Parents are a source of stability when they encourage these changes as a natural part of their adolescent developing a mature self. Parents in the midst of their own identity crises, however, may not be as understanding or psychologically prepared for the changes. They may personalize the problems and feel angry, rejected, or overwhelmed. In reaction, they may place unnecessary restrictions on their teenagers and dampen the teens’ ability to find their own way. It only complicates matters when personal needs in both cases put inordinate strain on the relationship.
One of the factors in parent-adolescent conflicts may be that the parent in midlife and the adolescent are experiencing contrasting physical changes. At a time when the adolescent is developing the physical characteristics of adulthood, the parents are beginning to lose theirs.
There are a variety of other reasons for parent-adolescent conflict. Lack of connection and intimacy between parent and teen is a cause of conflict, especially when interpersonal boundaries are tested. The disagreement peaks in mid-adolescence, around the age of 18, then becomes less intense when realignment occurs in the relationship. This transition occurs when parents and adolescents are able to develop more peer-to-peer type relationships. The teen’s sense of identity is supported, and the relationship with the parent is maintained, especially in times of disagreement. The parents emotionally support the teen, and the teen is increasingly responsible for his or her emotional and physical needs. Interestingly, parents tend to view the relationship as more positive and the conflicts as less severe than do the adolescents. The relationships parents maintain with their teens have important consequences for their future relationship. Interestingly, research suggests that teens with more cohesive relationships with their mothers tend to live in closer proximity to the parents, especially in early adulthood (Gillespie and Treas 2017).
Parental Stimuli of Adolescent Rebellion
Sociocultural factors often escalate adolescent strain and rebellion. But while these factors help explain the emergence of adolescence as a general phenomenon in societies around the world, they do not entirely explain why some adolescents go through a period of rebellion and others do not. Evidence suggests that parenting style and structural components within the family contribute to adolescent rebellion (Sogar 2017).
In chapter 6, we compared the effects of four socio-emotional parenting styles. Parenting styles are not directly associated with academic achievement (Pinquart 2016). Parenting styles subtly and indirectly influence academic outcomes. Authoritarian parenting styles are associated with more emotional and behavioral problems and less prosocial behaviors (Kuppens and Ceulemans 2019). Authoritative parenting styles, on the other hand, are associated with fewer behavioral and emotional problems and more prosocial behaviors.
The relationship between parental restrictiveness and adolescent rebellion is far from simple. Adolescent rebellion is highest in very permissive and very restrictive homes, and lowest in homes with a balanced approach to discipline. This may be related to the important task of differentiation. Adolescents are challenged to develop a self in relation—that is, establish a separate self (attitudes, beliefs, and values) while remaining connected with their family. Finding and asserting a clearly defined self is critically important because it is the only way one learns to establish a genuine relationship with parents and others. When an adolescent feels confident as a separate self, he or she has a new capacity to interact in meaningful ways with others.
An example may be helpful here. One of my (Tom’s) client families came to me with a “teen defiance” problem. This African American family consisted of a mom, dad, and their only son—a teenager who was sixteen years old at the time they came in for family therapy. The defiance problem concerned identity and membership in the family. The family’s identity or core-self consisted in valuing membership in the military as the primary way to serve the public. It was important to their identities as African Americans, as well as being a military family, that their son also follow in their footsteps. For this family, there were generations of elders that sacrificed for the country via military service. As sixteen-year-olds tend to do, the teen
began to question whether he wanted to go into the military. The parents, who were highly educated and had spent significant time in the military, were taken aback. They experienced their son’s identity question as a challenge to their own identity. Could their son not go into the military and still be part of the family? They immediately became defensive and angry. In my time alone with the teen in therapy, we discussed the meaning of his questioning and how it related to him being a member of the family. In other words, he was questioning his desire to be in the military and if that meant he could no longer be a member of his family. The teen only wanted to investigate and decide whether going into the military was important for him personally. He did not mean to question his parents’ ideals or identity. The parents, son, and I were eventually able to have these important identity conversations in a nonreactive, emotionally neutral manner. The teen eventually decided to prioritize going into the military, but he had to do so of his own volition.
In terms of differentiation, the core self of the family needs to be internalized intentionally on the part of the children. This means that they are choosing to adopt the family’s values and identity. In families with lower levels of differentiation, identity is either forced onto the children through compliance (restrictive parenting practices) and emotional fusion, or identity is diffused through cutoff and emotional distance (permissive parenting styles).
Ideally, the child moves from complete dependence on the parents to semi- dependence to relative independence and eventually interdependence. The change from dependence to independence tends to proceed smoothly if the parents are moderate in their disciplinary practices. Although younger children seem to thrive on structure, when they become teenagers, they need far more breathing space. If parents continue to be very restrictive, adolescents are likely to rebel out of frustration. Overly restrictive parents hold the reins too tightly and do not allow for a gradual development of self. This creates a situation where independence can be achieved only by a drastic break from the parents. Restrictive parenting fails to provide enough structure/support in the child’s process of developing a self. Children in such families may become frustrated or aggressive toward their parents and society in general, acting out in rebellious behavior. Maintaining a good balance of staying connected while supporting differentiation is the goal.
