Parents: Let the Leash Out But Never Let Go!

risky behavior, teen parenting, decision makingThis guest post is by: Matthew Kuehlhorn is America’s Mentor for Teens.  He teaches the “Rules of the Road: Business, Finance, Life” and has created the Relationship Building System for Teens.  You can grab onto his 8-Step Online Relationship Guide by visiting

A post on why teens want independence until there are consequences.

The teenager’s brain is in an amazing stage of growth, pruning, and development.  New research is now coming out that supports the fact that this time of brain development is not unlike that which we experienced when we were two years old.  I borrowed this passage from the Science of Neurology Website,

Areas involved in planning and decision-making, including the prefrontal cortex — the cognitive or reasoning area of the brain important for controlling impulses and emotions — appear not to have yet reached adult dimension during the early twenties. The brain’s reward center, the ventral striatum, also is more active during adolescence than in adulthood, and the adolescent brain still is strengthening connections between its reasoning- and emotion-related regions.

In other terms, research shows that teenagers have a reward system that is very active.  This creates emotional swings and has many teenagers seeking “risky” behaviors.  Risky behaviors can be simply striving for independence and experiencing new activities.  This passage is also saying that our brain’s ability to plan and make decisions is not fully formed until our early-twenties.  (For gentlemen it is at least the mid-twenties and often later.)

This developmental period of life is when teenagers need to experience new activities, so they push for independence.  However, when something goes wrong because of poor planning and/or decision making, teenagers can easily revert to be the child and expect parents (rightfully so) to step in and help.

During this period of time, it is very important for parents to let the leash out, within reason, so teenagers can engage in healthy, risky behaviors and explore their independence.  However, teenagers are moving forward with the trust they have in you to hold the leash!  They need strong parents who care enough to not let go.

How can parents manage this balance?

Begin Early

Planning and decision making is a learnable skill.  Before your kids get to the teenager age, give them tasks that will help them develop their planning and decision making skills.  A great task is to give them part (eventually all) of your grocery shopping list.  They then have to plan and decide how to get the list into the cart.  With young pre-adolescents, start with three to five items and increase this as their proficiency does the same.  Then be sure to discuss the process after and/or during the task.

Seek a Mentor

I am a huge believer in mentors, as they have done wonders for me in my life.  There is a ton of research supporting mentoring relationships, and mentors are for everyone, not just “at-risk” youth.  Local organizations may exist in your community that can provide a great mentor.  However, depending on your intention and your teenager’s needs, you may be best off seeking a mentor with the help of your teenager.  Some guidelines to follow are to find someone that exemplifies the traits and lifestyle you AND your teen aspire to.  Find a mentor who is at least 15 years older than your teenager, and create an agreement between you, your teenager, and the mentor so expectations are outlined in detail.  Defining the expectations is very important for everyone involved.  Usually, one hour a week, consistently, will provide an enormous benefit for teenagers.

Let the Leash Out

Within reason, you have to let teenagers experience life and explore independence.  You can begin with very small tasks early on to determine and establish trust, and then you have to let the leash out farther and farther.  When doing this, set up and voice your expectations for communication.  In the preparation for some experience, talk with your teenager and “walk through” the experience.  Ask “what if” questions and have a conversation around the answers.  If you are having trouble getting your teenager to open up and talk about this, take them for a drive and get lost.  Sitting or facing each other face-to-face brings a more confrontational aspect to the dialog.  Sitting side-by-side and headed in the same direction will bring more honesty and more information to a conversation.

Never Let Go

Before you agree to let the leash out, you have to be comfortable with the potential consequences yourself.  Of course, you must help your teenager be accountable for whatever consequences arise and, at the same time, it is important you let your teenager know you are behind them.  Share your feelings, hold high expectations, and help your teenager find ways to “right” any wrongs and manage the consequences of their actions.


Matthew Kuehlhorn is America’s Mentor for Teens.  He teaches the “Rules of the Road: Business, Finance, Life” and has created the Relationship Building System for Teens.  You can grab onto his 8-Step Online Relationship Guide by visiting


Photo: ario_ from Flickr


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