Saturday, 31 March 2012

Parent-Adolescent Relationships in Interpersonal and Societal Context

The nature and quality of adolescents’ relationships with parents continues to be one of the most heavily researched topics on adolescence. Despite decades of psychological research to the contrary, the persistent perception in the popular culture is that adolescence is a difficult period entailing significant moodiness, storm
and stress, and willful disobedience toward parents. Yet, overwhelming evidence from the past 30 years indicates that extreme alienation from parents, active rejection of adult values and authority, and youthful rebellion are the exception, not the norm, that only a small proportion of adolescents (from 5%–15%, depending on the sample) experience emotional turmoil and extremely conflicted relations with parents, and that extreme difficulties typically have their origins prior to adolescence.

Nevertheless, adolescent-parent relationships do go through significant transformations during adolescence, and parents perceive adolescence as the most challenging and difficult stage of childrearing. During adolescence, European American and European youth spend progressively less time with parents and family and more time with peers, although decreases in shared time depend to some extent on the type of activity considered. Longitudinal research using the experience sampling method to examine adolescents’ daily moods indicates that adolescents’ negative emotional states increase as they transition into and move through adolescence, although the downward trend stops (but does not reverse) in late adolescence. Family relationships are transformed from more hierarchical relationships at the outset of adolescence to more egalitarian relationships by late adolescence.

Conflict, Distancing, and Separation
Bickering, squabbling, and disagreements over everyday issues characterize parent-adolescent relationships, particularly during early adolescence. Although high levels of conflict during adolescence are deleterious for adolescent development, relationships, and future adjustment, researchers now agree that conflict in early adolescence is a normative and temporary perturbation that is functional in transforming family relationships. Moreover, moderate conflict with parents is associated with better adjustment than either no conflict or frequent conflict and does not influence the subsequent quality of parent adolescent relationships (as assessed longitudinally), although closeness and support are highly stable overtime. Along standing assumption was that conflict with parents follows a U-shaped trajectory across adolescence, with conflict peaking in middle adolescence and then declining. A recent meta-analysis has demonstrated, however, that the trajectory depends on how conflict is assessed. The rate (number of conflicts and their frequency of occurrence) peaks in early adolescence and then declines, while conflict intensity increases from early to middle adolescence, with mother-daughter dyads experiencing more conflicts than other parent-child configurations.

Reflecting the available research, meta-analysis included studies of primarily white, middle-class families. Since then, research has emphasized ethnic, racial, and cultural variations in conflict expression and resolution and has been guided by the cultural psychology assumption that conflict in interpersonal relationships is more characteristic of individualistic cultures than cultures (or ethnic groups) that espouse more interdependent, familistic, or collectivist values. Yet, age-related increases in parent-adolescent disagreements consistently have been found in studies examining American families of varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds and among adolescents in Asian cultures, although perhaps at a lower frequency than among European American youth. Increases in conflict in early adolescence have been explained within evolutionary, psychoanalytic, social-psychological, and social-cognitive frameworks, but whether the theoretical lens focuses on the biological changes of puberty or advances in adolescent social cognition, all of these approaches have in common the notion that parent-adolescent conflict leads to adolescents’ greater independence from parents. Moreover, developmental issues also are salient for parents; conflict with adolescents among parents who are facing midlife issues contributes to psychological symptoms and life dissatisfaction, particularly for mothers.

Most conflicts with parents during adolescence are resolved by disengaging (e.g., walking away) or giving in to parents, but European American adolescents are less compliant with parents’ wishes than are adolescents of other ethnicities, and the more acculturated adolescents become, the more they resemble European American youth. Conflict resolution has been claimed to provide adolescents with developmentally appropriate opportunities to learn negotiation skills, but surprisingly little research has examined this proposition.

