Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

When Parents Conflict Over Their Adolescent

Adolescence creates more conflict with parents, and also between parents

It’s not just that parents tend to encounter more disagreement with their child when she or he enters adolescence, that more-argumentative age. They also tend to encounter more disagreement with each other about how to treat their teenager during a time when the young person is creating more separation from family, more opposition to parental authority, more differentiation from the child she or he used to be, more push for freedom to grow, and insisting on more privacy of personal life.

Detachment Parenting and letting go the adolescent is much harder than Attachment Parenting and holding on to the child. Part of that hardship of is figuring what, if anything they should do in responses to the teenage changes taking place.

“He doesn’t want to join in family activities anymore, what should we do?”

“It’s harder to get her to do the things we request, what should we do?”

“There are new interests that don’t appeal to us, what should we do?”

“The freedom we allow him is never enough, what should we do?”

“She won’t tell us what’s going on, what should we do?”

Now the parenting decisions get increasingly complicated because there is more danger from worldly exposure at stake. There are risks from greater freedom and weighing the young person’s capacity for assuming necessary responsibility for relative safety.

These decisions can become even more difficult when parents have very different operating styles. For example, consider a very common incompatibility described below–between a High Structure Parent and a High Flexible Parent.

The High Structure Parent strongly believes in being strict, clearly stating what is consistently wanted and expected. Rules are firm and to be obeyed. They should not be questioned and are not up for negotiation or change. They should be as respected as the authorities who made them for safety’s and responsibility’s sake. Any violations should have corrective consequences. The parent’s job is to make the rules stick to keep the adolescent on a sound track.

The High Flexible Parent strongly believes in being sensitive, willing to be accommodating to fit changing needs and special circumstances. Rules are guidelines that represent parental values and concerns, meant to provide adolescents with a framework to function in. This framework can be questioned and sometimes negotiated. The parent’s job is to keep communication open so family structure can be discussed and sometimes altered when there is growing adolescent need.

You can see how such different operating beliefs would encounter more disagreements when their child starts adolescence. Now issues of how much to demand of the young person, and how much to permit the young person, becomes increasingly problematic.

Of course, in the case of this particular contrast, each parent has an important piece of the puzzle. Structure is important for creating a system for constructive conduct the adolescent can be expected to follow. Structure holds the line. Flexibility is important for recognizing changing individual needs of the young person and exceptionality of circumstance. Flexibility adjusts the line.

Unfortunately, in the heat of argument, each parent can forget that the other partner has a worthwhile perspective to offer. Now they start “listening” with their minds already made up, using the time to organize further argument instead of attending to what the other person has to say. This is when one of three unhappy outcomes can occur: win/lose conflicts, unilateral decision making, and abandonment of responsibility.

Win/lose conflicts: Once operating styles harden in contrast to each other, conflicts over dealing with their adolescent can become more difficult to resolve. If disagreement becomes a battle for control, then win/lose contests between parents can be waged between opponents who feel right is on their side. This is a mutually losing proposition because when one parent finally prevails it is at the other’s expense, each painful encounter only causing them to grow further apart and more opposed. “We can't agree on anything!”

Unilateral decision making: Impatient or frustrated or discouraged with the struggle for resolution, either parent may elect to go their own way when it comes to dealing with their teenager, each presuming to speak for both. “I told him we were going to ground him until he did as he was told!” “I just decided we’d let her go because she was so unhappy being denied.”

Abandonment of responsibility: Weary of the arguing, one parent may angrily abandon some area of joint decision making to the other and let that partner parent alone. The field of adolescent battle is ceded to the other parent. “Since we can’t agree, you supervise the homework how you like. I’m out of it!”

When parental decision-making turn into contests for adult control, when parenting decisions are unilaterally being made on each side, or when one parent abandons some aspect of parenting to the other to escape the conflict, welfare of the marriage can endangered. In each case, their relationship suffers because partners cannot “marry” around a joint child raising decision both agree to support.

At worst, when mother and father are in un-reconciled opposition over the adolescent–about what is the matter, what to do, and if to get help–this ongoing tension can create acute emotional discomfort in the teenager who can blame her or himself as the source of parental discord, and has no good way to ease it. “It’s my fault my parents can’t get along!” Or the young person can exploit the division to their advantage. "I go to whichever parent I know will say 'yes,'" 

This is the cautionary point to remember. Any parenting decision about their teenager they face is only secondarily about the adolescent; it is primarily about the marriage. If they can’t keep together as parents, they are going to have a harder time keeping together as partners.

So what are parents to do, for example, when one is outspoken and hands on and the other is reserved and hands off? At issue is a shared concern for their middle school daughter who is acting less academically engaged at school, increasingly private about her social life, keeps more to herself at home, looks tired a lot, and acts more sullen and uncommunicative with them? In the way of addressing the concern, however, is a strong disagreement about whether or not to confront the teenager directly.

Although both parents agree that these recent changes indicate more unhappiness, the typically outspoken parent wants to confront the teenager with their concerns to make sure drug use is not involved, while the typically reserved parent wants to accept these changes as normal adolescent moodiness and not raise suspicions that could make bad feelings worse. To speak up or to shut up, that is the parenting question? How can they marry around a decision?

With difficulty, but if they are true to their marriage, it can be done. In this case, the solution they reach is a compromise: Delay but don’t deny. So they agree to pay closer attention over the next three weeks to see if signs of feeling troubled pass, no further trouble signs developing. Give a listen if opportunity arises. And if matters clear, they agree that it was just moodiness and let confronting go. If not, however, they agree to speak up and express concerns about whatever may be going on.

It is the alchemy of intimacy that is required: turning diversity into unity and not divisiveness. Now appreciating differences between them, and different points of view on their adolescent, can add breadth of perspective to their relationship; while working out a joint agreement can both support further unify the marriage.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: How Detachment Wears down Dependence between Parent and Adolescent

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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