During early adolescence, the family structure changes from a hierarchical to an egalitarian structure, which often results in an increase of conflicts between parents and adolescents. While moderate conflicts are expected at this stage, frequent conflicts can arise when the adolescents’ desire for greater autonomy in life is met by restrictive parenting practices and poor parent-teen relationships. Under those circumstances, adolescents are at a higher risk for recurring depressive symptoms, psychopathological disorders, and poor psychosocial adjustments in adolescents (Bouma, Ormel, Verhulst, & Oldehinkel, 2008). Even though both individual traits and family environments can determine the frequency of conflicts, introducing positive parenting strategies can reduce the amount of parent-teen conflicts and avert negative developmental outcomes.
The public perception of adolescents usually includes mood swings, irritability, disobedience towards parents, and stressfulness as common characteristics of that developmental stage. However, research shows that extreme forms of alienation, rebellion, and disobedience are characteristic to only a small percentage of adolescents, with study results ranging between 5% and 15% (as cited in Smetana, Campione-Barr, & Metzger, 2006). Researchers currently agree that some parent-teen conflicts may arise in early adolescence because the nature of family relations shifts from a hierarchical relationship to egalitarian relationships (Smetana et al., 2006).
In fact, moderate conflict with parents may be beneficial for teens at this stage of development. Researchers found that moderate conflicts with parents help adolescents with psychosocial adjustments to adult life while those who do not engage in conflicts or engage in frequent conflicts will more likely show poor psychosocial adjustments later in life (as cited in Smetana et al., 2006). Most importantly, moderate parent-teen conflicts during early adolescence do not affect the quality of the parent-teen relationship.
Even though positive outcomes occur through moderate conflicts with parents, inadequate monitoring from parents or frequent conflicts may result in a poor parent-teen relationship. Consequently, adolescents who are neglected at home or come from dysfunctional families will more likely conform to peer pressure and engage in criminal behaviors, such as substance abuse (Nash, McQueen, & Bray, 2005). In contrast, positive parenting practices and a positive household environment were associated with lower instances of substance abuse (Nash et al., 2005)
Other psychological and emotional problems have also been associated with parent-teen conflicts. For example, a study by Lewandowski and Palermo (2009) investigated the causes and potential complications of primary headaches in adolescents, and the results indicate that there is a significant relationship between parent-teen interactions and depressive symptoms following primary headaches. The most important predictors of depressive symptoms are poor parent-teen relationships, conflicts, and low levels of autonomy (Lewandowski & Palermo, 2009).
However, it is not possible to determine whether depressive symptoms and other psychological issues are reactive factors or causal factors. Lewandowski and Palermo (2009) suggest that personality traits and the ability to cope with stress are also important predictors for the development of psychological issues in adolescents. Various studies also analyzed and confirmed that vulnerability genes that determine coping abilities with stressful life events are hereditary (as cited in Bouma et al., 2008). Therefore, individual differences can also predict poor parent-teen relationships and conflicts, so the association between parent-teen conflicts and psychological consequences is bidirectional.
Treatments for depressive symptoms and behavioral issues for both individual differences in coping with stress and family-level factors should include group interventions aimed at the entire family. The study by Bouma et al. (2008) found that hereditary traits can account for individual differences in coping with stressful events, but a negative family environment can facilitate the development of psychosocial issues, so family interventions and implementing positive parenting strategies can reduce the frequency of parent-teen conflicts and the prevalence of psychosocial issues in adolescents.
It is important to understand that the adolescent stage of development is when teens progressively start spending more time with peers and less time with their families. Therefore, Lewandowski and Palermo (2009) suggest that avoiding family conflicts should be achieved by using positive parenting strategies that include age-appropriate autonomy for teens. For example, most parents will resort to parental surveillance in an attempt to control the adolescents’ behaviors, even though it is proven that improving parent-teen communication has a better impact in reducing substance abuse and delinquency issues than restrictive parenting (Nash et al., 2005).
Previous models of parenting styles considered that authoritative parenting was the most appropriate style of parenting because adolescents from authoritative homes showed more psychosocial competence than adolescents from permissive or neglecting homes (Smetana et al., 2006). However, current multidimensional models are no longer dichotomous and take in account the severity of authoritative parenting. Just like lack of authority can result in neglect and poor psychosocial development, intrusive parental control was associated with poor psychosocial development and higher instances of parent-teen conflicts (Smetana et al., 2006). Therefore, emotional closeness, open communication, and age-appropriate autonomy are positive parenting styles that can reduce the instances of parent-teen conflicts and their negative consequences.
Parent-teen conflicts are an essential part of adolescence because the family relations are shifting from a hierarchy to egalitarian relationships. Moderate conflicts are necessary for ensuring proper psychosocial development and adjustments to adult life in teens. However, most conflicts occur if families have poor parent-teen relationships. The relationship between adolescent issues and family conflicts is bidirectional, but family conflicts can facilitate unacceptable behavioral development and psychological issues in adolescents. Positive parenting strategies, such as open communication and age-appropriate autonomy for teens, can reduce the frequency of parent-teen conflicts and improve their long-term psychosocial development.
Bouma, E., Ormel, J., Verhulst, F. C., & Oldehinkel, A. J. (2008). Stressful life events and depressive problems in early adolescent boys and girls: The influence of parental depression, temperament and family environment. Journal of Affective Disorders, 105(1), 185-193.
Lewandowski, A. S., & Palermo, T. M. (2009). Parent–teen interactions as predictors of depressive symptoms in adolescents with headache. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 16(4), 331-338.
Nash, S. G., McQueen, A., & Bray, J. H. (2005). Pathways to adolescent alcohol use: Family environment, peer influence, and parental expectations. Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(1), 19-28.
Smetana, J. G., Campione-Barr, N., & Metzger, A. (2006). Adolescent development in interpersonal and societal contexts. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 255-284.