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BRIDGING THE GENERATION GAP: Managing Parent – Teen Conflict Constructively

by on 30 September, 2013

"If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own". Henry Ford

This past month, my much loved, almost fifteen year old daughter and I, had been in constant conflict on all manner of things. This gradually began to affect our relationship. I felt I was becoming a monster, as I heard myself saying ‘NO’ to everything she asked or talked to me about.


I could see the scorn on her face and it unsettled me. I felt she lacked respect for me, as her ‘Mother’ and I wondered why respect had become obsolete in ‘today’s teenagers’. Meanwhile, my daughter just couldn’t understand why her Mum couldn’t just ‘chill out’ and stop being histrionic about how she was living her life! I honestly felt one of us lived on Mars and the other on Venus! I realized that we were living in the same world and the same home, but had totally different windows of perception!

Understanding Generational Conflict in Families

What I was experiencing with my daughter is known to many as ‘generational conflict’ and can be defined as the broad difference in values and attitudes between one generation and another, especially between parents and their children. One generation (the older) tends to have a negative perception of the younger generation, resulting in prejudices, stereotyping and hostile relations, seen very commonly with parents with teen age children.  

Within this generation gap, parents often base their values, beliefs and attitudes on their past experiences, when they were at similar ages with their children, while their adolescents argue according to their surroundings and all else they have been exposed to in their current environments. With these two opposing ways of looking at life, the generational conflict is born. Families that have teenage children experience a lot of this conflict because of the extreme opposing stands taken by the parents and their children.  

There has always been tensions between generations, between us and our parents, our parents and their parents, and between our grandparents with their parents. It is a natural process and isn’t anymore dramatic in this day then it was in our ancestors days!

Effects of Generational Conflict on the Family

Few people engage in conflict for the fun of it, and when there is generational conflict between you and your adolescent child, it affects the whole family, especially your young person. The emotional and psychological stress coming from this conflict, has been known to cause a teenager to runaway from home, or engage in destructive behavior, sometimes go into depression or self harm, as a means of releasing the internal turmoil and emotional pain. The family home too, becomes a hostile environment that is filled with broken trust, anger, helplessness and powerlessness, within which the teenager and the rest of the family are forced to live in.

In Your Adolescent’s World

As parents, we need to understand our adolescent’s world, because it is such a crucial passage into adulthood; most societies traditionally had a formal ceremony to mark the change from childhood to adulthood and has always been a difficult time when young people are changing to become young adults.

Maybe, as a reminder as to what’s going on for your teen, you need to stop and reflect on your teenage years. What were you like? Teens are in that life stage, that is very confusing and very complex for them to even begin to understand what is going on for them! There are myriads of dramatic physical and emotional changes, within a relatively short space of time. They are no longer a ‘child’, yet not quite an ‘adult’. They are struggling for their independence, yet sometimes unwilling to assume the accompanying responsibility. They often want to make their own rules yet have difficulty following family rules. The way in which teens choose to express themselves during this period will be dependent very much in the environment within which they are exposed.

In addition to physiological changes, most teens especially those living in urban areas, are constantly bombarded with different messages from television, movies, mobile phones, print media and the Internet. They have a world of information that they can summon with a click of finger, and easy access to a plethora of knowledge that the generations before them, never imagined possible before. Not forgetting the other social, educational and other environments unfamiliar to you, that they venture into daily, all enable teens to adapt a different value system from their parents and grandparents. When in this evolutionary state (some parents may see it as ‘revolutionary’), it becomes a natural process for teens to have a very strong need to become an individual defined and expressed in their own way, and ready to break away from your way of seeing and living life, and into their own ‘person’.

This phase of your child’s life, should inform parents that there is bound to be conflict, as the young person tries to find out who they are and go with the flow of nature. From my personal experience as a teen, I remember constantly fantasizing about how I would like to go and start over again in another family where I could express myself as an individual. Of course I never did runaway to the ‘greener grass’ family, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to where I could go where Mum and Dad couldn’t find me!!!

