Parenting teenagers: relationships and behaviour
Karen Mountney asks what research can tell us about parenting teenagers to help inform voluntary and public sector agencies service planning.
Although calls to helplines indicate that parents of teenagers often struggle and feel isolated, particularly with behaviour and relationship issues, there are fewer organisations, parenting programmes and policy initiatives for parents of teenagers than those of younger children. However, the evidence explored in the About Families report, Parenting Teenagers, together with the volume of parent calls to helplines, suggests that this highlights a lack of services rather than need.
Most research is based on traditional, heterosexual, two-parent families. Although there are issues about parenting teenagers which resonate for all types of families, more research into a more diverse range of families and parents might be useful.
Children and families affected by disability are rarely the subject of research specifically about family issues, or included in research about families. Research tends to focus on disability itself rather than the experience of family life and relationships. About Families hopes to enable parenting professionals to provide services appropriate for all families and to help those working with families affected by disability to better understand the impact of the family context.
The following are the key themes that emerge from the research.
Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing and can play a useful role in teenagers' development. However, the type of conflict, who it is with and how often it happens, is important. Conflict with parents usually involves parents wishing to control teen behaviour and may not allow for teenagers to practise managing conflict. In contrast, conflict with friends usually involves some attempt to limit damage, to withdraw from conflict and to preserve the relationship. Conflict with friends can, therefore, help teenagers to learn about conflict management and to develop emotional responses.
If teenagers are involved in arguments between their parents, it does not mean that parents and teenagers are close. Teenagers are more likely to be drawn into arguments between their parents if conflict is continual and antagonistic. Also, if they feel threatened in some way by parents arguing they are more likely to involve themselves in an attempt to cope with their feelings.
Parents can contribute to reducing family conflict by managing their own behaviour and emotions.
Communication and relationships
Good parenting involves good communication and active listening. Teenagers who are communicated with and involved in family decisions are more competent in making decisions about their lives and less likely to engage in problem behaviour.
Although boys may appear less socially competent than girls, this does not mean that they do not value social skills; they approach them differently.
The personalities of both parents and teenagers contribute to the quality and warmth of their relationship. How much control the parent tries to impose is more related to a teenager's than a parent's personality.
Appropriate levels of parental control may be different for different families depending on the amount of emotional and developmental support the teenager receives from their parents. When families are highly supportive of their teenager, maintaining high levels of parental control may be developmentally inappropriate, and teenagers may respond to this by engaging in problematic behaviour. However, if there is less support, control can have a positive effect on a teenager's wellbeing.
Moving to independence
It is natural for parents to feel some anxiety as teenagers become more independent. However, problems can arise if this anxiety makes them act in a way which is intrusive or inhibits a teenager's exploration of new environments and relationships. Parents may manage better when they can see becoming independent as a healthy part of adolescent development.
Parents are more likely to feel rejected by separation and respond negatively if they are overly anxious; are less able to view themselves as separate and independent from their children; and/or are not comfortable in close relationships. Less anxious parents see disagreement as reflecting growth toward independence and this is less likely to result in conflict.
How happy parents feel about their parenting is linked to how they view the development of their teenagers. Adolescence can be a positive time when parents can reassess children's capabilities as they mature. Parents who see increasing independence as an indication of competence are more likely to feel satisfied with their parenting. Parents of disabled teenagers report that seeing their teenager develop socially is a key factor in their parental satisfaction.
Parents, together or apart, find greatest satisfaction when they feel they are being supportive, view themselves as accepting, and affectionate towards their teenager, and see them acquiring qualities which they think reflect their successful parenting.
Mothers and fathers may contribute in different ways to parenting, but both parents are important.
Parents agreeing about how involved they are in parenting is more important than who does what or how much, even when they take traditional roles.
However, parents of disabled teenagers typically report that both partners are involved in all areas of their children's lives because they need to work as a team.
Fathers are less likely to seek parenting support and usually look to their partner for this. This is reflected in calls to ParentLine. Between 2007 and 2010, only 20% were from men. The only issue for which ParentLine receives more calls from men than women is contact with children following separation. It seems that male callers think they need a 'good reason' to call, often meaning they call when at crisis point.
Divorce and re-partnering
Following divorce, boys who are able to maintain some boundaries between their own feelings and those of their mother are less likely to be affected by their mother's negative comments about their father, even up to three years after the divorce.
A teenager's relationship with their father is not affected by their mother remarrying, whether or not they become close to their stepfather.
A relationship with a stepfather is more likely to be close if the teenager is already close to their mother. However, the relationship between a mother and teenager may become less close when the mother lives with another partner, but not necessarily if she marries him.
How much do parents know about their teenagers?
There are differences between mothers and fathers in how they find out about their children's lives. However, how much they know could be the result of what teenagers choose to tell them rather than what they try to find out.
Some parents of disabled teenagers rely on others, such as practitioners, to gain information because communication with their teenager can be limited by the disability.
Ensuring that a teenager feels comfortable about sharing information could be more effective in deterring them from problem behaviour than trying to control their activities. Such communication also means that the parent has more opportunity to offer advice.
Both teenagers and parents make judgements about what they think teenagers should tell their parents. These judgements are closely linked with areas in which they believe parents have authority. What teenagers actually tell their parents is closely linked to these beliefs. However, there can still be conflict about what information is shared and what is withheld, even when both parties say they want a close relationship.
Although some parents of disabled teenagers think that more detailed communication is necessary because of the nature of the disability, generally the issues are thought to be the same, regardless of disability.
Generally, parents think their teenagers should tell them more than teenagers think they should, and overestimate how much they are told.
Parents and teenagers use mobile phones to negotiate movements and curfews. Parents intrude on teenagers' independent time and activities more by using mobiles, but teenagers generally think this is outweighed by the extra freedom which being able to negotiate brings.
Parents of disabled teenagers who could use mobile phones rely particularly heavily on mobiles if they think that their teenager is more vulnerable because of their disability.
About Families supports voluntary and statutory sector organisations to develop evidence-based services to meet the changing needs of parents and families, including those with disabilities. The project is a partnership between the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, Parenting across Scotland and Capability Scotland. It is funded by the National Lottery through Big Lottery Fund.
* This article is a summarised version of a briefing produced by About Families.
About the author
Karen Mountney is project manager of About Families, a partnership which supports voluntary and statutory sector organisations to develop evidence-based services to meet the changing needs of parents and families. Previously, Karen was head of programme and practice development with Children in Scotland.
Mountney, K. (2001). Teenagers: relationships and behaviour. About Families.