Adolescent-Parent Relationships

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I avoid posting much academic stuff on my blog, but if I write a paper for a class, I might as well share what I’ve learned. The following is a paper I wrote for a “Family Development” class I’m taking this summer. If you’re a parent, you may find the information helpful.

Adolescent-Parent Relationships:
Conflict and Negotiation

Adolescents are not actually as rebellious as society tends to view them. Unfortunately, many parenting advice books reinforce the stereotype, despite a vast body of recent research that demonstrates otherwise. 

Prior to the 1970s, psychologists largely confirmed the view of adolescence as a period of “storm and stress” (Steinberg, 2001). However, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, research emerged showing that “approximately 75% of teenagers reported having happy and pleasant relationships with their parents” (p. 3). The difference between the research prior to the late 1960s and that afterward was that the earlier research came primarily from the reports of clinical psychologists, whereas the later research came primarily from samples of everyday adolescents. Not surprisingly, when researchers began studying typical adolescents, rather than studying adolescents seeking therapy, their understanding of adolescence changed significantly. Adolescence is not so stormy, after all.

And yet more recent research has complicated the matter.

Whereas much of the research during the 1970s focused almost exclusively on adolescents’ perceptions of conflict with their parents, research since then has examined the ways adolescents and parents perceive such conflict differently. Researchers have found that adolescents perceive many of the day-today conflicts with parents as insignificant, while parents experience those conflicts as a significant source of distress. Family researcher Laurence Steinberg (2001) writes, “Many of the matters that parents and teenagers argue about are seen by parents as involving codes of right and wrong [. . .]. But these very same issues are seen by teenagers as matters of personal choice” (p. 6).

Parents’ stress notwithstanding, most children and parents survive the children’s adolescence relatively unscathed. However, adolescent-parent conflict can become severe to the point of being maladaptive, or unhealthy, for adolescents. (The conflict can become unhealthy for parents, too, but this paper focuses on adolescents.) In other words, although storm and stress is not the norm, it can occur. Such unhealthy conflict happens when adolescents perceive their parents as unjustifiably imposing on their personal choices.

Research shows that most adolescents defer to their parents’ authority over moral issues, or issues that affect the rights and welfare of others, and prudential issues, or issues that concern the health and safety of the adolescents themselves (Nucci, Hasebe, & Lins-Dyer, 2005). However, adolescents consistently reject their parents’ authority over personal choices such as hairstyle, music, and the contents of a diary. Many psychologists agree that “the establishment of control over the personal domain emerges from the need to establish boundaries between the self and others and is critical to the establishment of personal autonomy and individual identity” (p. 18). In other words, adolescents need that personal freedom.

Therefore, healthy parenting involves providing guidance and structure for moral and prudential issues, granting autonomy-support for personal issues, and negotiating with adolescents over those issues that may overlap the moral, prudential, and personal domains. Furthermore, distinguishing among these domains also helps to minimize adolescent-parent conflict and thereby mitigate the distress many parents experience over such conflict.

Inversely, unhealthy parenting can involve either not providing enough guidance for moral and prudential issues or intruding into adolescents’ personal affairs. Researchers refer to such intrusion as psychological control. Numerous studies have demonstrated that adolescents who perceive their parents as being psychologically controlling are more likely to experience psychological distress (e.g., anxiety and depression). Furthermore, these adolescents are also more likely to struggle academically. Researchers Larry Nucci, Yuki Hasabe, and Maria Tereza Lins-Dyer (2005) therefore suggest that “children and parents negotiate a zone of the child’s behavior that constitutes a personal domain in which primary decision making is mutually given over to the child” (p. 27).

There has also been a considerable amount of research showing that parenting styles significantly affect adolescents’ psychological development. Researchers categorize the three dominant parenting styles as authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive.

Steinberg (2001) explains, “Authoritative parents are warm and involved, but firm and consistent in establishing and enforcing guidelines, limits, and developmentally appropriate expectations” (p. 7). More specifically, authoritative parents are able to distinguish between the moral, prudential, and personal domains and provide either guidance or autonomy-support accordingly (Smetana, Crean, & Campione-Barr, 2005). Authoritarian parents, however, do not provide sufficient autonomy-support in the personal domain, and permissive parents do not provide sufficient guidance in the moral and prudential domains. Research demonstrates that, across cultures, non-authoritative parenting, whether authoritarian or permissive, is significantly maladaptive for adolescents, whereas authoritative parenting most often leads to healthy development.

Researchers Judith Smetana, Hugh Crean, and Nicole Campione-Barr suggest that “parents must strike a delicate balance between providing sufficient behavioral control to keep their adolescents safe, while not being overly intrusive into adolescents’ personal domains” (p. 43). The most difficult issues to address are the multifaceted issues, those that overlap the moral, prudential, and personal domains. Authoritative parents, research shows, regulate many of the multifaceted issues during their children’s early adolescence, but as their children mature into middle and late adolescence, authoritative parents gradually relinquish control over those issues. Adolescent-parent negotiation appears to be a distinguishing feature of those families that support healthy adolescent development.

Steinberg calls for a “systematic, large-scale, multifaceted, and ongoing public health campaign to educate parents about adolescence” (p. 16). Such a campaign would require the commitment of community centers, government agencies, religious institutions, schools, and, most importantly, parents themselves. In other words, as Hilary Rodham-Clinton has suggested, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Parenting is an art, but one that can be informed by science. We know what the science says about raising adolescents. Now parents must work together to translate the science into practice.

I believe religious institutions and schools have an especially important role to play in facilitating such grassroots parent education. Most religious institutions already emphasize the importance of family life and serve as natural gathering places for families. The research discussed in this paper should not contradict most traditional religious teaching and could even be communicated in religious terms so as to help parents raise adolescents who are well-adjusted and share the parents’ religious values. Likewise, schools often serve as the center of community and family life. Teachers and principals are appropriately educated and well-positioned to help parents understand child development issues and to facilitate parent education classes and workshops.

Parenting is difficult, but it is even more difficult when done alone. If we are to see our children reach their fullest potential, we must make parenting a communal endeavor.


Nucci, L., Hasebe, Y., & Lins-Dyer, M. (2005). Adolescent psychological well-being and parental control of the personal. New Directions for Child & Adolescent Development, (108), 17-30.

Smetana, J., Crean, H. F., & Campione-Barr, N. (2005). Adolescents’ and parents’ changing conceptions of parental authority. New Directions for Child & Adolescent Development, (108), 31-46.

Steinberg, L. (2001). We know some things: Parent and adolescent relationships in retrospect and prospect. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 11(1), 1-19.


Author: Bradley Bethel

Educator, writer, & filmmaker. Proud Ohio native, happy to live in North Carolina.

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