Shape and strengthen parent-child relationship in adolescence
If the relationship between parents and adolescent children seems difficult, conscious action is needed to rebuild it. The basic parental assumptions and attitudes determine the success of rebuilding lost relationships with their youth.
Presumably you read this article because you want to know how you can improve the relationship between you and your teenage child. First of all, there are many people asking themselves this question.
I’m trying to describe some relationship constellations and showing ways to change them. In particular, I would like to show how minimal changes in everyday life can have a positive impact on relationship design. I would also like to provide insight into how psychological or psychotherapeutic treatment could work.
Detachment and distance: The development of autonomy
The developmental task of adolescents, from puberty to adulthood, is to slowly detach themselves from their parents and to develop their own solutions to everyday problems. The previously learned solutions, behaviors, norms and values are reviewed and adapted. For example, a youth language is created: young people speak to each other differently than to adults. At this age, young people develop not only the need for closeness but also a need for demarcation. This is at least traditionally seen within large parts of psychology.
With increasing autonomy, the bond between parents and children decreases by (Masche, 2006). However, these findings also show that parental concessions of more autonomy are at the same time linked to a higher bond and a lower need for demarcation.
This seems contradictory. The contradiction resolves when we understand that the role of the parents of adolescent children is no longer to make our children “fit for the world out there”, but to help the young people to use their own potentials. To promote them in the development of their abilities, according to their interests. Support and protection of the young children consists in curiosity and in the interests of the parents.
Development of identity
The development of identity begins in the womb. Nevertheless, during puberty and in young adulthood, identity is a particularly sensitive issue.
The development of identity, i.e. the experience of one’s own being, is also dependent on a good and stable relationship with one’s own parents. The task of the parents is to maintain the relationship with the young person until he or she is able to live his own personality. (To do what comes from the heart.) (missing reference).
Of course, there are other developmental tasks, but it seems that these two seem to have the most impact on relationship-shaping from the pubescent.
Parents’ developmental tasks
Parental experiences from the past, which we have already believed to have mastered, are coming to be visible differently at every stage of our children’s development. Especially in those stages of development where we had developmental difficulties in our own childhood, we are pushed back to this phase with force, although already believed to have been overcome.
But our children need us in the phases when we ourselves have had difficulties and come across them again. This can be painful for us as parents.
The phrase “our children are challenging us” is often used in colloquial terms. This expression is in line with the general view that we have to perform in everyday life and pass tests. Our children don’t challenge us, they just want to be supported in their development. And that is exactly what is difficult for us when we ourselves have had difficulties in the phase in which our children are now in.
The development task of parents is to overcome the difficulties of the past here and now. If we can do that, we can support our children. If this fails, for example because parts of childhood have been buried by traumatic experiences, then we try to protect our children from our own experiences. This may be the second best solution we can offer our children.
The way in which parents manage their own developmental tasks is directly incorporated into the parent-child relationship, as well as into the development of the autonomy and identity of young people.
The parent-child relationship is one that regularly arises unconsciously and grows and changes over time. The process is intuitive. As long as this creates sustainable and development-promoting relationships (for both sides), this is the ideal way, because intuition draws on structures created within us and is much better trained than our rational thinking apparatus.
Parents who have had (and may still have) a good relationship with their own parents are intuitively influenced by good relationships and “feel” very well what their children need and behave afterwards. Parents who have had less good relationships with their own parents, but have reflected well on their parents and have learned to perceive their own needs and act accordingly, intuitively accompany their children and build a sustainable relationship.
Nevertheless, various circumstances can lead to insufficient intuition and a feeling of helplessness in the parents1. Not knowing how to approach one’s own child or get into conflicts about every “little thing” is a symptom of this helplessness. Parents, for example, feel that the child is “sliding” or they are no longer able to connect to it. Then is there a need to put the design of the relationship from the intuitive space to the conscious level and to work out possible further steps.
Concepts and theories about parent-child relationship
Each family has its own form of relationship between mother and child, father and child, as well as between parents. There is no ideal relationship constellation, because the relationships arise within the family and adapt to the needs of the individual family members. Although there are some theories from different research disciplines or therapy schools, I would like to highlight only two that have practical relevance for me.
Both (and other) theories are and are still being explored and further developed. The focus is not only on the relationship itself, but also on the development of children and their personalities in adulthood. Variables such as self-confidence, self-efficacy, autonomy, etc. are examined.
Theory of attachment
Traditionally, the parent-child relationship is described within attachment theory. First researches were made by Bowlby and Ainsworth and have evolved and refined over time and are now an integral part of developmental psychology. A safe attachment and different forms of unsafe attachments are distinguished.
The bond theory is particularly relevant because it shows that the primary relationship, the first relationship we had in life, influences the way how we build relationships. Parental reflection of relationships with their families of origin is essential if one wants to understand why the relationship with one’s own child is not as one would like to have it.
Presence and vigilant care
A more recent concept is that of presence and vigilant care (Omer, 2004). This concept, also known in the German-speaking world as the new authority, offers concrete clues to the relationship design and was developed to address the social changes in the role of parents and the associated lack of possibilities in parenting.
