Four Key Ingredients of Strong Family Relationships
In hindsight, my relationship with my parents was ideal when I was a teen. Adolescence is a time when we discover, learn, and adapt to the world around us, and my parents supported this by letting me express myself and giving me more responsibilities and privileges as I got older. I did my homework and got good grades because they expected me to and explained it was important for me to be successful in the future. I got home by curfew or called them if I was running late because I didn’t want to hurt our relationship and lose my earned privileges. After all, they trusted me and I trusted them to care for me. And, I didn’t give them (too much) grief about pausing a video game to eat dinner with them and my brother because I knew it was important to them that we ate as a family. In return, I got to go to punk rock shows, hang out with friends on weeknights, and go to the occasional high school party. I consider myself very lucky that I was raised in this caring, supportive way.
We now have more knowledge than ever before about adolescent development and why and how family relationships contribute to preparing tomorrow’s leaders. Recent research from Australia confirms that strong relationships contain four critical pieces.
Closeness involves a caring and supportive relationship between parents and teens. Closeness can be broken down even further into two smaller yet vital parts: emotional support and companionship.
To teens, emotional support means they can talk to their parents about challenges, and expect parents will respond in a non-judgemental way grounded in unconditional love. Parents will guide their teens to find solutions to their problems. As one teen in the study said about their parents, “Like you have a problem, get it off your chest, always someone there to talk to you about it, get it off your chest, and then see ways to get through it.” Notably, many teens also said they would rather talk to their parents than their peers about problems because parents are more reliable.
As I was reading this, I remembered the emotional support my parents offered me during a challenging time in my life. Immediately after college, I went away for graduate school. What started as an exciting opportunity quickly turned sour. I realized my closest friends and family were far away. I was homesick and sad. But, as part of our solid family relationship, my parents were there for me — whether it was daily Skype calls or giving me a shoulder to cry on when I had to return to school after a Christmas break at home. Allowing me to express my feelings without judgment and helping me test out new ways of thinking were key factors in processing this difficult time in ways that made me a more emotionally mature adult.
Companionship involves spending quality time together and genuinely enjoying each other’s company. This can lead to greater respect, trust, and caring between parents and teens, which help adolescents explore new territory. As one 17-year-old girl in the study said, “We don’t really have many awkward moments because we can chat a lot, we have a lot of common interests, her taste in music has rubbed off on me.” This statement reminds me a lot of my experience as a teen. At one point in high school, I chose to chat with my mom in the living room after school rather than napping in front of the TV. I found her insights and advice invaluable while navigating high school and thinking about college. When navigating new landscapes, it can help to have a guide, someone who has been down this road before.
Teens look to their parents for cues on how to behave and treat others. They admire how their parents work hard to support family relationships and create a respectful and caring home. Teens notice the ways parents cope with stress and practice self-care. If parents cope by using short-term fixes like drinking or smoking, teens are more likely to do the same because they think this is an acceptable way to deal with problems. But, if parents cope by talking it out with others, exercising, or using another healthy strategy, teens are more likely to choose this over drugs or alcohol.
As a teen, I modeled my behaviors and interests after my dad. The music I like today comes from my dad introducing me to Nirvana and Led Zeppelin as a teen. When I was in high school, he played bass in a cover band. Guess which instrument I decided to pick up in high school and continue playing in college? I thought it was cool that my dad was passionate about music and this no doubt contributed to my own willingness to branch out and try on that new challenge for myself when I had the chance.
Teens accept the rules and expectations their parents set for them when the reasons behind them are clearly explained. In general, teens expect parents to set boundaries to keep their safety and morality in check. They accept boundaries when parents make clear they are set to protect them. They appreciate those boundaries when they understand and recognize their parents only want the best for them. Conflict can sometimes arise as teens attempt to establish their independence and show how they differ from other family members. This is a key developmental milestone of adolescence. However, rules or boundaries should not invade territory teens consider “personal.” This could mean, for example, the clothes they wear or how they choose to decorate their room. These are ways in which teens begin to express their personalities and find their identities. When parents step into this territory, teens are more likely to rebel unless parents clearly and calmly explain that a specific choice puts safety or morality at risk. For example, parents can explain why a particular outfit or poster on the wall conflicts with the family’s values.
This was the finding that most surprised the study’s lead author Sarah McKenna. “I really expected the narrative around parent rules to be ‘They’re so strict and I hate their rules, and they don’t understand. But most [teens] were like, ‘I appreciate the rules and when they’re strict with me because it shows that they care about me.’” Looking back, the rules and boundaries my parents set when I was a teen gave me a basic rulebook for how to act as an adult.
After I got my driver’s license, my parents set a 10pm curfew for reasons that were easy to understand and clearly linked with keeping me safe and healthy. They explained that it’s harder for people to see at night, so accidents are more likely. They also wanted me to be home so I could get a good night’s rest and be prepared for school the next day.
Don’t Buy into Stereotypes about Teens
Disagreements can come up occasionally, but they aren’t the defining characteristic of many parent-teen relationships. When conflict arises, it can be helpful for parents to remain calm because teens can cue off of that to settle themselves down. If the situation is becoming too intense, experts advise that parents step away for a moment to collect themselves and come back with a clearer head and be better able to discuss the issue more calmly.
Most family relationships are warm, loving, and supportive. They are not the endless heated battles too often depicted on TV. Even when families talk about who teens hang out with or how much time they spend on their phones, these conversations can be centered on caring about their well-being. When parents buy into the idea that adolescence is a period filled with “storm and stress,” those low expectations can become a reality that leads to more risk-taking and rebelliousness from teens.
Ultimately, teens need a combination of warmth and rules that forms the foundation of what we call balanced parenting. I’m grateful my parents pieced this together and raised me to be the kind and successful adult I am today, which is why I work to ensure that all of us have the support we need to explore, discover, and become a force for good in our communities