The Role of Parents in the Social World of Adolescence (page 2)
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.
Observers began to argue that if disagreements with parents center on relatively mundane issues like music and hairstyles, perhaps the storminess of relations between parents and adolescents has been overstated (Rutter, 1995). Parenting prescriptions began to include the implicit advice, “Don’t worry, things will work out fine.” As you might guess, things are not so simple.
Arnett (2000), for example, raises a word of caution. He suggests that conflicts over relatively minor matters are nonetheless stressful for both parents and children. He further warns that the “mundane” matters that adolescents argue with their parents about may not be as trivial as they seem. Rather, they
often concern issues such as when adolescents should begin dating and whom they should date, where they should be allowed to go, and how late they should stay out. All of these issues can serve as proxies for arguments over more serious issues such as substance use, automobile driving safety, and sex. (p. 320)
In other words, some of the behaviors that adolescents categorize as “personal,” their parents probably see as “prudential/conventional” because the behaviors have potentially serious consequences for a teen’s future (see Hasebe, Nucci, & Nucci, 2004; Smetana & Daddis, 2002).
Yet the notion that parents should “let go” and that they should “not worry” seem to have permeated contemporary American culture. Paradoxically, warning signals that adolescents today face greater pressures and dangers than they have in the past are sounding in both the scientific and popular press. The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development in 1996 described the risks facing young adolescents: “Altogether, nearly half of American adolescents are at high or moderate risk of seriously damaging their life chances. The damage may be near term and vivid, or it may be delayed, like a time bomb set in youth” (p. 2). Increasing risks were identified in physical health, in mental health, and in academic preparedness for children ages 10 to 14. Prevalence indicators from the 1980s and ’90s revealed rising rates of death by firearms; more child abuse and victimization; greater use of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes; higher suicide rates; decreasing age of first intercourse and thus increasing risk of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; and lower academic achievement, among other worrisome changes. Even though some of these trends have recently leveled off or been reversed, we still feel a combination of helplessness and desensitization when we read statistics such as these. How can we reconcile our assumptions of what young people need, and what adolescence should be like, with the realities of today? More specifically, how should we parent, how should we educate, how should we counsel and consult to meet the needs of contemporary adolescents?
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