Rethinking Parent-Teen Conflict
What if we told you that parent-teen conflict is not only an unavoidable part of parenting a teen, but also an important part of their development and your eventual adult relationship? A recent article by Susan Branje, published in Child Development Perspectives, seeks to summarize empirical data on parent-teen relationships to paint a comprehensive picture of why parent-adolescent conflict happens and how it shapes ongoing relationships.
According to Branje, adolescence is a time fraught with conflict for many reasons, but perhaps primarily because important developmental changes lead teens to seek more autonomy and independence, naturally changing the nature of the parent-child relationship. During the teen years, the parent-child relationship goes from being vertical (i.e., one person exerting control and autonomy over the other) to more horizontal (i.e., peer-to-peer). In the process of undergoing this change, the relationship is bound to experience some turbulence.
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These bumps in the road appear in the form of conflict, or as a loss of closeness. As teens — completely appropriately — seek to gain more autonomy and control over their lives, parents may disagree about the timelines for these independence milestones, primarily out of concerns about teens’ ability to self-regulate. And the gaps between teens’ expectations and their parents’ readiness to relinquish control are the spaces ripe for conflict.
However, Branje argues, these moments of conflict are actually key to the long-term health of the parent-child relationship, because it’s in these moments that the relationship gets reshaped to include more reciprocity and equality between the parties. Eventually, as parents reduce control and teens grow into adults, those opportunities for conflict decrease, and the relationship enters it’s horizontal paradigm. (In India, where this parental control sometimes continues far into adulthood, it’s not inconceivable for parent-child conflict might continue past adolescence.)
Interestingly, the data Branje compiles seem to indicate that parents and children with a history of closeness and a good relationship weather the adolescent conflict better; those with rocky relationships in the earlier years suffer more issues staying close through this transitional time.
And there’s little to be gained by parents exerting too much control over this period of kids’ development. Adolescents who have more conflicts with their parents exhibit more behavioral problems; lower levels of self-esteem, well-being, and adjustment to school; and more frequent substance use — all of which can lead to a potential vicious cycle of conflict, negative internalization, acting out, and then more conflict at home and elsewhere.
There are a few areas that parents can control, however, in this seemingly unavoidable period of clashes, the researchers say. First, the ability to express a variety of emotions during conflict leads to better outcomes: If parents and teens can have an argument, but also express other, pleasanter emotions about things that are positive in the relationship, the dynamic does not become defined by negativity. Furthermore, it’s imperative that parents and children actually express themselves, both regarding positive and negative feelings: A relationship where parents and teens only express the positive, but don’t ever learn to resolve conflict around the negative, does not lead to healthy relationship dynamic in the long term. Finally, the ability to switch between positive and negative emotions easily, and not rigidly hold grudges or allow conflict to define the entire relationship, is especially important.
The takeaway seems to be: parent-teen conflict is unavoidable as teens grow up, but how parents manage that conflict, and how much they’re able to temper the bad with the good, goes a long way in setting the foundation for a healthy relationship with these soon-to-be-adult children.
Need more help than that? Check our our guide on how to fight well with your teen.