Managing 3 R's of the Parent/Adolescent Relationship

For parent and teenager, getting along is more complicated than it used to be.

Posted Mar 07, 2016

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

The question amounted to this: “Why does the relationship with our teenager seem more complicated to manage than when she was a child?”

My response was: “The answer is in your question. With your teenager, several primary components in that relationship have in fact become more complicated to manage for her as well as you.  Now the more comfortable age of Attachment and Similarity Parenting a child comes to an end, and the more challenging age of Detachment and Diversity Parenting an adolescent begins.”

What follows is a longer blog than usual to describe an oversimplified model for a caring relationship in which both parties (in this case parent and teenager) must manage three major factors in play between them: The Three R’s -- Rewards, Responsibilities, and Risks. Take them one at a time.

Rewards

The first component is Rewards from what each party can give and get in the relationship that makes it feels satisfying and worthwhile. For example, between parent and child, giving and receiving expressions of affection, appreciation, and approval can be sources of mutual pleasure in the relationship. This exchange is part of what makes the close attachment and shared similarity of childhood such a magical age for both parties.  

To some degree, the giving and getting of these rewards tends to diminish in frequency when the growing detachment and diversity of adolescence begins.  As the teenager starts pulling away, pushing against, and getting around parental authority, and differentiating for more expressions of individuality, he can become less welcoming of physical affection, less appreciative of parental efforts, less approving of their rules and restraints, and can fit into family less well.

Finding the relationship less rewarding than it was, on their side parents can feel rejected, less respected, and taken for granted, which is when they can become less rewarding to live with for the adolescent. “My parents used to be so happy and so much fun to live with, but now they’re always dissatisfied, critical, worried, and tense.” To some degree, the cozy closeness and compatibility of childhood is missed by both. As the relationship becomes less traditionally rewarding and sometimes more strained, it can be more challenging to enjoy each other’s company.

Of course, if rewards where all a caring relationship was about, maintaining shared contentment would be simply a matter of finding ways to mutually increase this positive exchange in older, age-appropriate ways. This is certainly an important effort for both to make, but it is insufficient. After all, there is no free-love (all rewards) caring relationship. There is always the expense of joint Responsibility to pay.

Responsibilities

So the second component is Responsibilities for each party in the form of sacrificing personal freedom of self-interest for the sake of the relationship. For example, there are limits (what must not be done, like using what belongs to the other person without asking first) and obligations (what must be done, like keeping commitments made to the other person) that must be honored.

To some degree, each party feels captive of responsibility for how they treat the other and for maintaining their joint wellbeing. With parenting a child come responsibilities of overseeing, care-taking, and supporting. For the child, learning basic responsibilities educates the girl or boy to membership rules and requirements of household life. The child usually accepts this code of responsible behavior that circumscribes freedom because it helps clarify what is expected of her. Responsibilities provide a compass of personal conduct that she can follow to maintain good standing with parents and also for social conduct outside of family.

Youthful tolerance for loss of freedom, however, becomes harder for the adolescent who is now more motivated by freedom to be gained. Now old and new responsibilities at home can be actively resisted with argument (“Why should I?”), and passively resisted with delay (“I’ll do it later!”) Thus parents find it takes more effort to get the teenager to honor family limits and obligations -- like abiding rules and contributing chores. When costs of responsibility and contribution for either party start to feel excessive, the relationship can feel burdensome. Parents get tired of keeping after their teenager, and their teenage gets tired of being pursued.

Of course, if the relationship feels sufficiently rewarding, the loss of personal freedoms is well tolerated, making the expense of responsibilities feel worthwhile. However, there is more to a caring relationship than just a tradeoff of rewards and responsibilities because there is no injury-free caring relationship, at least of the lasting kind. There is the matter of vulnerability to offense and injury – the risk of hurt.

Risks

So the third component is Risks that each party must take in the form of exposure to each other’s intended and unintended actions and inactions that can irritate or wound. There is injury from commission like the other saying something damaging in anger. There is injury from omission like one person neglecting to acknowledge the other person’s efforts.

Usually, parent and child are more mutually tender and considerate with each other than parent and adolescent. For example, when it comes to paying careful attention to spoken communication, it’s often easier for parent and child to sensitively listen to each other than it is for parent and adolescent. From growing abrasiveness and fatigue between them, they can be more susceptible to impatience and irritation, even to tuning each other out. A common complaint from each is: “You never listen to what I say!” Why does this hurt? The answer is because the injured party feels like they are being treated as not “worth” listening to.