The Effects of NOT allowing nature to take place

We all want our children to grow up into mature and confident adults, who are emotionally and psychologically balanced thereby able to make healthy choices for their lives, upon leaving home. If we as parents, don’t support them through adolescence, your teen could end up finding other ‘resources’ to help them cope; or end up at the age of 30 still living in your home and still totally dependent on you; or living away from home, without a clue as to how to look after themselves properly or how to make healthy decisions about their life. Also, because they didn’t fully realize their individuality in their adolescence, there is the possibility of re-living this period that they missed out, in later life!


The Old and Familiar

Every day your teens go into environments that aren’t in your control. It’s true to say, unless our teens tell you who their friends are, whom they ‘hang out’ with at school, what music they like, why they are dressing as they do, you will never know unless they tell us what is going on in their lives. This is a far cry from when they were pre-adolescence and you knew almost everything about them. You were also able to control their comings and goings and feed them with information you felt was appropriate. But now you don’t know how to guide and keep them safe because unless they give you information, we don’t have a clue as to how we can best help them without reverting back to what we know.  

Many parents draw their parenting experience from the way in which they were brought up in their childhoods. Within these boundaries, we try to keep our children safe, and lay the foundations for them to become nice well behaved children. This worked well for our children when they were pre-adolescent, and you were in total control, and they, totally dependant on you. For most parents, it is within these boundaries, that we continue to nurture and parent our changing young people.

Why Isn’t My Parenting Style Not Working with My Teen?

One day you woke up and your child had become a teenager, flexing her muscles to break away from your boundaries, control and ways of thinking. This is all new ground and tough, especially if you have never been down this road before! The relationship changes quite drastically. And the only parenting tools you have in your hand, are what used to work when they were younger!

Then there follows a communication breakdown. Talking with your child barely exists. You can see your teen withdrawing daily, into their own world and you; feeling perplexed, and try even harder to reinforce the parenting skills that you were brought up on, with the added personal experience of your pre-adolescence child, which fitted nicely together, when they were younger.  But it’s not working! The harder you try to reinforce these, the worse the situation becomes. Your frustration increases, we build up anger and blame the young person, moving further and further away from bridging the gap.

Not surprisingly, the generational conflict hits its peak at this point with teens, because the style we revert to is archaic (in their eyes) and not applicable to their present individual circumstances. And true enough, they haven’t a clue as to what you may be talking about because it’s way beyond their imagination!  This is not to say that there aren’t some solid parenting skills you may have received from your parents and which can still be applied to parenting our teens, however, negotiated as opposed to being ‘dumped’ your teen, because this further closes them up more.


Stepping Out of Your Secure and Familiar Environment

How then can we help our children? Do we encourage young people to ‘rebel’ against their parents as a way of 'standing on their own two feet' and establishing their independence, or do we take the opposite view and discourage generational conflict between parents and children by helping both age groups to better understand each other?

At RELATE-KENYA, we believe that parents need to step out of their current parenting boundaries, and get to know their adolescent and the world they live in. This means a change within the family boundaries so that you increase the flexibility that will accommodate your teen’s growing independence. It’s also important to realize that your teen will help you progress, not regress, because of the different sources of knowledge and information gathered from their environment which would help parents learn about their world, instead of fearing that this new knowledge will corrupt your teen, and lead them astray.

We understand the natural reaction to this change by many parents, is resistance, but we do need to listen and walk with our children in the never ending unfamiliar experiences that have become a huge part of their lives outside of home, and that which influences the kind of adult they develop into. Much as their views may be so different from ours, as parents, we need to be able to support their modern values, like critical thinking, and the courage to stand out from the crowd. Integrating the traditional values, which they still need in terms of the basic boundaries,  with the modern ones that teens develop for themselves, is the only way that we as parents of teenagers can enable ourselves to understand the world they live in and parent them accordingly through this very critical passage in their lives. What we also need to realize is that these young people are following a different set of rules within their environment from what we as parents grew up in. This should not be denied to them; otherwise your teen will not be able to cope with the world he or she lives in.

