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Parenting

Which Is Harder, Parenting Toddlers or Teenagers?

Role overload, and the peaks and valleys of satisfaction.

Key points

  • Research finds no differences in the stress levels between parents of toddlers and parents of teenagers.
  • However, parents of toddlers report feeling more overwhelmed and having less personal time and more conflict in their partner relationship.
  • At the same time, parents of toddlers show increased satisfaction and happiness in the parent-child relationship than parents of teenagers.
Gustavo Fring/Pexels
Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Many parents who are struggling through the toddler years are warned by parents of older children “You think this is hard?! Just wait until they are teenagers.” As a parent of toddlers myself, I have always found these warnings demoralizing and, honestly, terrifying. So I couldn’t help but wonder, does the research actually back this up? Which is actually more stressfulparenting a toddler or parenting a teenager?

First, research consistently finds no significant differences in stress levels between parents of toddlers and parents of teenagers. However, “role overload” (aka, feeling overwhelmed by everything you have to do as a parent) is higher in parents of toddlers than parents of teenagers. Not surprisingly, parenting babies and toddlers is also associated with greater time demands on parents, increased marital/partner conflict, difficulty with work-family balance, and less personal time. Research finds that the quality of the marital/partner relationship declines from infancy and then improves when the child starts elementary school.

Yet, at the same time, parents with children under five show increased satisfaction with the relationship with their children, higher self-esteem, greater confidence as a parent, and fewer symptoms of depression than parents of teenage children or school-age children. Parents of toddlers also show greater happiness when interacting with their toddler-age children than parents of teenagers.

Parenting a teenager is also hard in its own way. Research finds that, while young children have more demands and needs, their needs are usually met in the same way. On the other hand, teenagers require that their parents meet their needs in different, more individualized ways. In other words, younger children may need you more often but their needs may be easier to meet.

In summary, parenting toddlers and parenting teenagers are both stressful in their own ways. Interestingly, parenting young children seems to be the “best of times” and the “worst of times.” That is, it may be the most rewarding but also the most overwhelming and demanding stage of parenting.

You might be thinking “Okay, so you’re telling me that parenting toddlers and parenting teenagers are both extremely stressful…but I can’t change my child’s age so what should I do now?”

With either toddlers or teenagers, try to focus your attention on the positive aspects of the developmental phase they are in. With toddlers, you may try to focus on how much they love you or appreciate their adorable little faces. With teenagers, you may try to focus on their independence in most daily tasks or that you can leave the house without getting a babysitter.

Whether this strategy works or not, please never tell another parent that you are in a more difficult stage of parenting, as these types of warnings will likely only make you both feel worse! On the other hand, by talking about the positive aspects of the parenting stage you are in, you are both likely to feel better after the conversation.

References

Luthar, S. S., & Ciciolla, L. (2016). What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children’s developmental stages. Developmental psychology, 52(1), 143.

Meier, A., Musick, K., Fischer, J., & Flood, S. (2018). Mothers' and fathers' well‐being in parenting across the arch of child development. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(4), 992-1004.

Kalil, A., Ryan, R., & Corey, M. (2012). Diverging destinies: Maternal education and the developmental gradient in time with children. Demography, 49(4), 1361-1383.

Nomaguchi, K. M. (2012). Parenthood and psychological well-being: Clarifying the role of child age and parent–child relationship quality. Social science research, 41(2), 489-498.

Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: a meta‐analytic review. Journal of marriage and family, 65(3), 574-583.

Mowder, B. A., Harvey, V. S., Moy, L., & Pedro, M. (1995). Parent role characteristics: Parent views and their implications for school psychologists. Psychology in the Schools, 32(1), 27-37.

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