The Role of Parents in the Social World of Adolescence

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Given that peers become so important to young adolescents, what is the role of adults, especially parents, in adolescents’ lives? A brief history of perspectives on adolescent development may be useful here. Early psychoanalytic writers described this period as one of conflict between parents and their teens that is sparked by the reemergence of latent sexual impulses as the child reaches puberty (Freud, 1958). The classic interpretation is that the young adolescent’s emotional attachments become sexualized and need to be redirected to agemates. In this view, the child’s press for autonomy creates conflict with the parents but is seen as normal and necessary. Neopsychoanalytic views have become more moderate over time (e.g., Blos, 1975), but still assume that the child’s cognitive and affective detachment from parents is to be expected in the service of autonomy. Erikson’s (1968) view of adolescence as a “normative crisis” supports this as a time of potential upheaval. The early psychoanalytic tradition framed the typical parent–adolescent relationship as a struggle, with teens trying to pull away from parents to the point of rebellion. Prescriptions for appropriate parental behavior often focused on the child’s legitimate need to break away and the parents’ responsibility to “let go” and allow their adolescents to “be themselves.” Parents were advised to back off because teens must be free to explore with their peers to consolidate their identity.

In the 1970s and beyond, studies of adolescence contradicted earlier constructions based on psychoanalytic thought. They indicated that major transformations do occur in family relations as children pass through adolescence but that becoming more independent and personally responsible is not necessarily accompanied by emotional detachment from parents (e.g., Hill & Holmbeck, 1986). Offer (1969) reported that roughly two thirds of teens experienced adolescence as a tranquil period or at least experienced only minor conflicts with parents. Montemayor (1983) reported that in typical families, teens and their parents argued on average twice a week, hardly a matter of great concern. A recent meta-analysis indicates that conflicts with parents occur most frequently in early adolescence. By middle adolescence, they begin to decline in frequency but tend to increase in intensity (Laursen, Coy, & Collins, 1998). Both adolescents and parents view some aspects of parental control to be quite legitimate. Parents can exercise authority over moral issues (like stealing and justice) or even issues governed by conventional rules (such as table manners), especially when conventional rules have prudential consequences (having to do with an individual’s health or safety; e.g., Smetana, 1995; Smetana & Gaines, 1999). It’s when parents impose rules on what their teens perceive as personal issues (like what you can say to a friend in an email, how you wear your hair, or what music you listen to) that conflicts are most likely to arise (e.g., Smetana & Daddis, 2002). For teens, gaining control over this personal domain is a way of establishing autonomy and therefore is an important identity issue.

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