October 24, 2022

Q&A with Dr. Kalee Gross: The Parent-Adolescent Relationship [PART 4 of 5]

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We sat down with one of UCEBT's parent-child relationship specialists, Dr. Kalee Gross, to ask about the parent-adolescent relationship. What's it all about? Why is it important? How can it be improved? Read along in part 4 of this five part series to see what Dr. Gross says about the latest research on the parent-adolescent relationship.

The benefits of conflict in the relationship 

Conflict in the parent adolescent relationship is normal, it's typical. And there's a lot of benefits to having this conflict. The conflict is a helpful way to renegotiate the relationship. It's a helpful way to reorganize it more towards an egalitarian relationship. If we work through the conflict, it's really helpful because it can actually decrease future conflict and increase that closeness in that relationship. And if that conflict is handled in a helpful and healthy way, it can actually model for the teens how to be in any conflict. 

So, we want to make sure that we're having conflict that's done in a helpful way because it can be really positive for that relationship.  

Emotional Variability: What it is and why it’s important 

How conflict is handled makes a difference on the outcome with it especially as it relates to emotional variability. Emotional variability means being able to express more of those positive AND negative emotions during conflict.  

Research has shown that the greater emotional variability there is during conflict, the better the parent-adolescent relationship tends to be.  As an example, if a teenager comes home late for their curfew and they didn't text you... and then you are more worried and pissed off about it... during this conflict, having that emotional variability  would be saying to them, “I'm really disappointed in you that you were late and you didn't tell me that you were going to be late. I was so worried about you and didn't know if you were safe, and I'm so glad that you are safe and that you are here. You know I love you and I'm glad you're safe.” So, it's having both of those aspects in there and trying not to get stuck on those the one side of emotions during conflict.  

There's been research done to show the positive outcomes from having this greater emotional variability during conflicts. One research looked at mother-adolescent dyads specifically, and they show that the greater the emotional variability during the conflict in these interactions, they tended to report a better relationship quality. Over time, the teen felt more support for their autonomy, and there was less frequent conflict. And it allowed reorganization in the relationship to happen just more efficiently.  

So it’s important for parents to think about trying to increase that emotional variability during conflict, trying to get unstuck from the anger or the fear or whatever that it is so that those types of emotions are not the only one that comes up.  

Another really cool outcome of having this greater emotional variability during conflicts is that there tends to be a higher disclosure from adolescence and a more open communication pattern. (“They don't talk to me as much... I don't know what they're doing...”) Well, if we can increase this emotional variability during conflicts, that will help open up the door for that higher disclosure from teens and open up those communication patterns to actually meet the goal that you have to improve that communication and know what's going on in their private life.  

Parenting by example: modeling conflict and emotional regulation 

Another important thing to mention for conflict, in general, is just modeling conflict resolution and emotion regulation. Something for parents to consider is that your teenagers are always watching you. They are watching how you handle situations and they're learning from you whether you want them to learn that behavior or not. 

Even if you are managing the conflict well with your teen, but not handling it as well in other relationships (work, friends, family) that's still communicating to them how to handle conflict with other people. So we just want to be really aware of how that conflict is being handled and how we can shift it in a way that is going to be more helpful.  

So, thinking about “how am I handling this conflict right now?... is that how I would want my child to be handling the conflict?”  

Teenagers of parents who have a harder time regulating their emotions tend to also report having more trouble regulating their own emotions. If the parents are struggling with emotion regulation, you're likely going to see that from the teens as well.  

Family rituals are important 

Another way we can look at improving this relationship, is by adding in family rituals.  

Research has shown that when there are family rituals, it's often related to the adolescent having a greater sense of identity. They tend to also have a greater general sense of sense of self-esteem. And there is a greater increase in family cohesion and lower levels of conduct disorder when we have these family rituals in place. 

I think this is kind of a fun way to improve that relationship because you can get really creative with it. I know we're busy as adults, there's a lot going on, a lot of different pieces that we're trying to juggle, so these rituals don't have to be big thing. It can be something smaller. It could be like a special handshake or a hug before their activity, before they go to school. It could be that, whenever you play a certain game that you have special family rules. Or maybe you have a movie night once a month and at that movie night, you always have popcorn and certain types of candy. And so, we can try to find ways to add it in that works for your family and feels really fun.  


Stay tuned for Part 5 of 5 on the parent-adolescent relationship.