If risks in the relationship rise, with more insensitive treatment occurring, increased incidents of hurt feelings can occur in response to what each other does and doesn’t do. As risks of perceived mistreatment mount, sense of safety in the relationship can be reduced. “I don’t know when you’re going to explode at me again and I don’t like it!”      

Complexity

Even reduced to these three over-simplified components, caring relationships are very complicated to manage and become more so for parent and adolescent once the separation from childhood begins, around ages 9  13. From loss of traditional rewards, sadness at what is missed can result. From less tolerance for responsibility, anger at loss of freedom can result. From more vulnerability to risk from abrasive interactions, hurt from feeling wounded can result.

If parent and child shared an idyllic childhood together where an exchange of rewards ruled, where responsibilities felt welcome, and where risks of hurt were infrequent, loss of that happily harmonious relationship can be sorely missed. Gone is the adoring and adorable child; gone is the perfect and all-pleasing parent.

Henceforth, the best parent and teenager can hope for with each other is not the childhood ideal, but a harder reality, one that binds all grown-up caring relationships – be it family, friendship, or romantic.  The best two people can do is maintain a Working Compromise between the three R’s because the relationship itself is always going to be a work in process.

Because the mix of the three R’s will be constantly shifting as change within, between, and around them continually upsets and resets the terms of their relationship over time, constant vigilance about the mix must be kept.  

The working compromise

To maintain a working compromise in their relationship between the 3 R’s - Rewards and Responsibilities and Risks - they must learn to recognize and discuss when either arrives at what I call a “Bad Bargain Point.”

A Bad Bargain Point is reached when either party feels the mix of the 3 R’s is seriously not working. For a period of weeks, the rewards feel too low, or the responsibilities feel too high, or the risks feel too painful. Or, taken together, the responsibilities and risks have come to outweigh the rewards. “I give up all this freedom, make all this effort, and get all this aggravation, and right now there’s not enough good to make the sacrifice feel worthwhile!”

For example, during mid-adolescence (ages 13 – 15), a young person enters a much more self-centered period of growth – tending to think mostly about self, fun, friends, and gratification now.  More self-preoccupied, the young person is particularly prone to acting unmindfully of parental needs.

This creates a common bad bargain point for parents. “I make all this effort for our teenager, I get no appreciation or contribution back, and feel mistreated when all I do is taken for granted, as though I’m only here to serve!”

However, on the adolescent side there can also bad bargain complaints at this juncture. “All my parents ever focus on is what I don’t do to their liking. They never stop to credit all the bad things I could be doing that I’m not and all the ways I go along with what they want that they ignore!” Mid-adolescence is often a good time to re-evaluate and re-adjust the mix of the 3 R’s of the parent/adolescent relationship because it’s easy to feel mistreated on both sides. 

So: what to do when parent or teenager or both feel like a bad bargain point has been reached? 

Well, it’s usually time to talk about how the relationship isn’t working well for one or both parties and then in non-evaluative, operational terms discussing specifically what behaviors are happening or not happening that could be beneficially changed to make a positive difference in the relationship. Consider both sides.

The parent side

For example, a parent might say that the relationship would work better for them if the teenager:

Thanked them when the parent made a special effort or did a favor (provided a gratitude Reward);

Remembered without being reminded to do regular chores (independently met a household Responsibility);

Stopped engaging with a smart phone when the parent had something to discuss (reduced an inattentive Risk.)

The adolescent side

For example, an adolescent might say that the relationship would work better for them if the parent:

Credited the work the teenager is doing to keep up grades (provided a recognition Reward);

Gave some curfew flexibility on special occasions (moderated a social Responsibility);

Didn’t complain to the teenager about the teenager in front of the teenager’s friends (reduced a public Risk.)

The enduring lesson

When an adolescent learns to discuss and manage basic components in a caring relationship with parents, which at best is always going to be a working compromise that keeps changing over time, the lesson can be enduring.

To keep a significant relationship feeling good enough for all concerned, both parties can strive for a common goal: to keep rewards as high as possible, responsibilities as moderate as possible, and risks as low as possible as much of the time as they can. In addition, they can agree that when the mix of the 3 R’s is not working well enough for one of them, and a bad bargain point is reached, both stand ready to talk about altering the mix. After all, a significant relationship that works well for one party but badly for the other sooner or later becomes a losing proposition, usually for both.  

For more about the Compromise Model of Caring Relationships, see Chapter 8 of my book, “STOP THE SCREAMING” (2009.) Information at www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Avoiding Adverse Emotional Responses to Your Adolescent