Not My Teen: The Psychology Behind Parent-Teen Conflict

By Stop Medicine Abuse Posted February 10, 2017 under Educating Yourself, Not My Teen

Every month, we keep you informed on the latest studies and research in our “Not My Teen” blog series. Today, we’re looking at a University of California, Riverside study which examines the inconsistencies between how teens and parents view their interactions.

It’s no secret that the teenage years can be a challenge for both parents and teens. Faced with the social, personal and academic challenges of high school, teens can often feel that parents are incapable of understanding them. Emotions are amplified due to changing hormones and, when conflict arises, teen angst comes out through seemingly unwarranted behaviors. For many parents of teens, yelling, stomping and door-slamming have become the soundtrack to every argument.

However, this behavior is more than just “teens being teens.” A recent Time article explored the underlying causes of discord in parent-teen relationships, looking at research conducted at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) for answers. UCR’s study examined 220 parent-teen relationships, and examined the discrepancies between how each viewed their confrontation. Researchers then studied how these inconsistencies impacted teens’ behavior.

Researchers found that parents largely viewed themselves as supportive, involved and positive toward their teens. Even in conflict situations, they saw their parenting as reasonable and constructive. However, their teens viewed these same behaviors as overly negative. Further, teens reacted to this perceived negativity with moodiness, aggression or withdrawal. To parents, teens’ behaviors seemed dramatic and unprovoked. This lack of understanding caused a cyclical problem for many of the parent-teen pairs. Both felt the other was being unreasonable, and they continued reacting to each other’s perceived negativity.

This disagreement is problematic – and not only for the sake of a peaceful home. The study found that where there was a greater discrepancy, teens were more likely to “talk back, sneak out of the house and break the family rules.” When teens engage in these delinquent behaviors, including substance abuse, they are at a greater risk for difficulties in health, academics, relationships and occupations for years to come.

While conflict is an expected part of any family dynamic, this research suggests that there are things parents can do to minimize miscommunication. Misaki Natsuaki, one of the researchers in the study and an associate professor in developmental psychology at UCR, explained how to best handle conflict and strengthen your parent-teen relationship.

  1. Be clear. Teens may hear accusation, disappointment or dismissal from their parents, even if that isn’t the intent. Natsuaki explains that if parents can “clarify what their son or daughter heard to discuss differences in views,” they can eliminate the gap in parent-teen perceptions of negativity. Be clear in your dialogue, and ask your teen to be clear in theirs. Practice saying “I feel” instead of the accusing, “You always.”
  2. Use logic. While your teen’s outburst might seem like a temper tantrum, it is important to note that “unlike younger children who are more egocentric, teens are capable of engaging in complex thinking.” Natsuaki says that teens tend to respond to calm, logical reasoning. Discussing perceptual differences using reason can bring your family closer together.
  3. Listen. Make sure your teen feels heard – and not just when you disagree. Have regular, open conversations so that when conflict does arise, your home will have less sulking and more productive discussions.

Shifting to a more constructive dialogue takes patience from you and your teen, but studies show it’s worth it. Minimizing discrepancies in communication can make your home a more trusting environment, and steer your teen away from risky behaviors like substance abuse.

How do you handle conflict with your teen? We would love to hear your advice and experiences in the comments below!

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