UNSATISFACTORY DIVISION OF PARENTAL AUTHORITY
It is no secret that there is currently much controversy about the best authority pattern in the home. Studies show that the incidence of rebellion tends to be high in homes where either the father or the mother is dominant, moderate where the parents share equal authority, and low where one parent has slightly more authority. We believe that extreme inequality in parental authority results in a state of confusion for the teen. When authority is perceived as being primarily in the hands of one parent, the child may have problems interacting with both parents as authority figures.
Identity development in adolescence can create anxiety among family members as they feel that the family’s identity is threatened by the questions the teen is expressing. Confusion may result if the child is not sure where the ultimate authority resides or tries to pit one parent against the other. Power imbalances tend to foster increasing use of triangulation in relationships between the parents and offspring, which indicates a lower level of differentiation (Titelman 2007).
This is why parents need to agree about discipline and stand together as a united front. It is best when teens are crystal clear about their parents being the coleaders in the home. The balance of parental power means that parents consult each other about final outcomes. When both mother and father are actively involved in coparenting, trust is established as they love, discipline, guide, teach, nurture, and empower their children. The key is that parents work in tandem.
Empowering Adolescent Children Although they may not realize it at the time, parents play an extremely
important role in the lives of their teenagers. Parent-adolescent conflict is associated with negative outcomes like emotional and behavioral problems for adolescents (Ehrich, Dykas, and Cassidy 2012). Pamela King and James Furrow (2004) found that young people having a strong sense of shared beliefs, values, and goals with their parents is related to their being altruistic and empathetic toward others. Supportive and encouraging relationships between parents and teens promote empathy and altruism. Positive effects were found for such parental monitoring as setting clear boundaries, establishing clear expectations, and being aware of when their teens left and returned home. Pamela King and Ross Mueller (2004) found that parents significantly influenced their teenager’s religiosity.
Delegating responsibility is a challenging task for parents. Fostering teen responsibility is an important aspect of the teen and parents’ relationship. To trust one’s teenager to make the right choices and to act responsibly is perhaps one of the hardest things a parent is asked to do. It’s important to let go as well as to stand firm with teenagers until they reach their full adult status.
Adolescent empowerment depends on parents giving responsibility and adolescents acting responsibly. Adults are an often-overlooked source of empowerment for adolescents. In fact, there may be times of emotional turmoil in the parent-teen relationship when another adult can be more influential than the parents. King and Furrow (2004) found that formal mentoring relationships and informal school, neighborhood, or church relationships are most effective when the relationship between adult and teen is positive and trustful, with open communication and a shared sense of values. Again, adults most positively influence teens when they provide a balance between accountability and guidance on the one hand, and encouragement and affirmation on the other.
Undoubtedly, mistakes will be part of the learning process. But the empowerment process will be most successful, we believe, in parent-child relationships based on covenant commitments. The true test of unconditional parental love occurs when the child reaches adolescence. Where unconditional love prevails, the family lives in an atmosphere of grace. Where there is grace, there is room for failure and the assurance that one will be forgiven and afforded the opportunity to try again. Our teens need to feel our deep affirmation of who they are and acknowledgement of their unique gifts and purpose. This deepens the intimacy between young people and their parents and makes mutual empowerment possible.
The Joys and Challenges of Family in Later Life
Families in later life are those that have passed beyond the child-rearing years. The typical parent whose children are in their twenties or thirties can expect to live one-third of his or her life in this particular family life stage. Because of the increase in life expectancy, this stage can last several decades. Many find this time of life an awesome, complex, and arduous journey, especially when there are three or even four generations of family members with which to deal.
The “sandwich generation” describes those “mid-life adults who simultaneously raise dependent children and care for frail elder parents” (Grundy and Henretta 2006). Around the age of fifty, people who are at the peak of their earning capabilities may find it necessary to provide emotional and economic support to both young adult and elderly family members. The responsibility of caring for parents and/or adult children can come as quite a shock, especially after looking forward to a time of freedom to enjoy the fruit of one’s active years of labor and raising children. Hoping for a breather after adult children have finally left home, fifty-year-olds may find it burdensome to meet the increasing needs of their adult children and elderly parents. A study of job burnout and couple burnout in dual-earner couples in the sandwich generation revealed “significant differences in burnout type (job burnout higher than couple burnout); gender (wives more burned out than husbands); and country (Americans more burned out than Israelis)” (Pines et al. 2011, 361).
On the positive side, although the phenomenon of living longer results in greater complexity in family relationships, it also opens up the possibility of increased cross-generational family interaction, support, and connection. In this chapter, we describe three separate stages of later life: launching,
postlaunching, and retirement. We will clarify the unique aspects and typical dynamics of each of these stages.
The Launching Stage The launching stage is the period when adult children leave home to establish an independent life outside the family. Tasks to be accomplished by the young adult include (1) achieving autonomy in caring for oneself, managing finances, and being a responsible citizen; (2) developing meaningful relationships and support systems; and (3) finding a personal purpose and spiritual meaning in life. If all goes well, young adults prove able to manage their own lives effectively, think and act on their own behalf, take responsibility for their choices, and accept the consequences of their decisions. Other indicators of maturity are the establishment of relationships within and outside the family that lead to mutual interdependence and respect and settling into a career and lifestyle that give personal meaning and satisfaction.