During adolescence, parents and teens change in opposite ways

Teen with phone
Teenager with cell phone (Metro photo)

MADISON, Wis. — Most people know the teen years are a turbulent time for adolescents, but many might be surprised to know that mid-life parents are also undergoing significant changes.

Stephen Small, human development and family relations specialist with UW-Extension and professor in the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, says that parents and their teenage children are often changing in opposite ways that may sometimes be the source of stress or conflict.

“Teens’ and parents’ diverging paths are one of the reasons why parents and teens frequently don’t see eye-to-eye,” said Small.

Physical changes

As teens begin moving into their peak years of physical ability, sexuality and attractiveness, middle-aged parents may begin noticing the opposite trends themselves.

“These differences can sometimes, perhaps unconsciously, lead to tensions and concerns,” said Small. For example, parents may worry about their child’s newfound physical maturity and its consequences.

They may be uncomfortable when their teen wears revealing clothing or worry about their child’s romantic relationships. Some parents may even feel competitive with their teen in areas where their child is beginning to surpass them, such as physical strength.

“Just as their child is reaching their physical peak, parents are on a downward slope, noticing the first signs of aging and for the first time experiencing feelings of being physically vulnerable,” said Small.

Emotional changes

As teens seek to build their own unique identities, they want to spend more time with their friends and less with their parents. People outside the family, such as teachers, coaches and rock stars, begin to take on greater importance as possible models for how to live in the world.

Teens want to spend less time with their family, while many parents want to be together more, because they realize that this may be the last chance to have quality time with their children.

More freedom

As their social and emotional worlds expand, teens also look for more freedom, responsibility and control in their lives. And while today’s teens have increasingly greater freedom, they have fewer household responsibilities than past generations.

This can sometimes be irritating to parents who are often struggling to balance substantial work and family responsibilities and have little personal time to call their own.

While an exciting career or life path seems to beckon for teens, parents have often reached their peak career level by middle age. For the majority, the dream of making a million dollars by age 40 is part of the past.

And while teens are experiencing their first love, parents are often settling into a less exciting period of a long-term relationship. This sometimes leads to a decline in marital satisfaction, along with a greater risk for divorce.

“Because teens are striving for greater independence, parents typically lose some of their influence and authority,” said Small. “This can lead parents to feel as if they’re losing control and are less important due to their waning influence.”

A parent’s sense of identity may also be affected.

“Though they were once the center of their child’s life, and childrearing was a critical part of who they were and what they did, as teens begin moving farther from the nest, parents may begin to realize that this once important role is no longer as central as it once was. Like their teen, they are beginning to move into a new stage of life,” Small said.

Changing emotions may mean that mid-life parents experience feelings of sadness, loss and regret related to personal disappointments at work, or in family relationships. As their influence over their teen declines, they may feel stressed by their lack of control and inability to guide their teen’s freedom and the accompanying risks.

On a positive note, the growing independence of their teens means that parents can have more time for themselves and opportunities to explore new pursuits, Small said.

In addition, mid-life identity changes that some parents experience can be a catalyst for personal growth and pursuing new career opportunities.

What can parents do? Focus on adjusting your relationship with your teen.

Know your teen

It’s important for parents to get to know their teen as a maturing individual and to focus on what they have in common.

“Parents often seek to expose their young children to their own interests. During the adolescent years, parents need to increasingly learn and follow their teens’ interests,” said Small.

Develop new interests

As kids get older, parents have more time and sometimes more disposable income to explore new interests, friendships and relationships that are not centered on their children.

Focusing more on themselves will help to ease the transition as teens become more independent and eventually leave home.

Enjoy being more content with who you are. While middle-aged parents may not have the agile bodies of their younger selves, they do tend to gain a greater acceptance of their physical selves.

“The extra pounds and gray hairs have been well earned and mid-lifers are less likely to sweat the blemishes and more likely to feel comfortable in their own skin,” said Small.

In spite of different perspectives, interests and goals between teens and their parents, it’s important to remember that parents continue to play a central role in their youth’s development, Small said.

“Our relationships are often a reflection of our own place in life. Parents who are aware of how their own development might influence the way they relate to their teens, are more likely to view their changing role in a positive light.

Equally important, parents who see these changes as opportunities for their own personal growth are more likely to have fulfilling and satisfying lives as they continue on their own journey.”

To learn more about issues affecting teens and preteens, consider joining the Parenthetical online community. Parenthetical features weekly articles about parenting topics based on research and the collected lessons and wisdom of parents.

You can find this UW-Extension website for parents of tweens and teens at myparenthetical.com.


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