Structural changes in the family, like divorce and remarriage, have been found to lead to a temporary disruption of adolescent-parent relationships, including increased conflict, particularly in the first two years following a divorce and with the new step parent. However, some evidence suggests that adolescent-parent conflict is less frequent in stably divorced, mother-headed households than in two-parent households, perhaps because mother-adolescent relationships in stably divorced families tend to be less hierarchical. Likewise, economic strain, both chronic and more sudden (for instance, among Midwestern farming families who experienced economic decline), is associated with more negative parent-adolescent relationships, including greater parent-adolescent conflict and more negative emotions, as well as more harsh, punitive parenting. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis has shown that socioeconomic disadvantage is strongly and consistently related to harsh, unresponsive parenting.

Closeness and Warmth
A well-established finding is that both adolescents’ feelings of support, closeness, and intimacy and objectively observed assessments of warmth and cohesion in adolescent-parent relationships decline during adolescence, although evidence from several studies suggests that relationships improve once adolescents leave home. Similar developmental trajectories in warmth and closeness have been found in ethnic minority youth, with some variations in the timing of when closeness declines, and closer, more secure attachment to parents during adolescence is associated with greater social competence and better psychosocial adjustment.

Relationships with mothers and fathers have been found to differ in both quality and substance. Studies consistently show that across ages, adolescents are closer and spend more time in direct interaction with mothers than with fathers. Adolescents also talk more about private matters like dating and sexual attitudes and information with mothers than with fathers. They are equally likely to talk about more impersonal issues, such as schoolwork, future plans, and social issues with either parent. Experts attribute this difference to the perception that fathers provide informational and material support while mothers provide more emotional support. Given the consistent finding that adolescents’ relationships with mothers and fathers differ, surprisingly little empirical research includes fathers or examines the differential influence of mothers and fathers on adolescent development.

Parenting Styles
Along with adolescent-parent relationships, the effects of parenting on adolescent development continue to be very heavily researched, although there have been significant shifts in approach over the past decade. Baumrind’s (1991) tripartite parenting typology, which has been refined to classify parenting into four categories derived from two orthogonal dimensions of demandingness and responsiveness, continues to be the most popular approach. A well-established finding, supported by vast numbers of studies, is that adolescents raised in authoritative homes(where parents are both demanding and responsive) are more psychosocially competent as assessed on a wide array of outcomes than are adolescents raised in authoritarian, permissive, or rejecting-neglecting homes. Furthermore, the benefits of authoritativeness trump the benefits of consistency in parenting; adolescents reared in homes where only one parent is authoritative have been shown to be more academically competent than adolescents reared in homes where parents are consistent but not authoritative in their parenting.

Authoritative parenting is more prevalent among European American than among ethnic minority parents and among middle-than among lower-socioeconomic-status families. Steinberg (2001) has concluded that authoritative parenting benefits youth of all ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. Some have argued, however, that parenting should be assessed in terms of indigenous, culturally salient values. For instance, Chao (1994, 2001) has claimed that the strictness that characterizes Chinese parenting reflects a Confucian, child-centered emphasis on the importance of training (guan) rather than the more punitive, adult-centered attitudes that are reflected in authoritarian parenting. Moreover, there is some evidence that the positive effects of authoritative parenting, at least for immigrant Chinese youth, reflect the influence of greater exposure to American society. Darling & Steinberg (1993) have conceptualized parenting styles as an emotional context that changes the meaning of different parenting practices. This model recasts parenting styles as part of a reciprocal, bidirectional process between parents and adolescents and highlights the importance of parenting styles as influencing adolescents’ willingness to be socialized by parents.

Dimensional Approaches
During the past decade, there has been a shift toward more dimensional approaches to studying parenting during adolescence and particularly toward greater specificity in defining those dimensions. For instance, rather than viewing parental control as a single dimension that ranges from high to low, distinctions have been made between overly intrusive parental control(referred to as psychological control) that attempts to control adolescents’ thoughts and feelings and undermine adolescents’ psychological development and behavioral control, or parental rules, regulations, supervision, monitoring, and management of adolescents’ activities. Proactive parenting and parents’ use of harsh discipline in early childhood, as well as perceptions of parental over control over issues that adolescents believe should be under personal jurisdiction, have been found to lead to adolescents’ feelings of psychological control. In turn, high levels of psychological control have been associated with both internalizing and externalizing problems.

