Adolescent children and their parentsRuth Weston and Christine Millward
How often do parents and adolescent children argue, and what do they argue about? Do they like each other? How do they view their relationships with one another? The authors report findings based on reports of 193 adolescent school students, 60 adolescent school leavers and their parents living in Berwick, Victoria, who participated in the Australian Institute of Family Studies' Australian Living Standards Study. The conclusion reached is that Berwick parents and their adolescent children appear to get on well together - indeed, this is one of the most satisfactory aspects of their lives. Relationships were intrinsically positive and arguments infrequent. There is no evidence to suggest that in the majority of cases where arguments did occur they were serious enough to damage family relationships.
Adolescence is a period of transition from childhood to adulthood both physiologically and psychologically. It is often portrayed as a period of 'storm and stress' for the young person experiencing these changes although, as Noller and Patton (1990) point out, research evidence does not always support this view. These authors refer to studies of the wellbeing of parents at different stages in the family life cycle which indicate that it is the parents of adolescents who experience the storm and stress. Then there is the concept of the 'generation gap' which suggests that it is the relationship between parents and their adolescent children which is stormy and stressful.
BONES OF CONTENTION
Arguments between parents and their adolescent children living in the outer suburb of Berwick in Victoria seem less frequent than might be expected given popular beliefs about adolescence. The results presented in Figures 1 and 2 are based on reports of 193 adolescent school students, 60 adolescent school leavers, and their parents who participated in the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study. With the use of five-point rating scales, adolescents indicated how frequently (never, rarely, sometimes, often, very often) they argued with their parents over a range of issues which affected their daily lives; their parents also reported how frequently they argued with their adolescent children over these matters.
The secondary school students were 12-19 years old, with an average age of nearly 15 years; around half were boys and half were girls. The school leavers were 15-19 years old, with an average age of 18 years; 60 per cent were boys and 40 per cent were girls.
Figure 1, concerning arguments between secondary students and their parents, indicates that arguments were most likely to occur often or very often over household chores or cleaning their rooms, and study habits or homework. Even so, only 30-31 per cent reported frequent arguments about the first of these issues and only 20-28 per cent reported frequent arguments about the second.
Figure 2, concerning arguments between school leavers and parents, shows that parents (one-third) and boys (one- quarter), but only 10 per cent of girls, reported that household chores or cleaning their rooms were most likely to create frequent arguments. According to girls, the issue most likely to cause frequent arguments concerned money spent on entertainment, but even here, only 15 per cent reported frequent arguments.
So overall, arguments about each issue were considered to occur, at most, only sometimes by the majority of parents and their adolescent children, trends consistent with other studies (Peterson 1990).
How, then, should we describe relationships between adolescents and their parents? Does infrequent arguing indicate that relationships are intrinsically positive and rewarding, or that parents and their adolescent children tend to avoid discussing issues that might provoke conflict? Or are the arguments, no matter how infrequent, so heated when they do occur that they strain relationships between parents and their adolescent children?
QUALITY OF RELATIONSHIPS
In order to examine these questions, adolescents and their parents were asked to indicate how satisfied they felt about the quality of their relationship with each other, in addition to their feelings about their lives generally and a range of other domains of life (see boxed inset). Respondents rated these on nine-point scales ranging from extremely dissatisfied to extremely satisfied.
For each of the domains, average ratings of 6.50 and above are treated as indicating clear satisfaction, with ratings of at least 7.00 indicating high satisfaction; average ratings of below 3.50 are taken as representing clear dissatisfaction, and those between 3.50 and 6.49 are classified as mixed feelings.
Mothers, on average, expressed high satisfaction with nine issues which included all those referring to family relationships.
The greatest source of satisfaction for mothers was their relationship with their children. This was closely followed by their relationship with their partner, and their partner's relationship with the children. Mothers were also very happy with the wellbeing of their children and how well the children in the household got on with each other. Other matters generating high satisfaction for mothers were their independence, their housing, the respect and recognition they received. On average, they also expressed high satisfaction with their life as a whole.
The most satisfactory aspect of life for fathers was their partner's relationship with the children, followed by their own relationship with them. They were also highly satisfied with their relationship with their partner and their children's wellbeing. Other matters generating high satisfaction were fathers' independence, and the respect or recognition they received. Fathers were clearly happy with life generally, housing, and relationships between children in the household.
Thus, both mothers and fathers derived the greatest satisfaction from family relationships, particularly relationships between parents and children, and relationships with each other. No more than five fathers and seven mothers expressed clear dissatisfaction with any of these matters.
Although highly satisfied with both issues, mothers were significantly more satisfied with their own rather than with their partner's relationship with their children. Both mothers and fathers were happier with parent-child relationships than with how well the children in the household got on with each other.
To put these views about family relationships in perspective, it is worthwhile to consider how parents felt about the other aspects of life. Mothers and fathers were clearly satisfied with themselves and their health, while mothers also indicated clear satisfaction with their personal, emotional life, and the number of close friends they had. Parents expressed mixed feelings about all except two other issues: they were clearly dissatisfied with the activities of both the Federal and State governments.
Such trends are consistent with an earlier national survey of 697 Australians (mostly aged at least 20 years) conducted in 1978 by Headey and Wearing (1981). However, Berwick parents in 1991 were significantly more dissatisfied with the Federal and State governments compared with the national sample in 1978.
