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Parents’ and Adolescents' Different Perceptual Worlds

Resolving parent-adolescent conflict involves addressing different perceptions.

Key points

  • Conflict between parents and adolescents commonly involves different perceptions of each other’s behavior.
  • Different perceptions may involve parents’ focus on the future, while adolescents focus on the present.
  • An “insider” perspective includes one's own intentions versus an "outsider" focus on the other’s actions.

Anyone who has experienced a conflict with another person—family member, friend, co-worker, etc.—likely has felt some frustration that the two of them don’t see eye to eye about what happened between them, and what constitutes appropriate and acceptable behavior. This can include one person requesting a change in the other person’s behavior, the other person making a good faith effort to meet the person’s request, but the person who made the request either saying they saw no change or that the new behavior was not satisfactory.

Although conflict is not inevitable between parents and adolescents, a common frustrating challenge occurs when the two individuals perceive their own and each other’s behavior differently. For example, a parent may request that their adolescent be more helpful with chores around the house, including cleaning the adolescent’s bedroom, and after the adolescent makes some effort to comply, the parent may complain that the progress was inadequate, whereas the adolescent may argue that the parent was overlooking obvious positive actions.

In turn, the adolescent may request that the parent speak to them in a more respectful way, acknowledging positive things the adolescent does and not only focus on problems. If the parent takes the request seriously and goes out of their way to compliment the adolescent on a good grade earned in school, the adolescent may minimize the significance of the parent’s effort, complaining that the parent has little good to say about them. Researchers who study family interaction have found that such differences in parent and adolescent perceptions of each other’s behavior are quite common and distressing (e.g., Van Heel et al., 2019), resulting in Stattin et al. (2021) concluding that parents and adolescents tend to live in “different perceptual worlds.”

A variety of factors can contribute to such perceptual differences. First, although adolescents’ normal cognitive development has allowed them to take the perspective of another person, in contrast to younger children whose capacity for empathy is limited, they tend to be more present-oriented than their parents. Thus, a parent may try to motivate an adolescent to spend more time on homework and less time online with friends, arguing that good work habits will lead to better educational and career opportunities. However, the adolescent may focus more on maintaining good peer relationships, rather than imagining ambiguous future life conditions.

Second, adolescents may develop values and interests from their youth culture that are different from those of their parents and may perceive that their parents' guidance is irrelevant to their daily life experiences. This may be especially the case for immigrant families in which parents are navigating the challenges of raising their children in a culture that is different from their culture of origin and dealing with various stressors such as discrimination, while the adolescents are trying to fit in with peers in their new home (Choque et al., 2024).

Third, many parents and their adolescents have limited communication and conflict resolution skills, resulting in mutually frustrating interactions when issues involving peer relations, chores, school work, and taste in music and clothing arise. Parents and adolescents often fail to listen empathically to each other’s thoughts and emotions, instead settling into polarized positions that convey little respect and caring. All of these factors that contribute to parents and adolescents living in different perceptual worlds are commonly addressed in family therapy and parenting programs that some distressed families are able to access.

However, there is no guarantee that parenting and family therapy programs will bridge the perception gap unless they directly acknowledge its existence and help all family members understand and empathize with their differences. Findings from a research study that colleagues and I recently completed (Choque et al., 2024) illustrate this challenge. The study examined the effects of immigrant Latine parents’ participation in a parenting education and skills program on their parenting behavior toward their adolescent children. The program, Padres Informados Jóvenes Preparados (Padres), was developed to be culturally relevant for immigrant Latine families through extensive collaboration with local stakeholders, including a parent advisory committee.

The Padres program included a) increasing parents' knowledge and skills regarding adolescent development and acculturation challenges facing immigrant youth and parents, (b) enhancing parents' empathy for their adolescents' experiences, and acceptance of their offspring (c) improving parent-adolescent communication and parental discipline methods, and (d) improving adolescents' own skills for avoiding problematic behavior such as substance abuse.

Our study focused on separate parent and adolescent ratings of parents’ levels of acceptance of the adolescent (e.g., speaking in a warm, friendly voice), consistent discipline methods, and soliciting information from the adolescent regarding their experiences and feelings. Ratings were collected just before parents participated in the program, after the four-month program, and at a six-month follow-up.

The key aspect of our findings for this post was that parents reported improvement in their levels of acceptance, consistent discipline, and solicitation during the treatment, whereas adolescents only reported improvement in their parents’ solicitation behavior. The changes that occurred during the program were maintained at the follow-up point. Thus, whether the program was effective could not be assessed only by measuring outcomes from the parents' perspective.

The parents’ greater perception of positive change may be due to their “insider’s” perspective (their awareness of their intention to become more attuned to their children’s needs), in contrast to the adolescents’ “outsider’s” perspective of only observing the parents’ actions. Similarly, parents were not privy to the degree to which their actions such as soliciting information about their child’s experiences were felt as caring versus interrogation by the adolescent.

Furthermore, parents may have given themselves more credit for any changes they made, whereas adolescents may have remained skeptical as to whether their parents’ actions were real rather than “putting on a show for the program leaders” and would last after the program ended. In turn, parents may be skeptical of adolescents’ efforts to demonstrate that they can be trusted with reduced restrictions on their freedom. It often takes time for trust in changes to develop.

It is crucial for family therapists and parenting program leaders to guide parents and adolescents in avoiding a natural tendency to be defensive regarding such discrepancies in perceptions of each other’s behavior, motives, etc. Family members may respond to a therapist’s encouragement to be empathic with each other’s efforts by thinking, or explicitly responding to the therapist, “That’s easy for you to say, but you haven’t had to live with broken promises.” The more that therapists can display empathy for individuals’ past disappointments and pain combined with encouragement to give other family members opportunities to develop new patterns, the better. Building new family patterns requires some risk-taking and patience.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Choque, G. A. H., Kim, H. D., Epstein, N. B., Garcia-Huidobro, D., Svetaz, M. V., & Allen, M. L. (2024). Different perceptual worlds: Parent and youth perspectives on parenting outcome trajectories from a Latino family-based program. Family Process, 00, 1–22.

Stattin, H., Russo, S., & Kim, Y. (2021). Projection bias and youth's and parents' perceptions of their joint political discussions. Journal of Family Communication, 21, 127–137.

Van Heel, M., Bijttebier, P., Colpin, H., Goossens, L., Van Den Noortgate, W., Verschueren, K., & Van Leeuwen, K. (2019). Adolescent-parent discrepancies in perceptions of parenting: Associations with adolescent externalizing problem behavior. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 28, 3170 –3182.

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