Conflict between Parents and Adolescents

Adolescence is the transitional period that individuals go through between their childhood and when they become adults and can be characterised by important physical, psychological and social changes.

Adolescence has always been considered a conflictive stage of life (1) and it is undeniable that in adolescence there are conflicts produced by the changes mentioned above. However, even though one of the most troubling characteristics of adolescence has to do with family conflict, relationships between parents and adolescence are far from the battlefield shown in the media.

(1)The following quote is attributed to Socrates around the year 469-299 BCE: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company…”

So, in spite of the rise in conflict that usually goes along with adolescence, the majority of families overcome the initial complicated moments of puberty and primary youth and are able to form a new family balance that is beneficial for both parents and children.

But, why do most conflicts occur in this phase of life?

Some influential factors include:

  • Hormonal changes. Physical changes during adolescence caused by sexual hormones such as testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen also influence emotional states for adolescents. Therefore, continual changes in mood negatively affect their relationships with those around them.

    Also, when adolescents begin to be sexually active many parents are more inclined to be more restrictive and controlling regarding their friendships or when their children go out. This all happens at the same time that adolescents are looking to have more independence and often leads to confrontation.

  • Cognitive changes: formal operational thinking stage. This stage allows the adolescent to consider possible and hypothetical situations and realise that their reality is only a small part of what is possible.

    Smaller children tend to believe that things cannot be any different than how they are. In contrast, cognitive mechanisms are developed during adolescence that provide a better understanding of social and political ideas and they begin to understand that society could be different and is capable of change.

    This cognitive change enables them to be more critical of the rules and regulations set in place and more rebellious with people that force them to follow those rules—mostly parents and teachers. This may lead to an endless source of conflict typically: “why is it like this? This is so unfair!”

    Their new intellectual abilities also help them to form more solid and convincing arguments which may catch some parents by surprise leading them to feel annoyance and a loss of control typically saying: “who does that brat think they are? They think they know more than me?” In reality adolescents already know how to think like adults, they can argue and respond with counter arguments.

  • Emotional detachment from parents. For adolescents to gain independence, they need to emotionally disconnect from their parents which is made easier if they look for their faults. To do this, they begin to de-idolise their parents and substitute their old view for a more realistic view.

    This detachment is necessary for adolescents to create their own link to adulthood and “leave the nest” so to speak. This represents a sign of emotional maturity and the criticism that parents receive from their children should be taken as a rite of passage and not a personal attack.

    When small children see their parents as “super mums and super dads”, they do that to feel safe and grow calmly but the parents know that it is not reality but rather their childish idealisation. When children become adolescents they begin to realise that their idealisation is not the reality. This process of de-idealisation is a psychological phase necessary for adolescents and is made easier by looking for the faults in their parents.

  • Spending more time with peers. Adolescents experience more time with their peers and they make shared decisions. This influences them to expect that kind of relationship with their family members and is not always accepted by parents who are resistant to losing their authority.
  • Mid-life Crisis. Even though it is more common to only analyse the changes in adolescents, the systemic perspective analyses the family conflicts from the relationship with different family members. This is because the behaviour of one member of the family affects or is related to the entire family.

So, even though adolescent changes are the most relevant in families, the parents are also subject to change which commonly coincides with puberty when the parents reach the ages of 40-50. This period, which many authors have called a mid-life crisis, has been considered a difficult time which leads to meaningful changes for many adults and may involve an added strain on the relationships between parents and children during adolescence.

Conflicts during adolescence are not bad. According to longitudinal studies —studies that collect data about the same group of subjects at different times throughout their lives— which done in groups of 100 adolescents from 13 to 23, it has been confirmed that adolescents that stated they had more conflict with their parents at 13 were those that showed better psychological adjustment at the end of adolescence.

These studies indicate that conflicts between parents and children in adolescence are necessary for developing independence and for them to create their own identity and solid self-esteem.

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