like just yesterday that you and your teenager had a great relationship. A relationship that didn't seem so confusing or frustrating. I’m not trying to imply that as your child moves into adolescence that everything is going to change and become terrible. Every child is unique and will respond to the teenage years differently. However, what I can guarantee is that things will change. During this period of change, what does your teen need? Plenty.

Psychologist, Dr. Bruce Narramore states in his excellent book, Parenting Teens, that teenagers have six basic needs which need to be fulfilled during adolescence in order to become healthy, well-adjusted adults. Let’s look at each one.

  1. Develop their own distinct identity and a sense of their uniqueness and individuality. As parents or other adults who impact teenagers, we can have a tremendous influence on their identity or self-esteem. By identity, I mean the way a teen feels about himself—positive or negative. There are some important things we can do as parents to help increase a teen’s identity. First, help identify areas of interest. Every teenager has a particular area of interest or areas where they excel. Whether it is in athletics, music, school, art, or ministry, help your teen to identify his area of competence. Second, provide praise and encouragement. It is vital that teenagers receive praise and encouragement from parents or other influential adults.
  2. Progressively separate themselves from their childhood dependency on their parents. Although a teen needs to separate from the family—especially mom and dad—the good news is that you can do something to help them during this transition. Get your son or daughter involved with a “mentor.” A mentor is a person that God provides your teens at various stages and for various purposes, who are committed to helping them grow into Godly men and women. A mentor can be a powerful force as teens develop convictions because “outside instruction” can make a special impression on their lives. I’m not suggesting that your words no longer have an impact. Instead, teenagers seem more motivated to listen to those outside the family. Like the other great mysteries in life, it can be quite confusing why teenagers don't seem to grasp certain concepts when they originate from a parent’s mouth. Regardless of the reason, we can take advantage of this mystical situation. Through involving a mentor you can take advantage of the fact that teenagers seem more open to the advice from outsiders.
  3. Develop meaningful relationships with peers and others outside the family. As you may have already discovered, teenagers enjoy spending exceedingly more time away from home than they did at younger ages. Hanging out together, going to the mall, having sleep-overs, talking with friends on the telephone are activities that seem to automatically increase when a child becomes a teenager. Your adolescent's new found peer group is important in order to satisfy their need for companionship and fun, along with emotional support, understanding and intimacy. Although they still need these things from their families and other adults, it's vital in their development to receive these things from friends as well.
  4. Crystallize their sexuality identity and develop their capacity to relate well to the opposite sex. It would probably be an understatement to say that dating is an important part of a teenager's life. In one study, researchers found that high school students consistently rated the time spent alone with an opposite-sex partner as the time when they were happiest and most satisfied with life (Narramore, 1992). What can we do specifically to assist teenagers in making a decision about dating? Develop a dating contract. Having a written contract helps take the pressure off guessing when a teen is ready to date. It's impossible to say that someone is ready to date at a specific age. Instead, dating readiness should be the result of a teenager displaying certain internal character qualities like honor, integrity, responsibility and resistance to peer pressure, to name a few. The dating contract can provide the family with accountability, fairness, clarity, security and togetherness.
  5. Gain the confidence and skills to prepare for a career, economic independency, and other adult responsibilities. Not only is it important to encourage teenagers in the areas that they have interest, but it is also necessary to teach them real skills. The straightforward teaching of skills to adolescents often results in increased achievement and, thus, in enhanced self-esteem. In other words, the more skills a teenager acquires (e.g., how to cook, change the oil, fix something broken, or build something), the better he will feel about himself. My dad routinely had me assist him when working around the house. As a result, I felt competent went something needed to be fixed at home and he was unavailable.
  6. Fashion their faith and value commitments and basic attitude toward life. In a survey I did to over 5,000 adults, we asked the question, “How did your parents help you develop your own spiritual convictions?” Overwhelmingly, the number one response was: Church attendance. I never imagined this would be answer. The significance is that church is an important way to help your teenagers to foster ownership of their spiritual convictions.

As a parent, what can we do to assist your teen as he or she masters these six important needs? You must make time when your teenagers need it—watching for teachable moments. Teens might go a whole day without seeking our help. But as Dr. Ross Campbell explains in his book, How to Really Love Your Teenager, teens have something like a “container” built within them and every once in a while they run out of “emotional gas.” This is when they come up and need to be close to us. They need touching, listening, understanding, and our time. When they come to us, we must be careful what we communicate. If we say, “Not now, I'm busy,” they'll observe what we are doing and compare their importance to it. At times we can drop what we're doing, because our teenager is simply more important. It's helpful to remember that most teens don't expect their parents to give up all of their activities just so that they are always available. But young people need to see that these activities are not as valuable as they are to their parents.

After we have filled their “emotional gas tank” they usually are off to be with their friends. Maybe we haven't explained everything we wanted to say, but they're filled up. And that's okay. A teenager needs to know that he's valuable and that his parents are available at times when he needs them. But he also needs to see that it's okay to want peer group friendships as well.


Campbell, R. (2003). How to really love your teen. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.

Narramore, B., & Lewis, C. L. (1992). Parenting teens. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishing.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
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Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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