Parenting Adolescents and the Generational Divide

Some degree of cultural difference always separates parent and teenager.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

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

Counseling teenagers and parents has made me appreciate the contrasting mindset between youth and age, and how challenging overcoming this difference can be.  

What difference? In summary: Come the child’s adolescence, respective priorities in life predictably diverge as parents focus on the ongoing maintenance of family while the young person preoccupies with the need for personal change.

The challenge for the parent is to accept this growing generational divide while staying caringly and communicatively connected as adolescence grows them apart, as it is meant to do.

The cultural divide

So: Consider one way to contrast the mindsets of youth and age.

The culture of youth leans toward values that favor personal change – that re-definitional process that keeps upsetting and resetting everyone’s existence. Change occurs whenever anything starts, stops, increases, or decreases in one’s life. For youth, change is exciting because it constantly creates an opening for what is new and more and better and different and unknown. Thus for adolescents, keeping up with changing times like fashion and fads can be a high priority.

The culture of age leans toward values that favor family maintenance – that process that sustains everyone’s coexistence at home. Maintenance occurs whenever anything is repeated to renew, restore, and replenish the capacity to regularly carry on. For age, maintenance is vital because it preserves what is old and enough and sufficient and similar and familiar. For parents, supporting traditional routines like established household rules and requirements can be a high priority.

The incompatibility

Of course, societal functioning, like individual functioning, needs both change (for adaptability and stimulation) and maintenance (for stability and support). In family systems, like in organizational systems, seniority can be the enemy of change when age wants to protect and maintain the status quo while youth wants to challenge and revise it. 

Thus, just as parents want to hold onto (maintain) traditional practices, adolescents want the freedom to loosen (change) this established way of doing things. Parents are driven to maintain responsible authority and support ongoing family functioning, while adolescents are driven to change the traditional definition by expressing growing individuality and increasingly asserting independence.

All this is suggested to recognize the cultural divide and incompatibility that to some degree colors the growing parent/adolescent relationship, exhibiting more conflicts between maintenance and change than occurred before. 

The maintenance/change contract

Recognizing this inevitable tension, many parents use it to determine how much running room to give their teenager. First, they hold the young person to maintenance account: “We expect you to regularly take care of ongoing (maintenance) responsibilities at home, at school, and out in the world, and we will weigh allowing you more freedom (change) based on how adequately you are taking care of this daily business.” 

So, in response to the healthy teenager pushing for more freedom for change, healthy parents insist that ongoing maintenance responsibilities are first being met. 

Teaching two change/maintenance rules

What often differentiates maintenance and change activities is their relationship to managing personal energy – one’s capacity for doing and action – that at any moment in time is always limited. 

While maintenance activities are often in the business of restoring personal energy – like through relaxation and rest and routine; change activities are often in the business of spending energy – like in pursuing interests, goals, and challenges. To adolescents, change activities can often feel more rewarding and exciting than maintenance activities which can feel comparatively dull and boring. “Why do I have to have to do household chores when I’d rather be out finding fun with my friends?” 

Since parenting is about teaching the teenager self-management, this includes the management of maintenance and change, how to mix and keep them in a healthy balance. There are two decision rules parents might consider.

  • Beware investing in change at the expense of maintenance because that can lead to stress. The coronavirus epidemic is a good example of duress that happens when sweeping change gets in the way of basic maintenance needs being met and how crisis occurs. Scrambling to cope with excess change, many people cannot meet their basic needs for employment, money, sustenance, and social connections that their wellbeing has traditionally depended upon, and they painfully feel the lack. 
  • Beware investing in maintenance at the expense of change because that can deny the healthy need to grow. When adolescents become fearful of change they can stubbornly stick to the familiar for security, foreclose on important risk-taking, and act unwilling to venture out of their established comfort zone. They become self-defeating in this way, unwilling to try what is necessary for them to experience and learn. 

Connecting across the generational divide

It can be easy for parents, wed to their cultural maintenance mindset, to find some of their teenager’s desires for change inconsistent with what they are used to and feel are unwelcome to live with. “How can you call that noise you like music?” “How can you dress this way?” “How can you and your friends spend so much time on that activity?”  

When parents criticize or reject adolescent changes because they feel foreign, they risk making a stranger of their teenager and distancing the relationship. It’s better for them to treat these unfamiliar differences not as barriers but as bridges and harness their curiosity. “I know nothing about what you like doing now; could you help me better understand?” “Would you teach me more about this new pursuit; I would really like to learn?” 

Bridge generational changes with interest and parents' connection to their growing adolescents can be maintained.