Views of school leavers
Consistent with the trends for parents, school leavers (both girls and boys) expressed high satisfaction with their relationship with their parents - this was close to how they felt about their independence, personal health and the number of close friends they had.
Other issues generating clear or high satisfaction were their lives generally, their housing and living standards, their personal, emotional lives, and the respect or recognition they received. Boys also indicated high satisfaction with their love life, while girls reported mixed feelings about this. Girls indicated high satisfaction with their relationship with other children in the household, an issue generating mixed feelings in boys.
Other matters about which girls expressed clear satisfaction, but boys indicated mixed feelings, were: themselves, what they were accomplishing in life, and their opportunities for leisure or recreation.
Like their parents, the greatest sources of dissatisfaction for school leavers were the Federal and State governments.
Views of secondary school students
As with the other groups, relationships with parents emerged as one of the greatest sources of satisfaction for school students (only one boy and four girls were clearly dissatisfied with parent-child relationships).
School students also expressed high satisfaction with their lives generally, their personal health, their school, housing, and living standards. Girls were also highly satisfied with the number of close friends they had, while boys expressed mixed feelings about this.
Girls were clearly satisfied with themselves, the respect or recognition they received, what they were accomplishing in life, their independence, and how well they got on with other children in the household; boys indicated mixed feelings about such matters.
These adolescents were least impressed with the Federal and State governments; however, many (approximately 30 per cent) did not even rate these issues because they were of no concern to them.
Not surprisingly, the more frequently students argued with their parents, the lower was their satisfaction with their relationship with parents. This was especially the case for girls, suggesting that they took these arguments more seriously. Accordingly, girls who reported relatively frequent arguments with their parents, and those who expressed relatively low satisfaction with their relationship with their parents, tended to have lower self-esteem (as measured by satisfaction with self) than other girls, while for boys self- esteem held little if any connection with these matters.
It seems that Berwick parents and their adolescent children get on well together - indeed, this is one of the most satisfactory aspects of their lives. Boys and girls, whether school students or school leavers, gave very similar appraisals about their relationship with their parents.
However, mothers were the most satisfied of all groups with their own relationship with their children. Relationships between siblings were not viewed in such a positive light. While parents and daughters were inclined to be at least clearly satisfied with this matter, sons tended to express mixed feelings.
The trends concerning parent-child relationships may seem surprising given that adolescence represents a period in which dependency gives way to autonomy, when the issue of freedom is negotiated between parents and adolescents.
Relationships were intrinsically positive and arguments infrequent. There is no evidence to suggest that in the majority of cases where arguments did occur they were serious enough to damage family relationships. The severity of conflict in a minority of cases may obscure the fact that, on average, relationships between parents and their adolescent children are very positive.
- Headey, B. and Wearing, A. (1992), Understanding Happiness: A Theory of Subjective Wellbeing, Longman- Cheshire, Melbourne.
- Noller, P. and Patton, W. (1990), 'Maintaining family relationships at adolescence', in P.C.L. Heaven and V.J. Callan (eds), Adolescence: An Australian Perspective, Harcourt Brace Janovich, Sydney.
- Peterson, C.C. (1990), 'Disagreement, negotiation, and conflict resolution in families with adolescents', in P.C.L. Heaven and V.J. Callan (eds), Adolescence: An Australian Perspective, Harcourt Brace Janovich, Sydney.
|Parents of Adolescents||Adolescents|
|How satisfied are you with the following aspects of your life||How satisfied are you with the following aspects of your life|
|The income your family has||The income your family has|
|Your personal income||Your personal income|
|Your health||Your health|
|Your housing||Your housing|
|Your transport situation||Your transport situation|
|Your employment situation||Your opportunities for leisure|
|Your level of education/qualifications||The amount of time you have to do the things you want to do|
|Your opportunities for leisure||The amount of money you have available to you personally|
|The amount of time you have to do the things you want to do||The number of close friends you have|
|The amount of money you have available to you personally||Your love life|
|The number of close friends you have||Your relationship with your parents|
|The wellbeing of your children||How well you get on with the other children in the household|
|Your relationship with your partner||Your independence or freedom|
|Your relationship with your children||The respect or recognition you get|
|How well the children in the household get on with each other||The extent to which you are the kind of person you would like to be|
|Your partner's relationship with your children||What you are accomplishing in your life|
|Your independence or freedom||The amount of pressure you are under|
|The respect or recognition you get||What the Federal government is doing|
|The extent to which you are the kind of person you would like to be||What the State/Territory government is doing|
|What you are accomplishing in your life||What the Council or Shire is doing|
|The amount of pressure you are under||Your personal, emotional life|
|What the federal government is doing||Your overall living standard|
|What the State/Territory government is doing||Your life as a whole|
|What the Council or Shire is doing|
|Your personal, emotional life|
|Your overall living standard|
|Your life as a whole|
* If you have difficulty reading any of the tables or figures, please contact the Institute for a photocopy.
In this issue
- Children's voices, adults' choices: Children's rights to legal representation
- The child's right to know both parents: Enforcement of child access
- What unemployment means: Young people and their families
- A safe place for children: Views from the outer suburbs
- Children's welfare, rights and the legal system
- Childhood in its social context: The under-socialised child?
- Adolescent children and their parents
- Long-term relationships between parents
- Families, work and industrial relations
- Self care for school aged children