Given that peers become so important to young adolescents, what is the role of adults, especially parents, in adolescents’ lives? A brief history of perspectives on adolescent development may be useful here. Early psychoanalytic writers described this period as one of conflict between parents and their teens that is sparked by the reemergence of latent sexual impulses as the child reaches puberty (Freud, 1958). The classic interpretation is that the young adolescent’s emotional attachments become sexualized and need to be redirected to agemates. In this view, the child’s press for autonomy creates conflict with the parents but is seen as normal and necessary. Neopsychoanalytic views have become more moderate over time (e.g., Blos, 1975), but still assume that the child’s cognitive and affective detachment from parents is to be expected in the service of autonomy. Erikson’s (1968) view of adolescence as a “normative crisis” supports this as a time of potential upheaval. The early psychoanalytic tradition framed the typical parent–adolescent relationship as a struggle, with teens trying to pull away from parents to the point of rebellion. Prescriptions for appropriate parental behavior often focused on the child’s legitimate need to break away and the parents’ responsibility to “let go” and allow their adolescents to “be themselves.” Parents were advised to back off because teens must be free to explore with their peers to consolidate their identity.

In the 1970s and beyond, studies of adolescence contradicted earlier constructions based on psychoanalytic thought. They indicated that major transformations do occur in family relations as children pass through adolescence but that becoming more independent and personally responsible is not necessarily accompanied by emotional detachment from parents (e.g., Hill & Holmbeck, 1986). Offer (1969) reported that roughly two thirds of teens experienced adolescence as a tranquil period or at least experienced only minor conflicts with parents. Montemayor (1983) reported that in typical families, teens and their parents argued on average twice a week, hardly a matter of great concern. A recent meta-analysis indicates that conflicts with parents occur most frequently in early adolescence. By middle adolescence, they begin to decline in frequency but tend to increase in intensity (Laursen, Coy, & Collins, 1998). Both adolescents and parents view some aspects of parental control to be quite legitimate. Parents can exercise authority over moral issues (like stealing and justice) or even issues governed by conventional rules (such as table manners), especially when conventional rules have prudential consequences (having to do with an individual’s health or safety; e.g., Smetana, 1995; Smetana & Gaines, 1999). It’s when parents impose rules on what their teens perceive as personal issues (like what you can say to a friend in an email, how you wear your hair, or what music you listen to) that conflicts are most likely to arise (e.g., Smetana & Daddis, 2002). For teens, gaining control over this personal domain is a way of establishing autonomy and therefore is an important identity issue.

Observers began to argue that if disagreements with parents center on relatively mundane issues like music and hairstyles, perhaps the storminess of relations between parents and adolescents has been overstated (Rutter, 1995). Parenting prescriptions began to include the implicit advice, “Don’t worry, things will work out fine.” As you might guess, things are not so simple.

Arnett (2000), for example, raises a word of caution. He suggests that conflicts over relatively minor matters are nonetheless stressful for both parents and children. He further warns that the “mundane” matters that adolescents argue with their parents about may not be as trivial as they seem. Rather, they

often concern issues such as when adolescents should begin dating and whom they should date, where they should be allowed to go, and how late they should stay out. All of these issues can serve as proxies for arguments over more serious issues such as substance use, automobile driving safety, and sex. (p. 320)

In other words, some of the behaviors that adolescents categorize as “personal,” their parents probably see as “prudential/conventional” because the behaviors have potentially serious consequences for a teen’s future (see Hasebe, Nucci, & Nucci, 2004; Smetana & Daddis, 2002).

Yet the notion that parents should “let go” and that they should “not worry” seem to have permeated contemporary American culture. Paradoxically, warning signals that adolescents today face greater pressures and dangers than they have in the past are sounding in both the scientific and popular press. The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development in 1996 described the risks facing young adolescents: “Altogether, nearly half of American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances. The damage may be near term and vivid, or it may be delayed, like a time bomb set in youth” (p. 2). Increasing risks were identified in physical health, in mental health, and in academic preparedness for children ages 10 to 14. Prevalence indicators from the 1980s and ’90s revealed rising rates of death by firearms; more child abuse and victimization; greater use of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes; higher suicide rates; decreasing age of first intercourse and thus increasing risk of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; and lower academic achievement, among other worrisome changes. Even though some of these trends have recently leveled off or been reversed, we still feel a combination of helplessness and desensitization when we read statistics such as these. How can we reconcile our assumptions of what young people need, and what adolescence should be like, with the realities of today? More specifically, how should we parent, how should we educate, how should we counsel and consult to meet the needs of contemporary adolescents?