Parental Expectations

Often parents live their dream through their children and this is when the conflicting pressure mounts. Expecting the teenager to excel in academics, bring in accolades for extracurricular activities and be the child of our expectations - well behaved, responsible for themselves and sometimes for their younger siblings, have the right friends - this in itself is enough pressure.
Every significant adult around the teen is attempting to mould him or her into some acceptable shape. It’s important to realize they carry a lot of strain because of the plethora of suggestions given and the defeating panic of failure, lest they don’t meet all your expectations, in addition to the bodily and environmental changes. Amid such hectic activity, the seeds of restlessness, anxiety, fear of failure and unbearable stress are all planted, and if not managed effectively can push your young person into depression.

Open the Dialogue

What we as parents need, is a paradigm shift and a clearer view of parenting skills that are appropriate for your young person. And what your teen desperately needs from you, are open lines of communication, that are so strong that your children can always look at you as an ally and not as an enemy. This requires change on the young person’s side and on the parental side. Often we are so busy living life that it becomes a challenge for most parents to make time for their teen, but for you and your teen to understand each other, they need to know you are accessible and not too busy with your other commitments. They need to be confident that they can come to you when they really need you, especially when they are in trouble. And every child knows when things are not right out there and knows exactly when they are in trouble and when they require you to be there for them. If the dialogue is not open, they will seek other resources.   

If a child is not talking to you any more, the trust has gone, because of generational conflicts. Try and figure out how to reinstate that dialogue and let them know that you care!

Successfully Parenting Your Young Person

It’s not easy being a parent. Sometimes we isolate ourselves too much within the normal confines of the familiar and that which we can control, giving us a limited view of the world and preventing us from growing alongside our adolescent children. As parents we must accept that teenage conflict is inevitable and follows the course of nature. It is certainly not a negative part of our children’s ‘growing’ up, and we shouldn’t label them as such.

As parents, we are all trying to bring up our children in the best way possible, so that one day when they leave home as young adults, the family and the young adult, will know that they will be okay out in the world.

To achieve this, it’s crucial for you and your teen, to find a new way of enriching your existing parenting skills towards making them more relevant to the environments of your young person.
This means reaching out to your teen and initiating dialogue, as soon as possible, especially if you are currently in the heart of the conflict, because the longer the conflict goes on, the harder it becomes for you to create an environment where dialogue can take place. Reasons being: accumulated hurt and the broken trust has built up between the two of you, and they would rather not talk to you but, someone else.

End of My Story

I realize that with my daughter, I had closed down the dialogue completely. I expected her to remain the little girl who was always around, putting Mum on a pedestal, writing lovely little mispelt notes, and agreeing to everything I said. We had been closed away in the little world I had created around us. It was safe. And I knew what to expect. That world began changing for her as she moved into adolescence, into a world out there that I couldn’t relate to, and didn’t want to relate to. I knew later that unless I accepted that she was naturally spreading her wings, I would loose her completely.

I had been stuck and had held onto my ‘little girl’ tightly, not able to see or understand why she wanted to and needed to fly. Now I know, the best thing I can do for her, is walk with her enabling her to deal with the new challenges she faces when she is out in her world. Only then will she be able to fly wherever she needs to, safely.

RELATE’s Talking It Through Service for Young People

Relate realizes because of the misconceptions about teens and the daily stresses and changes they experience, there is a big need for them to have their own space and place, unrelated to the home environment, where they can talk. An environment where they feel accepted, safe and listened to without being judged. Through our Talking It Through Service, we would like those young people needing to talk about their situation, to come and see us. We are here for them.

Alongside this service, we attach our Family Relationship Therapy, also offered to parents who are caught in the heart of this conflict, where we can mediate between you and your teens. We will work with you to enable the re-opening of dialogue with your child, and help you thereafter, to manage conflict with your teen constructively, with the aim of enabling you to rebuild trust with each other and rebuild a new supportive and nurturing relationship.

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