Domestic Intelligence

From surly teens to tough mothers-in-law, how to understand what's going on in your family.

Teens and parents in conflict

Why does my teenager want to fight with me?
"There's no point in talking to you: you don't understand me. You don't even know me."

A teen spits these words at a parent, who is hurt and outraged. How can her own child say these things? She's worked hard to know her own child, learning to read his feelings from voice and gesture, learning to place his words in the context of his day-to-day life. How can her own child now say to her, "You don't know who I really am."

Nothing shakes a parent's confidence as much as the onset of a son's or daughter's adolescence. The communication that flowed easily, with words, glances and touch, becomes a minefield. Judith says that her once affectionate daughter is now, at 14, surly and guarded, with "porcupine-like spines that bristle whenever I get near her". Pat says that his 15-year-old son Greg "gives off hate rays the minute I step into the room. His response to everything I say is a groan. Sometimes I get furious, but mostly he manages to make me as unhappy as he seems to be."

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Recent discoveries that the human brain undergoes specific and dramatic development during adolescence (with the frontal lobes - which allow us to organize sequences of actions, think ahead and control impulses - bulking up in early adolescence before gradually shrinking back) offer new physiological "explanations" of teen behavior, particularly of their impulsiveness. At the bulking stage, there may be too many synapses for the brain to work efficiently; the mental capacity for decision-making, judgement and control is not mature until the age of twenty-four. But no underlying physiology explains the teens' experience of parents.

Nor do raging hormones - an older style "explanation" - account for the apparently irrational moodiness of teens. Though hormones play a role in human feelings, the real task of adolescence, and the real cause of turbulence, is the teen's own uncertainty about who he is, alongside his eager need to establish a sense of identity.

This involves self-questioning and self-discovery and self-development across a range of issues, including gender, faith, intellect and relationship. A sense of who we are is not a mere luxury; we need it to feel alive. Without it, we feel worthlessness. A teen often looks upon peers as models: "I don't know who I am, but I know who he is, so I'll be like him," is the underlying thought. Parents become mirrors: teens want that mirror to reflect back to them the vividness and clarity they themselves do not feel.

Arguments with parents can often be understood in this context. While those common teenager/parent quarrels, which explode every few days, are, at a superficial level, about curfews, homework, housework, and respect, a teenager's real focus is on a parent's acknowledgement of his maturity and capability and human value. "No, you can't go out tonight," cuases more than a glitch in a teen's social diary; it implies that a parent doesn't trust him to make his own decisions. And, in a teen's eyes, that's not only unfair; it's humiliating. Even apparently minor exchanges can trigger major reactions, making a parent feel that "everything I say is wrong!" A parent asks a checking-up question, and the teen feels like a little child again. "Have you got your keys?" and, "Do you have enough money for the bus?" are loaded with the implication, "You're not able to look after yourself." These questions would be easily tolerated if uttered by a concerned friend, but from a parent they pinch on a teen's own doubts. Feeling threatened by the kid who can't remember to take his lunch, his keys or his money, he blames the parent for reminding him of the child-self still residing within him.

It is no wonder, then, that teens can be quick to reject the embraces and endearments that were once daily currency in his life with a parent. "Oh, come on," a teen protests as a parent gives him a good-morning hug: a parent may interpret this as a stinging rejection of their entire relationship, but the teen is simply acting out his ambivalence: he feels trapped both by the comfort he is inclined to experience from a parent's hug and by his wish to expel the previous child-self who welcomes the comfort.

Teens get so heated in arguments with parents because so much is at stake: they are fighting to change their relationship with a parent, to make a parent see that they are not the child the parent thinks she knows. They want to shake a parent into an awareness of the new and exciting person they hope to become. Quiet conversations, as opposed to quarrels, do not do justice to the drama of the teens' feelings. In argument, you push yourself and the person you are arguing with, into what Annie Rogers calls "a rawness of feeling, where you say more than you otherwise would."

Perversely, teens expect the parent to appreciate who they have become, even before they know. Therefore, in the emotional exposure of quarrels with parents, teens clarify and demand recognition for the new person they see themselves to be - or on the way to being. The arguments can put the entire family into a spin as each parent has a different interpretation of "the problem", and siblings complain that their parents are "dense" as they fail to understand the teen's outbursts.

What my research, reassuringly, shows, is that quarrelling with your teen doesn't necessarily mean you have a bad relationship. The quality of a parent/teen bond has several measures: there is the comfort of simply being together, the willingness to share a range of daily experiences and to express a range of feelings - happiness as well as their unhappiness. Some parents and teens who engage in frequent arguments have, by these measures, a good relationship: what matters is that a quarrel doesn't end with two people simply brooding over their own anger. What a teen is aiming for, after all, is to gain recognition and new respect for the parents he still loves.

a version of this piece appeared in Psycholgies magazine

Terri Apter, Ph.D., is Senior Tutor at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is Difficult Mothers. (2012)

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