What comes to mind when we hear the term ‘generation gap’? Parents and children of any age are likely to experience at least some degree of frustration and conflict in their everyday interactions because we are not always going to want the same thing. It is normal and healthy for parents and children to have different wants or interests. There are likely to be extra tensions in the household where those children are of teenage years. It might be then considered to be in their ‘job description’ to test the limits and push the boundaries as it were. It is during these years, often in the relative safety of the home, that teenagers will be testing out their range of ways of having an impact on others and their world in general, and seeking to establish an identity separate from their parents. It is all a part of healthy growing up. It is also in the relative safety of a home environment that teenagers can allow themselves to explore different ways of managing with emotions, including painful emotions, in a more independent way. Running to one’s parents for a soothing hug is probably getting past its use-by-date as a means for handling hurts of whatever sort. Allowing one’s negative emotions or behaviours to be on display and withdrawing somewhat from direct communication with one’s parents can also be a way of creating more space for a teenager to explore their own emerging identity and engaging in the long-term task of gradually separating from their family. This is not to say that direct communication, understanding and support is not just as important as at any other time. Recent social research reported in newspapers indicated that teenagers’ families are especially important to them, along with their friendships.
Teenagers face many stresses associated with various life adjustments. They may be concerned about such issues as drugs, sexuality, bullying, relationships and mental health issues. They may have particular concerns about their relative achievement and the potential expectations of themselves and others. It is not only the actual expectations of their parents or actual perceptions of them that may concern them, but the perceived expectations or views of their parents that can be a source of stress. This is where it can be especially important for parents to directly convey their acceptance, love, appreciation and concern for their children in unambiguously positive terms, even around times of increased conflict. I have seen numerous families over the years where it is blatantly obvious that the teenager and parents love each other and wish to relate closely to each other, but where this is not recognized by the family members themselves owing to the extent or intensity of arguments or conflicts.
Even the best of parents may struggle amid the joy of their relationship with teenage children. A few basic guidelines may help. Children of any age benefit from their parents’ understanding and support. As children reach teenage years it is increasingly important to use a problem-solving approach in negotiating and discussing issues around appropriate limits with them. With regard to
such issues as expectations about tidiness, use of alcohol, curfews or contribution to household chores, it helps to have a balance of flexibility along with a preparedness to establish some limits. It is important that parents show due concern about their children being involved in risk-taking behaviour around drugs, alcohol, driving or sexuality. It is helpful to have open and frank discussions about such topics, expressing concerns, but being genuinely interested in each other’s views. Parents might be rightfully wary of sounding overly rigid or judgmental, but it may be important to not be overly permissive which can appear to their children and others as a sign of benign neglect. It helps when parents support each other in trying to strike an appropriate balance on such issues whilst seeking to engage their teenage children in dialogue about what expectations might be fair or reasonable.
Parents of teenagers might benefit from applying principles of positive psychology articulated by Martin Seligman (see free website www.authentichappiness.org and the VIA Signature Strengths questionnaire). Seligman describes a number of key character strengths or positive qualities that may be particularly important for parents to recognise in their children and acknowledge. By completing the questionnaire themselves, parents may also recognize what positive qualities they bring to their parenting. These qualities may include such virtues as love of knowledge, social intelligence, creativity, sense of humour, persistence, courage, kindness, and zest. There may be particular benefits in openly acknowledging such qualities in one’s children when they are strongly seeking to establish their separate sense of identity. It would likely also be beneficial for parents to encourage their children to pursue work and study interests or other activities which draw on their children’s signature character strengths. When individuals engage in such strengths they are likely to be absorbed in the activities they are pursuing and to experience a resulting sense of meaning and fulfilment.