We, humans, are hardwired for connection and when we maintain good relationships, the rewards are also immense. Feeling loved makes us happy, eases our stress and anxiety, helps us live longer, and makes us take better care of ourselves, among others. One of the primary sources of love is the parent-adolescent relationship. Teenagers need their parents and families for love, guidance, and support.
A new study published in the journal Emotion finds parent-adolescent conflict can be less troublesome when parents show emotional warmth. It is the first research of its kind that examined the fluctuations in how loved teenagers feel on an everyday level.
Authors John Coffey from Yale University and colleagues used the three weeks of daily entries submitted by teens and parents to link displays of warmth and how parents perceived the conflict to daily fluctuations in how loved their teenagers felt.
Coffey, the lead author of the study, said they were able to disentangle the daily ways parents’ behaviors are connected to how loved their teens were feeling. This methodology, he believes, can provide caregivers with practical suggestions that they can apply for their daily life. Regardless of the general closeness of parent and teen relationships, the authors found that teenagers felt more loved on days when their parents showed more warmth in the form of praise, understanding, and affection.
Furthermore, teens said they feel less loved on days when parents reported more conflict than usual. To mitigate the impact of conflict, parents can show their warmth. So, even if there are high levels of conflict, it did not reduce how teens felt loved when their parents show warmth. However, conflict and emotional warmth need not be connected.
Conflicts were manageable as long as teens felt warmth from their parents even at some point during the day. To come to these conclusions, Coffey and the group gathered nightly self-reports by teens and parents of 151 different families. Teenagers who participated in the study were 13 to 16 years old and in their 9th and 10th grades. About 95% of the participating parents were female and slightly more female teens participated in the survey.
In the initial baseline surveys, teens and parents filled out information to determine how close they were in general. Their answers were then used by the researchers to determine whether parent-teen general closeness moderated everyday fluctuations in parent-reported conflict and warmth as well as teen-reported love.
Teens and parents in conflict
According to psychologist Terri Apter Ph.D., Fellow Emeritae of Newnham College and author of the book "Altered Loves: Mothers and Daughters During Adolescence," teens can spit hurtful words to their parents when they are also outraged or hurt. For instance, they would say, “There’s no point in talking to you. You don’t understand me. You don’t even know me.” This could shake a parent’s confidence. After all, they worked hard to know their child and learn to read their feelings from gestures and voice.
Pat, for instance, said that her 15-year-old son Greg gives “hate rays” when she enters into his room. He responds to everything she says with a groan, so she sometimes gets furious. Apter, who was not involved in the Yale University study, explained that the human brain undergoes dramatic development during adolescence. The frontal lope, which enables us to think and control impulses and organize the sequences of actions, provides new physiological explanations for teen behavior. Teenagers become eager to establish their sense of identity and this involves self-discovery, self-questioning, and self-development across various issues, including relationship, intellect, faith, and gender. This is why arguments with parents can usually be understood.
Apter added that although common parent-teenager quarrels are at a superficial level, such as housework, homework, respect, and curfews, the real focus of the teenagers is on parents’ acknowledgment of his human value, capability, and maturity. When parents say, “No, you can’t go out tonight,” it can cause more than just a glitch in the teen’s social life. It implies that the parent doesn’t trust the teen to make their own decisions. In the mind of the teen, it is not just unfair but also humiliating. Minor exchanges could likewise trigger major feelings. The parent will feel as if everything he or she says is wrong, for example.
The new study conducted by Coffey and colleagues also highlights how parents often stress about the conflicts they are encountering with their teens. Yet, these conflicts can be manageable as long as the teen feels the warmth from their parents at some point during the same day. They also concluded that how teens and parents communicate and resolve their conflict could be the most significant way to maintain a healthy relationship in the long-term. On the other hand, the authors do not recommend avoiding conflict as it could also lead to a more negative effect.
Common sources of conflict between parents and teenagers
Blake Flannery, who has worked in the mental health field since 2002, shares the common sources of conflict between parents and teenagers. These include curfew hours, noise, boyfriend or girlfriend, grades, church or religion, fairness, smoking, drinking, and drug use, dishonesty, personal appearance, and cell phone use. Statista shares that 54% of US teens admit they spend too much time on their cellphone, 41% say they spend too much time on social media, and 58% tried to cut back on playing video games.
A Pew Research Center survey among 1,807 US parents in 2015 also revealed that lower-income parents are more likely than higher-income parents to express their concerns about their kids become victims of violence. Some 59% of parents with family incomes of less than $30,000 say they worry that their children may be kidnapped, get pregnant, or get a girl pregnant as a teenager (50%), have problems with drugs or alcohol (41%), or struggle with anxiety or depression (55%).
While younger kids don’t often see the flaws of their parents, adolescents will suddenly view the world more realistically. They begin to construct what ideal parents should be based on media parents and their friends’ parents. Not to mention, their brain is developing during the teenage years. This could mean that all the conflict and arguments are the result of their brain’s prefrontal cortex at work. Making them feel loved can help mitigate the impact of conflict.