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Parent, Adolescent, and Managing the Generation Gap

How to work toward mutual understanding with your teenager.

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

A college student in Thailand sent me some good questions about how to manage the generation gap between parents and teenagers.

What follows are the questions asked and my responses, not based on psychological research, but only expressive of my personal opinions as a practitioner.

Some people say the generation gap is a myth. What is your opinion on that?

The “generation gap” between parents and adolescents is real to the degree that each grows up in a different historical time and culture—imprinted by the tastes and values and icons and events that define that formative period in their lives when the impressionable adolescent begins the process of growing up.

What is the cause of it? Do we blame the parents, the children, or something else?

The generation gap is not to be “blamed” on anyone. It is a function of normal social change. Change is that process that constantly upsets and resets the terms of everyone’s existence all their lives.

Cultural differences between generations are emphasized when parents identify with the old, similar, familiar, traditional, and known, while their adolescent (at a later time) becomes fascinated and influenced by the new, different, unfamiliar, experimental, and unknown.

In most cases, the parents are culturally anchored in an earlier time and the adolescent in a later time. To some degree, social change culturally differentiates the generations. That is just how life is.

Obviously, in socially simpler, stable, low-change cultures where the young identify with parental roles they expect to imitate and occupy when grown-up, there is very little generation gap. Compare this to growing up in a very complex, rapidly changing culture where the old world of the parent stands in marked contrast to that of their adolescent.

For example: The parents grew up before the Internet revolution in one world of experience only—offline. However, their adolescent is growing up in two worlds—offline and online. Thus a profound generation gap can be created, even though parents have acquired online skills in their adulthood.

How does the generation gap affect the relationship between parents and children?

To the degree that parents can bridge the generational difference by showing an interest in the new, this can reduce the gap's potentially estranging influence.

For example, they can encourage a very powerful and esteem-endowing power reversal in their relationship if they treat the adolescent as an “expert” and themselves as "unknowing," with their adolescent as teacher and themselves as students.

For example, the parent might ask: “Can you help me learn to appreciate the music you love—it is so different from what I grew up with and became used to listening to?”

Or, the parent might ask: “Can you show me a little how to play the video game you and your friends so enjoy, because I would like to learn?”

Parents who can’t bridge cultural, generational differences with interest, but ignore or criticize them instead, are at risk of allowing these differences to estrange the relationship.

What should a teenager do when they feel that parents don't understand them?

Once children start separating from childhood, around ages 9 to 13, and start redefining themselves on the way to young adulthood, two avenues for growth are pursued. One is detaching from childhood and family for more freedom of action and independence; the other is differentiating from childhood and parents for more freedom of personal expression and individuality.

In one sense, having parents “not understand” the young person as well as they did in his or her childhood confirms that this adolescent transformation is underway. This is both affirming and lonely, so the adolescent is often ambivalent—wanting and not wanting to be understood by parents.

When young people feel that their parents don’t understand and would like them to, they can take the initiative. Being brave, they can say to parents: “There is something about my growing up that I believe you do not understand, and I would like you to appreciate. Could you listen while I try to explain, and then we can talk because this is important to me.”

When there's conflict, how can we make a compromise acceptable to both sides?

Where intergenerational conflicts arise over what is enjoyable to youth and offensive to adults, like cutting-edge media entertainment, treat conflict not as a power struggle over who will prevail, but as an opportunity to use discussion over a difference to increase communication and understanding in the relationship.

For adults, no authority is sacrificed by listening. Instead, valuable understanding can be gained when parents treat the adolescent not as a stubborn opponent to defeat, but as a valued informant who can help them know their teenager and her or his world more fully. Sometimes giving a hearing and fully listening is enough to ease parental concerns, and sometimes being given a hearing is enough for the adolescent to honor the parents' wishes.

Parents can explain: “We will be firm where we have to be, flexible and willing to compromise where we can, and in either case always want to give a complete hearing to whatever you have to say.”

Is there a way to minimize the effect of the generation gap?

I believe the best way to minimize the potentially estranging effects of the generation gap is for parents to treat their adolescent as a guide who can help them understand a time of growing up that can be quite culturally different from their own youth. When rearing adolescents, parental interest and willingness to listen count for a lot, while those parents who are more fully informed are often less fearful than parents who forbid discussion of what they don’t understand.

In addition, it can help parents and teenagers stay close when they share companionship doing what they still enjoy in common—whether participating in some traditional interests that still hold, eating out together, helping each other, going to movies, or just joking around about what both find funny.

This is the challenge of relating across the generation gap for them both: remaining communicatively connected as adolescence drives them apart—as it is meant to do.

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