|PARENT CHILD RELATIONS - Online
School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
NOTES ON PARENTING ADOLESCENTS
To accompany Chapter 3
I have often felt that one of the reasons children are so cute and endearing when they are little is so that later on when they are teenagers and are driving us crazy, we parents can remember just how endearing they were. In the past, in my parenting classes, I have sometimes shown students a picture of the adorable, cherubic little face of a baby and ask how many of them find the picture appealing and think they'd like to have a baby one day. Most everyone raises his or her hand. I then show them a picture of a scowling, rumpled teenager standing in a messy bedroom with clothes and food all over and ask how many of them find that appealing. Not as many raise their hands. But as I am fond of pointing out - if they're going to fall in love with the idea of that sweet little baby, a few short years later that child may be a messy, chore-avoiding, rebellious adolescent, and they'll have to love that idea too!
In these notes, we will examine some of the developmental tasks of adolescence, some of the concerns and worries that adolescents and their parents have, and parenting methods that do and don't work when raising teenagers.
Developmental Tasks of Adolescents
Erikson's research pointed out the following developmental tasks with regard to adolescents:
1) Developing an ego identity - For adolescents, the predominant social setting is their peer group and outgroups (people at work, extracurricular activities, etc.). Adolescence is a time when children are moving from being very dependent on their parents to becoming more and more independent. Their bodies are changing, they are groping with romantic involvement, thinking about their future job or career. They are asking themselves questions like "Who am I?" "Where do I fit in the world?" "What do I want to do with my life?" Often they will try on different personas in their search for identity. I remember when my son was a teenager, it seemed like every week he was listening to a different type of music (one week rap, the next week country, the next hip hop) and getting involved in different activities (basketball seemed to be the one constant, but there were many other activities too). He also developed a wide variety of friends. He was my kid who always pushed the envelope on behavior (and gave me all my gray hairs!), and I worried about him a lot, but my saving grace was that he had a solid value system that kicked in before things ever went too far. He tried on a lot of different hats before moving into adulthood and becoming settled into his life This is fairly typical of teenagers. Erikson felt it was important for adolescents to develop a centered identity rather than a negative identity.
2) Moving toward independence. This is a tough one for some parents. Much as parents want their children to grow up and become adults, they sometimes have difficulty letting go and not being in control of every aspect of their teen's life. If parents have given their children opportunities to make choices and have varied experiences during their childhoods, it is easier for those children to make appropriate choices when they become teenagers. Teenagers will make mistakes and fail occasionally, but parents need to let them do some things on their own, giving more and more freedom as they move toward adulthood. It is important for parents and teens to have an understanding that freedom is a privilege and if it's abused, it can be curtailed. When my own kids were teenagers, I increasingly gave them more freedom (later curfews, not as much monitoring), but we also discussed what the boundaries were. One of my rules was that if they were at someone's house and they decided to go to someone else's house, they had to call, no matter what. My daughter used to grumble about this, but always made the phone call. I think she secretly liked the idea, but would never in a million years say so. I tried to make sure that my kids also knew that we were operating out of a sense of mutual respect. As long as they respected the rules and me, they got to have their privileges. But if they abused the privilege or disrespected me, the privilege would be taken away. Did they ever misbehave? Sure. Did they ever give me a bogus story? I imagine they did. But by and large the system worked, and we managed to get through their teenage years pretty much unscathed (I do have the gray hairs and wrinkles, however!).
3) Moving toward different, more mature relationship with family members. Some of the squabbles and arguments they had with their siblings when they were younger should naturally start to abate as adolescents move toward young adulthood. Kids who fought a lot when they were young and were competing for mom and dad's attention generally start becoming friendlier toward one another and establish more adult relationships with one another as they become adults. Also, arguments with parents over curfews and doing chores around the house should be decreasing.
4) Begin thinking about their future job or college choice. As teens move closer to high school graduation, everyone seems to be asking them "What college are you going to?" "What are you going to major in in college?" "What sort of work do you plan to do?" It's as if one day they are a carefree adolescent and the next they are expected to have their entire adult life mapped out. While they may not have their lives planned out as soon as high school is over, it is developmentally expected that they will begin thinking about the sort of work they'd like to do or the career they'd like to have. It is important for teens to know that plans made at 18 years of age aren't written in stone. And it's perfectly normal to have a plan in place, but make changes as they go through college or move through their first "real" job.