Research on the family as one supportive context for adolescent development has been growing rapidly. Its theoretical framework rests upon Baumrind’s (e.g., 1971, 1978, 1991) studies of parenting styles, in which she identified two important dimensions of parental behavior, each of which is predictive of a particular constellation of child characteristics. First is parental warmth or responsiveness. Responsive parents seem to encourage their children’s self-acceptance, confidence, and assertiveness by being warm, involved, and accepting of their children’s needs and feelings. They take their children’s feelings and expressed needs seriously and are willing to explain their own actions, particularly when they impose limits on the child. The second dimension is parental control or demandingness. Demanding parents apparently foster self-discipline and achievement by making maturity demands on their children. They make and enforce rules, provide consistent supervision or parental monitoring, and confront their children when their behavior does not measure up. According to a large body of research by Baumrind and others, the most effective parenting style, authoritative parenting, combines high responsiveness and high demandingness. It is as if the key to parenting effectiveness is to blend the listening skills and empathy of a well-trained counselor with the firmness of a watchful vice-principal for discipline.

Treating responsiveness and demandingness as two distinct dimensions, three other categories of parenting style can be derived. Besides authoritative, there are authoritarian, permissive (also called indulgent), and neglecting (also called uninvolved or dismissive) styles (Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Authoritarian parents are low on responsiveness but high on demandingness. Permissive parents are high on responsiveness but low on demandingness, and neglecting or dismissive parents are essentially disengaged, scoring low on both dimensions. Baumrind (e.g., 1991) assessed the behavior of parents and their young adolescents and found that “authoritative parents put out exceptional effort . . . and their adolescents were exceptionally competent (mature, prosocial, high internal locus of control, low internalizing and externalizing problem behavior, low substance use)” (1993, p. 1308). In the large-scale study of 14- to 18-year-olds by Steinberg and his colleagues, parenting style was linked to four aspects of teens’ adjustment: psychosocial development, school achievement, internalized distress, and problem behavior. The children of authoritative parents scored best on the majority of these indicators, and those of neglectful parents scored worst (Lamborn et al., 1991). After 1 year, the adolescents’ adjustment status was reassessed. Parenting style was predictive of patterns of change over the year. For example, adolescents from authoritative homes showed increases in self-reliance, whereas other adolescents showed little change or, if they had neglectful parents, actually declined somewhat (Steinberg et al., 1994).

In general, research on parenting styles from as early as the 1940s (e.g., Baldwin, 1948) has produced results that are consistent with the large-scale studies of today, supporting the notion that both responsiveness and demandingness are beneficial. Overall, responsiveness seems more closely tied to adolescents’ self-confidence and social competence, and demandingness is more closely associated with “good” behavior and self-control. Recent work indicates that it can be useful to consider responsiveness as comprising separable factors: acceptance is being affectionate, praising the child, being involved in the child’s life, and accepting the child’s strengths and limitations, showing concern for the child’s needs, and it is correlated with children’s self-esteem and social adjustment. Democracy is the degree to which parents encourage children’s psychological autonomy by soliciting their opinions or encouraging self-expression, and it is most closely linked to children’s self-reliance, self-confidence, willingness to work hard, and general competence (Steinberg, 1990, 1996). Whether we construe there to be two or three primary dimensions of parenting style, few would deny that the parenting characteristics they comprise are highly desirable. But, relatively speaking, how powerful a role can such parental behaviors actually play by adolescence, when the influence of peers has been found to be so great?

An important key to answering this question is to recall, again, that multiple determinants interact to affect outcomes at every developmental stage. Let’s reconsider, for example, school achievement in the teen years. When authoritative parents involve themselves in their adolescents’ schooling by attending school programs, helping with course selection, and monitoring student progress, their children are more likely to achieve (Gutman, Sameroff, & Eccles, 2002; Mounts & Steinberg, 1995; Steinberg, Lamborn, Dornbusch et al., 1992). However, as we have seen, an adolescent’s crowd affiliation also impacts school achievement. Steinberg (1996) found that teens who began with similar academic records showed change over time in school performance consistent with their crowd membership, indicating the importance of peer influence despite parental efforts. But parents can affect crowd membership. First, characteristic behaviors of the child are probably important in determining crowd membership, and a child’s behaviors are associated with parenting style. Steinberg (1996) describes parenting as “launching” children on a trajectory through adolescence. That launching may directly influence what crowd a teenager joins. Mounts and Steinberg (1995) found that specific parenting practices, such as monitoring and encouraging achievement, were correlated with children’s choice of more academically oriented peers. Walker-Barnes and Mason (2001) found that urban parents who show high levels of monitoring and involvement have kids who tend to steer clear of joining delinquent groups or gangs.

But the availability of crowds is also important. If, for example, all crowds value high academic achievement, or if none do, the child’s trajectory with regard to school performance will be much less affected by authoritative parents who value academic excellence than if there is a diversity of crowds. Here is a clue to other ways in which parenting style may influence behavior. Steinberg proposes that authoritative parents, who are heavily involved in their children’s lives, may do things to help structure the child’s peer group options and thus indirectly affect achievement by affecting the accessibility of peers. Does the local high school have few, if any, academically oriented students? Parents may arrange for their children to go elsewhere; they might move, or put their children in private schools, or choose to home school. It is not uncommon for parents who live in dangerous environments to send their children to live for brief periods with relatives. Such behavior, of course, depends on income and on the availability of such options, but it also depends on parental involvement. Authoritative parents are invested parents, often making personal sacrifices to maintain their commitment to their view of good parenting (Greenberger & Goldberg, 1989).