In an article that appeared in Domestic Intelligence (1.19.2009), psychologist and writer Dr. Terri Apter suggests that recent discoveries about the still-developing adolescent human brain and traditional explanations about raging teenage hormones do not sufficiently explain the teen’s experience of parents. And they therefore do not sufficiently help us understand why teenagers fight so much with their parents.
Apter maintains that recognizing the teen’s own uncertainty about who he is, alongside his eager need to establish a sense of identity, is more helpful in understanding (and navigating) the frequently volatile parent-teen relationship.
The teen years involve significant self-questioning, self-discovery and self-development across a range of issues — including gender, faith, intellect and relationship. Parents become mirrors: Teens want that mirror to reflect back to them the vividness and clarity they themselves do not feel.
While the arguments teens will have with their parents focus on seemingly trivial or superficial issues, the real issue at hand for the adolescent is more likely whether his parent acknowledges (or challenges) his maturity, capability and human value — something that is causing the adolescent ongoing and agonizing self-doubt.
Writes Apter: “Teens get so heated in arguments with parents because so much is at stake: they are fighting to change their relationship with a parent, to make a parent see that they are not the child the parent thinks she knows. They want to shake a parent into an awareness of the new and exciting person they hope to become…
“Perversely, teens expect the parent to appreciate who they have become, even before they know; they demand recognition for the new person they see themselves to be — or on the way to being.”
Apter’s research reassuringly shows that quarreling with one’s teen is not necessarily the sign of a bad relationship. The quality of a parent-teen bond has several measures:
- the comfort of simply being together;
- the willingness to share a range of daily experiences; and
- the willing to express a range of feelings (happiness as well as unhappiness).
What a teen is aiming for is, after all, to gain recognition and new respect for the parents he still loves.
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Terri Apter, Ph.D. (Newnham College, Cambridge) has published several books on family dynamics, identity and relationships, to great international acclaim (among them: You Don’t Really Know Me; The Myth of Maturity; The Sister Knot).