5) Developing a romantic involvement. As they are getting older and moving toward young adulthood, it is natural for teens to start having romantic, loving feelings toward another person. Some teens start dating or even having a steady boy or girlfriend very early (13 or 14), while other teens don’t really date much or have a steady boy or girlfriend till much later. It is easier for teens to have a healthy romantic relationship if they have been able to develop good solid friendships during their childhoods. Those abilities that are developed by being involved in close friendships are ones that also play a role in romantic relationships. Showing interest in another person, doing things they like to do, finding enjoyment in activities done together – all these are important aspects of a first romantic relationship. Parents should keep in mind that while they may be thinking of their teen's first romantic relationship as temporary or fleeting or be amused by it, their teenager is most likely viewing it very seriously. It is possible to be genuinely in love with someone when you're an adolescent, and if the relationship breaks up or
has difficulties associated with it, it is every bit as real to the adolescent as it would be to an adult.
6) Manage sexuality in a responsible way. It is common knowledge that most teens become sexually active at some point during adolescence. Parents need to discuss with their adolescent their own values regarding sexuality and also be aware of their adolescent's attitude toward sexual issues. It is difficult sometimes for parents who feel strongly that they don't want their teen to have sexual relations to realize that their child may go ahead and have sexual relations anyway. There are many problems that teenagers can experience as a result of unprotected sex, such as pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, and they need to be aware of contraception options. Parents and teenagers need to discuss these topics and be clear on the fact that if teenagers are going to engage in adult behavior with regard to sexuality, they need to also engage in responsible adult behavior with regard to preventing pregnancy or STDs. Parents should discuss the emotional aspects of sexual relationships with their teens also. Sometimes parents have “the talk” with their kids and cover the basics of sexuality but ignore the emotional aspects of sexuality. They should discuss with their teens ways to feel close and intimate with another person without having to have a sexual relationship.
Other developmental tasks associated with adolescence, according to Havighurst, are:
1) Accepting one's changing body. Adolescence is a time of physiological revolution. Teenagers' bodies are changing, sometimes in uncomfortable ways, and this can be difficult to deal with. Very often teenagers feel like they are all hands and feet, and to some extent, they are. Certain parts of the body, such as hands, feet and the nose, develop more rapidly than other parts of the body, and this can lead to feelings of awkwardness for teenagers. At some point adolescents need to come to terms with their changing bodies and accept the changes as evidence that they are moving toward a new maturity.
2) Achieving emotional independence from one's parents. As adolescents get to the point of finishing high school and moving off to college or into a job after graduation, they need to achieve some measure of physical and emotional independence from parents. While most teenagers do some grumbling about parents' rules and curfews, there is some security in knowing that parents are there as a sort of "safety net" if problems arise. Moving into young adulthood and becoming emotionally independent from one's parents includes being able to handle situations on one's own and make decisions that are
independent from other people’s. Part of the parents' role here is to facilitate that "breaking away" that the adolescent needs to do and not try to have complete control over the teen's life and not try to cling to their teen and keep the teen dependent on the
3) Acquiring a set of values that will guide one's behavior. Throughout childhood and adolescence, parents are influencing their children's values, through their own attitudes and behaviors. These influences, along with other environmental influences, help adolescents formulate their own value system. All of us have our own value system, which helps guide our behavior and how we handle ourselves in various situations. Toward the end of adolescence, the young person should be thinking about what sort of life they want to live and how they will go about making that happen. If they have had positive role models, opportunities to deal with a variety of situations and make decisions, and deal with successes and failures in an appropriate way, they are well on their way to being morally and socially responsible adults.
4) Engaging in socially responsive behavior. Most parents spend a great deal of time trying to instill in their children the rules of society - common courtesies, how to treat other people's property, how to make appropriate decisions - with the hope that their children will behave in a socially responsible way. It is somewhat expected that adolescence is a time for concentration on self, but as the adolescent moves into young adulthood, that selfishness should be abating and be replaced by more concern for others and ability to widen one's horizons beyond just one's own concerns.
Concerns and Worries of Adolescents
Adolescence is a time when kids want to appear sure of themselves and very together and fit in with their peers. The reality, however, is that every teenager has concerns and worries that are associated with being an adolescent. Studies have shown that many of the following are concerns that adolescents have.
1) Anxiety about handling awkward situations. Teenagers don't want to appear unsure of themselves. One characteristic of adolescence is feeling that "everyone is looking at me." It can be mortifying for the adolescent to do something silly or embarrassing in front of others. Kids can be pretty merciless with teasing. Parents can help here by being supportive when their teen is having difficulties with awkwardness and try to help the teen keep the situation in perspective.