Parental monitoring as a form of behavioral control is increasingly important in adolescence because it allows parents to keep track of their adolescents’ activities, peer associations, and whereabouts while permitting greater autonomy. Numerous studies indicate that inadequate parental monitoring is associated with externalizing problems such as drug use, truancy, and antisocial behavior, while greater parental monitoring is associated with higher academic achievement and better adolescent adjustment. Although it has been assumed that low socioeconomic status is associated with poor monitoring and supervision, associations have been inconsistent. Interestingly, though, recent research indicates that adolescents growing up in highly affluent communities are at increased risk for substance use, anxiety, and depression due to a lack of parental monitoring and supervision as well as pressures to achieve and lack of emotional closeness with parents.

Recently ,it has been observed that parental monitoring and surveillance typically have been operationalized in terms of parents’ knowledge of their adolescents’ activities and whereabouts, rather than parents’ actual tracking and surveillance. In a large longitudinal study of Swedish14-year-olds, demonstrated that only adolescents’ willingness to disclose to parents, and not parents’ attempts to obtain information or actively control their teens’ behavior, influenced adolescents’ associations with deviant peers and problem behaviors. Furthermore, they controlled for closeness in the parent-adolescent relationship, ruling out the alternate explanation that child disclosure is a proxy for good parent-adolescent relationships. Parents appear more likely to solicit information when their adolescents are already more involved in problem behavior.

These findings are provocative, because they challenge the well-established conclusion that parental monitoring and control are essential for successful adolescent development; their results highlight adolescents’ agency in their own development. Although current theoretical perspectives emphasize the reciprocal interplay between parents and adolescents and the importance of adolescents’ willingness to be socialized, the strong presumption in much research on parenting is that the direction of effects is from parents to adolescents. Thus, it is not surprising that these findings have been challenged.
In reanalyses of longitudinal data from a large sample of youth in California and
Wisconsin, found that parental control contributed significantly to both parental knowledge and reductions in juvenile delinquency. The debate about how to define parental monitoring is not yet fully resolved, but it highlights the need to better understand adolescents’ strategies for information management and the implications of disclosure and secrecy for parenting and adolescent development. The findings also suggest the need for greater attention to how parents acquire knowledge of adolescents’ activities and act on that knowledge.

Observational studies of family interactions provide further evidence for the reciprocal nature of interactions between parents and adolescents. In both cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses, family interactions that allow adolescents the opportunity to express independent thoughts and feelings while maintaining closeness and connection to parents facilitate higher self-esteem, better psychosocial competence, less depression, greater ego and identity development, and more mature moral reasoning. The context of risk moderates these effects, however. In low-risk families, undermining autonomy is associated with poorer quality adolescent-parent relationships, but in high-risk families, undermining autonomy is associated with better quality adolescent-parent relationships. Several large-scale cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of family decision making in ethnically diverse samples likewise have shown that joint decision making between parents and adolescents is associated with better adjustment and less deviance, although the findings are moderated by ethnicity, community context, domain of the decision, and age. That is, while parental involvement in decision making is advantageous in early and middle adolescence, adolescents’ increased decision-making autonomy between middle and late adolescence leads to better adjustment in late adolescence.

A final note is that much of the progress in understanding parenting and parent-adolescent relationships during the past decade has come from studies utilizing adolescent informants, but agreement between parents’ and adolescents’ views of parenting or relationships typically is low to moderate. Adolescents’ and parents’ moods and emotions, perceptions of relationship quality, beliefs about parental authority, and reasoning about conflicts all increasingly diverge with age. These discrepancies may be potentially meaningful and developmentally salient because they point to areas of tension and disagreement in family life.

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