The focus is on parental presence as an essential feature. Being sympathetically close to the young person proves to be a powerful means of elicit a desired behavior from them.
I recommend this approach when parents and young people are already so far apart that little to no influence on the positive development of the young person is now possible. For example, if adolescents have already become delinquent or even criminal, have developed addictions into addictive substances, are often off-limits, lock themselves in their rooms, etc.
Presentation of family relationships
The possibilities described for the representation of relationship constellations are exemplary and far from complete. There are countless possibilities that would go beyond the scope here.
Family or system board
The family board consists of a board and figures that have different shapes, sizes and sometimes different colors. The figures have eyes and nose, but no mouth to avoid possible emotional connections.
It starts with the representation of the current relationship structure within the family. This is done either by a single family member or in association with the whole family, how the relationships at the moment (actual state) look like. The distancees and directions of view of the figures are intuitive to the viewer and the view of the display will be quickly understood by everyone.
As a second step, a target image is developed. How would the family or family member like to have the relationship structure?
A third step, the work out of ways to reach the target state from the actual state, is usually unnecessary, because this happens intuitively.
My instruction usually looks like this:
Imagine that the relationship between you and your child would be a cloud. It depicts situations in which there is disharmony, you argue, one ignores the other, hurts, etc. is depicted as lightning. And situations in which warmth is palpable, praise, playing cards together, an appreciation, an encouragement, a positive mood when eating together, etc. are presented as hearts. (Figure ).
What would your cloud look like?
The answer to this question can either be simply estimated or actually collected over several days. Based on this, one can consider how one wants to have the cloud. Changes that may already be necessary here may become apparent.
Parents sometimes respond to lightning by brushing off a heart. For example, if a young child doesn’t do what a parent wants, there’s a fight: lightning. So I’m cutting the pocket money: the loss of a heart. The fewer hearts there are in the cloud, the more difficult it will be to rebuild the relationship later.
It’s best to start by balancing each lightning situation with a heart situation. The goal is not to have only heart situations, because where only sun shines, the earth dries up.
How to work on the parent-child relationship
If you are looking for help on the Internet, you will find different but similar lists of hints on what to do to improve the parent-child relationship. These lists may be helpful to some.
Often it is not necessary to strive for big changes, because there are very small things that change the relationship significantly. It may be that, in the event of a severe alienation between parent and child, a little more effort is needed on the part of the parents for the time being. However, the effort can be reduced by knowing exactly at which corners to start in order to rebuild the relationship.
The real work on the parent-child relationship in adolescents is to question and change the values of the parents. The prerequisites for a sustainable relationship are the basic attitude and the way in which the parents experience a relationship. Parents act according to the attitude they have towards the child, what ideas they have about the needs of the young people or what social norms and values they live. If this attitude does not match the real needs of young people, a distance arises that can be harmful to both sides.
But even young children are already able to take their part of the responsibility for rebuilding the relationship and to help shape it, and the desire for a good relationship with their parents is almost always to be found. Young people often have a lot of developmental tasks to solve at the same time and put the relationship with the parents at the back. The relationship can only be built if parents are willing to do most of this work.
Treatment of problematic parent-child relationships in adolescents
If families decide to improve the problematic relationship with professional help, the treating psychologist or psychotherapist has the role to support the process. The process is adapted to the individuality of the family, which is why here only an exemplary process is presented. The steps can look like this:
Containing. The task in the first step is to provide a space in which clients feel safe to say everything and at the same time be protected from (new) injury.
Develop understanding for each other. All perspectives are given sufficient space and are discussed until everyone knows about and understands the different perspectives. It is precisely on this point that we often observe that clients are rashly aware of the views of other family members, although this is not the case on closer inspection. Every view is allowed and valuable. Solutions or solution ideas are not important in this step.
Role clarity. The more the conflicts (or the absence of conflicts) in families are pronounced, the more unclear the roles of family members seem to be. The family decides for itself who has which role and thus what tasks and freedoms. It is important that these roles are clear and can also be communicated clearly.
Needs. Both parents and adolescents have specific needs at this stage of life. In this step, a) one’s own needs are perceived and communicated and b) negotiated how the initially contradictory needs can be pacified together.
Try. The agreements from step 4 are tried out and tested in everyday life.
It is not uncommon for step 5 to go back to 4, 3 or 2. It is only when we test it that it turns out exactly where the difficulties lie.
- Masche, J. G. (2006). Eltern-Kind-Beziehung und Elternverhalten bei 13-und 16-Jährigen. Individuation oder Ablösung. Zeitschrift für Soziologie der Erziehung und Sozialisation, 26(1), 7–22.
- Omer, H. (2004). Non-violent resistance: A new approach to violent and self-destructive children. Cambridge University Press.
- Polt, W., & Rimser, M. (2006). Aufstellungen mit dem Systembrett: Interventionen für Coaching, Beratung und Therapie. Ökotopia Verlag.
The causes are mostly related to the social environment, the current rapid change in societies and/or the rapid changes in our value systems, but are not examined in more detail in this text. ↩