2) Occasional mild depression, moodiness
Mood swings are normal and to be expected for adolescents. Depression and mood swings need to be looked at in context, however. Teenagers with low self esteem, who have parents who are highly critical and rejecting and who live with much negativity are more likely to experience severe depression or engage in negative behaviors than teenagers whose parents are supportive and use an authoritative style of parenting. It is sometimes difficult to determine the difference between normal adolescent mood swings and depression. Parents need to be aware of what is happening with their teen and keep lines of communication open. If a teen is having a hard time with moodiness or depression, parents may want to look into professional help to help their teen deal with this.
3) Loneliness - While some people like to have lots of people around them and others are happy with just one or two close friends, the truth is that no one really wants to be left completely alone. Teenagers sometimes experience loneliness, much the same as adults do. It is important for teens to understand lonely feelings and develop ways to cope with them. Because adolescence is a time when the young person is naturally focused quite a lot on self, emotions and feelings are often magnified. For many people who are experiencing loneliness, it can be helpful to get involved in some sort of project or activity that focuses on or helps someone else. It is also important to note that sometimes the friends that an adolescent has may move on to interests that the teen doesn't share. This can cause loneliness and a feeling of being left out. Here again parents can be supportive of their teen when these feelings occur, and help them explore ways to not feel so lonely. It may be something as simple as thinking about and discussing what sort of interests the teen has that he or she may not have explored before and then encouraging and helping them to pursue those. One young man I know decided as a teenager to learn to play the guitar. He has often said that the guitar helped him over lots of lonely times and has provided him with countless hours of pleasure in his life. The important thing is for the adolescent to learn how to manage lonely or other unpleasant or unwelcome feelings.
4) Physical appearance - Most teenagers experience times when they are critical of the way they look. Early in adolescence, boys in particular have some awkward years, when they are shorter than the girls in their class, their hands and feet are growing more rapidly than the rest of their bodies, and their voices are changing. These things can cause the teenager to feel unattractive or awkward. Teenagers are sometimes embarrassed by the things their bodies do that they have no control over (pimples, unwanted erections). They also sometimes feel that they are the only person who experiences insecurities about their looks. It is important for teens to understand that any worries they have about their physical appearance are probably more noticeable to them than to others, and that a lot of physical change will occur in their bodies between the onset of puberty and their late teens. Basic hygiene is also important; parents should make sure that their teen has access to products they need in order to be clean and hygienic.
5) Desire for independence - As mentioned earlier, adolescence is that time when parents need to let go and give their teens more independence. As with toddlerhood, adolescence is a time when parents need to balance firmness with flexibility, control with letting go. There is nothing wrong with having a teenager having a curfew when they go out, and there is nothing wrong with parents having rules about where the teenager can go (parties only if adults will be there, for example). But parents need to be flexible enough to discuss with their teen changes in curfews and rules as their teen gets older and closer to young adulthood. One way teenagers learn to be more responsible in an adult way is to give them more responsibility for their lives.Later curfews and more privileges are in order as the teen moves through the teen years; if they abuse their privileges, then they can be curtailed. But when they handle themselves responsibly and appropriately, they should be allowed more and more independence.
6) Relationship problems - Adolescents take their romantic relationships just as seriously as adults. When they have problems with a boyfriend or girlfriend, it is as important to them as it would be to an older person. Parents need to recognize that and be supportive of their teens if they are going through a difficult time with a relationship. Sometimes a story from the parent's own life can be helpful if offered at the right time and in the right way. If relationship problems are happening because of sexual issues, parents need to ensure that their teen has access to information that they need in order to make appropriate sexual decisions for themselves.
7) Marital conflicts - Even though teenagers are more able than younger children to understand reasons for parents' marital conflicts and have the ability to keep things in perspective, it can still be very difficult for teens to deal with their parents' marital problems. When there is parental conflict in the home, or a situation where one parent moves away from the home, teenagers sometimes feel compelled to take on an adult role in the family. Marital conflicts often mean more responsibility for the adolescent and can cause much stress for the teen. When parents fight, teenagers worry. If there are marital conflicts, parents need to focus on the way their children are handling things, as well as dealing with their own personal problems. If parents are going through a contentious divorce, it is often a good idea for the family to go to some sort of family counseling. Children are often ignored during parental conflict, and adolescents often are ignored the most, as parents very often think of them as being old enough to deal with things on their own.
