Parents, teens getting along better than we might think

July 12, 1998|By SUSAN REIMER

THERE IS plenty of conflict between the adults and the adolescents in my house. At least I thought that's what it was. Conflict, I mean.

The sharp voices and angry mutterings. The hard-eyed glares and wounded looks. The door-slams and storm-outs, and the ceaseless bickering and nagging and renegotiating.

That stuff qualifies as conflict in my house. I felt normal when I heard about the conflict in the houses of my fellow mothers.

Imagine my dismay when Dr. Robert Blum, lead researcher on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, reported that 90 percent of mothers and 90 percent of adolescents interviewed said that they get along well.

Where was this survey taken, I asked? On the Planet Teen-Ager? Is everybody lying in order to look wholesome?

Or worse. Is my neighborhood the only place where parents argue with their teen-agers?

"They are not saying their relationships are without conflict," Blum says. "There is situational conflict. 'I told my son to be home at midnight and he came home at 12:30.'

"What they are saying is that, fundamentally, they get along well.

"That is not a trivial distinction. That is the basis for building relationships, and 90 percent of American families are saying there is that basis."

Blum is a professor at the department of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and a member of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. He says the notion that adolescence is a time of storm and stress is not accurate or helpful.

We "over-value" the verbal challenging and the temporary withdrawal of our teens, he says, confusing a normal developmental stage with the brutal, unrelenting battles that tear a family apart.

"Particularly for us parents who grew up in homes where voices were rarely raised and children did not openly disagree, when we start to see those disagreements in our children, we view it as conflict."

But the kids don't.

That's why 97 percent of children questioned in a recent New York Times/CBS poll reported that they get along "very well" or "fairly well" with their parents, buttressing the findings in the National Longitudinal Study.

"From a kid's perspective, real conflict is not about getting upset or withdrawing," Blum says. And parents must not overreact to these skirmishes or assume they are all bad.

"As uncomfortable as it is to be questioned, we need to be able to give our children answers. 'Because I said so' doesn't cut it anymore," Blum says. "We need to be able to say what our expectations are and why we have those expectations."

And, he says, we have to be careful not to automatically define those disagreements as bad.

"We have seen many consequences in adolescence for kids raised in authoritarian environments," says Blum. "If we rear kids to be obedient to people who are older, we shouldn't be shocked when our adolescent daughters are obedient to guys who are older."

Anthony Wolf, in his priceless book of advice to the parents of teen-agers titled "Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Take Me and Cheryl to the Mall," calms us by saying that these confrontations satisfy both sides of our children: the emerging adult who is working to free himself from his parents and the little child who still yearns to be close to them.

Following you around the house arguing about every little thing is very efficient, when you think about it.

"It sounds like it is a deliberate attempt to provoke you. But the truth is, teen-agers have a lot to think through," says Blum.

"This is part of that process."

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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