October 24, 2022

Q&A with Dr. Kalee Gross: The Parent-Adolescent Relationship [PART 1 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 this five part series to see what Dr. Gross says about the latest research on the parent-adolescent relationship.

Why does the parent-adolescent relationship matter? 

I think sometimes we get these stereotypes that the parent adolescent relationship doesn't hold as much weight or isn't as important as peers during this time. And it is true there tends to be this kind of tendency to be highly influenced by peers, though that parent-adolescent relationship is still really important during this time.  

Research has shown that high quality and positive parent adolescent relationships tend to predict lower levels of adolescent depression, fewer delinquent problems, and it can also help protect against antisocial behaviors.  

Research has also shown that any time there's a disruption to that family system, it's pretty normative and typical for some children and teenagers to have this delinquent, pushing-back behavior. And so, if there's a higher quality and positive parent adolescent relationship, even just one with one of those parents, it can be a protective factor against these pieces.  

Adolescent development: What’s going on in the brain? 

Looking at the development of the teenage brain, this period for teenagers is a really big time of rapid cognitive biases, social or biological and psychosocial changes. And so, one of those changes during this time is that they have an increased activation in their limbic structures, their amygdala, hypothalamus.  

They also have an increase in release of hormones during this time. And so, this has been related to an increase in sensitivity to negative emotions and emotional lability during this time. So, you might see the teenager having more of a pessimistic attitude about things are not seeing things in as much of a positive light. And to a certain extent this is normative for them.  

They also have increased reward sensitivity. So that means, “I want it, I want to know, I want to feel good, I want those things that feel really rewarding to me”. And so that can mean that they're having more experience, experimentation or risk-taking during this time. 

At the same time, their prefrontal cortex is developing. That's the part of the brain that's involved in that self-regulation and inhibitory control. But that part of that brain is maturing at a gradual rate.  

And so, there's kind of this imbalance between the activation of that limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. One way to think about it is almost like the teenage brain is hitting the gas while their brakes are out for repair. So, they're going, they're going, and going, and yet they don't have as much of this protective factor to help slow them down a bit.  

Some other changes that occur are looking at that psychosocial development piece. Teens are faced with a wide variety of new stressors during this time. So, one of those stressors is just an increased expectation for maturity. And another big one is that they have higher expectations for their academic achievement, while at the same time they're progressively going into larger schools. And so, when they're in these larger schools, there's a tendency to have fewer opportunities for support in those close student-teacher relationships. So, we have this increase in expectations and lower levels of support, which can create some stress for them, their peer relationships, or tend to also be more intense during this time. So psychosocial, they have all of these pieces contributing to their stress level. 

Adolescent development: How to balance between autonomy and privacy? 

A piece of adolescent development that's important to note is that they are striving for autonomy and increasingly asking for more of it. And that's a normal part of their development, which sometimes can cause conflict because they might be striving for autonomy sooner than they develop those self-regulation strategies. This leads to some changes in the relationship that occur.  

During this time, throughout adolescence, the parents and teens, they have to reorganize their relationship in a way that is more egalitarian. So instead of the parent being on top and the adolescent being down below, they have to start shifting it so that they tend to become more horizontal. And this is a progressive change. It's not an overnight thing that happens. And so, as they're organizing this relationship, there's also an increase in that interdependence on each other and increase in the responsibilities that that adolescent has.  

During this time, one thing that we have to do is find a balance between autonomy and privacy. During this time, teens tend to progressively view information about their life as more private, while parents still view it as their jurisdiction and want to know about it. So if we can find and create this relational context where the teens can share this information and feel supported, and sharing it without it feeling like a threat to their autonomy, that can be really helpful to decrease this conflict that tends to come up if the parent wants to know more about what's going on about the teen is saying “Nope, I don't want to tell you it's my life. I get to decide who knows about these things.” So, if we can create this context where the teen feels safer to share without their autonomy being threatened, that will help decrease some of that conflict.  

One way we can actually do that is through the use of validation. Validation really helps open up communication and conversations in a way that helps people feel heard and understood and less threatened.   

Check out part 2 of 5 on the parent-adolescent relationship.