Concerns and Worries of Parents of Adolescents
1) Effect of peer pressure on their kids. While parents and their behaviors have a great deal of influence on adolescents, peers and their behavior also have a strong impact on teens. Research has shown that the strongest influence on whether or not a teen uses drugs is the teen's peers. As mentioned earlier, teens need to fit in with their peer group; sometimes engaging in risky behaviors is the way to be "one of the crowd." It takes a very strong-willed adolescent to resist peer pressure. Parents realize this and worry about what happens when their teens are with friends.
2) Parent-child communication. It is natural for adolescents to become more private and guarded with parents as they move through their teens. Parents very often complain that one day they had this pre-adolescent who was talkative and filled them in on things and the next day had a teenager who never talked to them and wouldn't communicate about anything. Parents need to keep in mind that this is not generally a personal thing; it is simply the nature of adolescence. Even though teenagers can be uncommunicative with parents, parents should still take opportunities to talk with their teenager, and even more important, listen to their teen when the teen does talk with them. Sometimes parents complain that their teenager never talks to them, but when the teen actually does sit down to talk with the parent, the parent goes into "lecture mode" or ends up doing more talking than the teen.
3) Worry over how much control they should have over their kids and how much independence is appropriate. As mentioned earlier, adolescence is similar to toddlerhood in this regard. It is always a balancing game and one that parents struggle with. Parents should discuss together (even parents who are not married) what their values and goals are regarding their adolescent. Using that information as a guide, they can decide how much independence is appropriate for their child. We often talk about "consistency" in parenting, and this makes us think that we need to do the exact same thing for each child.
Consistency, in my mind, has always meant being consistently "fair" with each child; it doesn't mean that each child will be treated exactly the same. For example, if one child needed a new pair of shoes, but the other children in the family didn't, it wouldn't make sense to buy everybody a new pair of shoes, just to be fair (the next month, one of the other kids may need a new coat but the others would not). Similarly, if one child obeys their curfew and follows the rules when out with friends, parents may be willing to discuss a later curfew or offering more privileges as a reward for that behavior. If one of the other children in the family regularly comes in later than curfew and doesn't follow the rules when out with friends, that child may have privileges curtailed. This is not being inconsistent; it is simply enforcing the same rules for everyone. It is important, though, for parents to keep in mind their own beliefs and values when looking at control and independence issues. It is also important for parents to discuss with each child why they have a curfew, why it is the time it is, what happens when the rules are broken, etc. Teens are capable of reason, and discussing with the teen why these things are in place is helpful for the teen in understanding their parents. Of course, it is important for parents to listen to their teen when he or she is discussing or explaining an issue.
4) As adolescents are moving excitedly toward adulthood, parents are approaching or are in middle age, which can be a time of frustration, appraisal, examination of their lives. As mom is moving closer to middle age and menopause, daughters are on the brink of young womanhood and see their lives in front of them. Similar feelings can be happening with men and their sons.
Sources of Conflict in Families with Adolescents
1) Parents have higher expectations of adolescents following puberty. There are expectations of more adult-like behavior, but the adolescent may still be behaving childishly. This can cause conflict.
2) Adolescents generally are more moody and less compliant than younger children. Teens more likely to talk back and act rebellious about chores, homework, etc. Sometimes parents complain that the only time their teens talk to them is to argue and talk back. It is also true that sometimes parents and teens escalate situations by reacting to what each other says rather than trying to actually have a conversation. Sometimes parents need to take a new or different approach with their teens when they get moodiness or noncompliance from them.
3) Reflecting cognitive advances, adolescents are more likely to question their parents' decisions. It is a paradox that many parents say they want their teens to have minds of their own and not go along with everything they hear or see, but then become upset when their teens question or discount their parents' beliefs and values. Rather than getting upset with teens when they make disparaging remarks about an issue or topic the parent feels strongly about, the parent should ask the teen questions and try to have an intelligent discussion about the issue. This is an area again where parents often just react to what their teen say rather than listen to the words and try to have some understanding of their child.
4) Adolescents want more say regarding decisions that they believe are personal. This is similar to the idea that teens want more independence. They sometimes don't realize that decisions that they think are completely personal may have an effect on others around them. Open discussion between parent and teen is important to come to some understanding.
5) Inflexible, punitive parents provoke greater resistance from their adolescent children. Much research has shown that parents who use authoritative, democratic methods of parenting have better relations and are more effective as parents than those who are authoritarian and punitive.
6) Adolescents are trying to separate emotionally from their parents. As mentioned earlier, this is a difficult issue for many parents. They know their kids will grow up and not need them as much, but it is hard for some parents to accept this. When I was very young, my cousin, at the age of 17, married her boyfriend, who was in the army at the time. Her mom, who couldn't bear for her daughter to move away, left her own home and moved to the same town that her daughter and son-in-law had to move to because of military obligations. She subsequently moved every time they did, primarily because she could not let go of her daughter and needed to keep her close and dependent, even though she was a married woman and, technically, an adult. This behavior led to problems in the girl's marriage, problems between the mother and son-in-law and problems between the mother and daughter. I have known other parents who had trouble separating emotionally from their children. Since the natural inclination for teenagers is to be moving toward both physical and emotional independence from parents, conflict can result when that independence is hindered. Parents may worry that as their child grows up and becomes more independent, the relationship between parent and child will not be as important. But in fact, what tends to happen is that the relationship changes to a different kind of relationship, more of an adult-to-adult relationship. And that new relationship can be even closer and deeper than when the child was younger.
7) Privacy issues. Adolescents deserve to have their privacy respected. Parents sometimes need to know things about their teenagers for the teen's own sake. These two ideas can result in conflict between parents and teenagers. Adolescents will generally say that parents should NEVER go through their stuff. Parents will very often say that they have a right to go through their teen's stuff. Obviously this can lead to conflict. Generally speaking, parents should respect their teen's privacy and not go through their teen's things without the teen's knowledge. That said, if parents have a strong suspicion or there is evidence that their teen is engaging in dangerous or unsafe behavior, parents may have to go through some of their teen's things. This is another one of those situations where it is a good idea for parents and teens to talk periodically about what the rules are and what rights and privileges each have.
8) Differing views of what constitutes acceptable behavior. Mom and dad don't want their teenage daughter engaging in sexual relations; their daughter has a steady boyfriend and feels that what she does with her body is her business. This situation is a prime candidate for conflict between parents and teen. Without sounding completely like a broken record, it must be said here again that is it important for parents and their teens to discuss values and behaviors and come to some understanding While most parents say they don't want their teens having sex, most parents also say that if their teens are going to have sex, they would want them to be informed and want them to use contraception.
9) Conflicts over everyday, mundane things - doing chores, getting along with siblings, appearances, doing homework. These are normal, everyday conflicts and a household probably wouldn't be normal if there wasn't some of this. As teenagers move closer to young adulthood, however, these types of conflicts should be lessening.
10) Friends and dating partners. Sometimes a parent doesn't like the people their teen is dating or has friendships with. Their reaction is often to state their dislike of the person and insist that their teen not date or be friends with that person. It's generally agreed that a better approach is to try to get to know that person better, perhaps by inviting them to a family dinner, or making them welcome at the home after school. When parents state their dislike of or criticize one of their teen's friends, the teen feels compelled to defend that person. The person can even take on more importance in their eyes. Better that the parents try to learn what the attraction is for their child instead of criticizing. If parents know of unsafe or inappropriate behavior on the part of the friend (and the key word here is "know"; unsubstantiated rumors are something different), they should have a discussion of this with their own teen and find out more information. But when parents demand that their teen stop dating or seeing someone, this very often backfires.
Parenting Methods that Don't Work with Adolescents
Parenting Methods that Do Work
1) Anticipating changes that are going to occur and being prepared for them.
2) Providing mutual support within the family and a sense of belonging while allowing increased autonomy to the adolescent results in the fewest parent-child conflicts.
3) Using reasonable parental supervision rather than punitive parental control.
4) Not taking everything personally.
5) Having a clear understanding of the developmental stage of adolescence.
Developmental Stage - Formal Operations
Piaget classifies the developmental stages during adolescence as the formal operations period. During this period of cognitive development, the following is characteristic of how adolescents think.
Risk taking behaviors - use of drugs, sexual practices, reckless driving, use of weapons, suicide, violent behavior. Very often alcohol is involved in risk taking behaviors. Baumrind suggests that we should concentrate efforts on dealing with problem drinking because of its influence on risk taking behaviors. Teens don't have the cognitive maturity to realistically assess the risks involved in their behaviors.
Guidelines for Parents on Living with and Raising Adolescents
1) Practice the authoritative parenting style.
2) Try to be emotionally available and accepting.
3) Use the least controlling strategy that works.
4) Be willing to negotiate and compromise.
5) Keep open the lines of communication (don't close down emotionally, even when they do).
6) Validate negative and embarrassing feelings.
7) Encourage independent thinking.
8) Respect adolescents' point of view, even if you don't agree with it.
9) Explain your point of view, giving good reasons for your decisions.
10) Show interest but respect their desire for privacy as you would an adult's.
11) Important parental message to adolescent: trust is earned through good judgment and responsible behavior.
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