Last updated June 11, 2015
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The Parent Effect

How Parenting Style Affects Adolescent Behavior and Personality Development

Adolescence is the most difficult developmental period for parents and teenagers alike. It is that period in childrearing that sends many parents searching for information or psychological help. This period can be an extremely difficult time or simply one that requires more patience, creativity, humor, and affection on the part of the parent and the teenager. Success at this stage also requires clear and compelling information that allows parents to be aware of the important role they play in the development of their teen’s personality.

All parents have their own unique styles of dealing with their children. These styles are usually a combination of three forces: the parents’ own upbringing, their personal needs and characteristics, and what they have learned from outside sources. The majority of parents will respond to their children in a fashion similar to their own (family-of-origin) parents’ style. Some parents, unhappy with their own childhoods, may consciously parent in a manner that is distinctly different from that of their own upbringing. Another contributing factor is the parents’ own particular personality characteristics, motivations, issues, and needs. These particular aspects are affected by a number of life events, including divorce, medical illness, psychiatric disorders, and substance abuse. Outside sources of information about parenting include books, magazine articles, TV shows, newspaper reports, parenting classes, and advice from friends and family.

All three of these factors help define an individual’s parenting style. But the most powerful of the three is the parent’s own issues, needs, and personality characteristics. This book does not intend in any way to blame parents for family difficulties, but it is designed to allow parents to see the association between their parenting style and their adolescent’s behaviors.

Most books on adolescents address the issues that arise during this developmental stage from the standpoint of normal or problematic adolescent behavior and offer suggestions to help parents deal with their teens. Books on adolescents often discuss parenting style, but usually only briefly. This book aims to fill that gap by focusing specifically on parenting style and its impact. Hopefully, this will help parents to support their teens’ growth and enjoy a warmer and closer relationship with them—as well as helping therapists and other professionals who work with adolescents to become more aware of the important role that parents play in their lives.

When an adolescent is brought in for psychotherapy, an assessment is usually made, identifying his or her psychological or behavioral issues. In many cases, a review of the teen’s history and an exploration of the current family system are part of this assessment. However, far too often the focus remains on treating the adolescent as the primary patient and minimizing the role that other family members may play. Some insurance companies require at least one session with the family, whereas others decline to pay for any family sessions whatsoever.

The following is an example of two ways of assessing the same adolescent during the initial intake and highlights the differences between focusing on the teenager and focusing on the family as a whole.

An adolescent-focused assessment might look like this:

Rebecca is a 15-year-old who lives with her parents and two younger brothers. The precipitating event for seeking therapy was a highly emotional argument with her mother, during which Rebecca said that she wanted to talk to someone. Mom accompanied Rebecca to the initial session and reported that Rebecca has been increasingly irritable and disrespectful at home, that her grades have been dropping, and that she has been isolating herself increasingly from the family in the last few weeks. Mom also shared that efforts to apply consequences for Rebecca’s behavior and poor grades have been ineffective.

As mom was talking, Rebecca appeared increasingly frustrated and finally blurted out that she has been sad and anxious for several months, not weeks, but no one had noticed until recently. During an individual session, Rebecca shared that she was sad and feeling lost. A review of her history revealed that Rebecca had been active in competitive cheerleading since age 4 but had recently quit. She was not interested in any extracurricular activities and was starting to hang around with teens who were involved in partying. Mom was seeking help in improving Rebecca’s attitudes and grades.

An assessment that paid more attention to parenting factors might look like this:

Rebecca is a 15-year-old who lives with her parents and two younger brothers. The precipitating event for seeking therapy was a highly emotional argument with her mother, during which Rebecca told her mom that she wanted to talk to someone. Mom reported that she was seeking help for Rebecca because of her irritability at home, poor grades, and isolation from the family. According to mom, the changes had occurred during the last few weeks.

During the conversation with her mother, Rebecca appeared increasingly frustrated and finally informed mom that she had been feeling anxious and lonely for a number of months, but that the family had failed to notice until she started becoming more disrespectful and argumentative. A review of the history revealed that Rebecca had recently refused to continue competitive cheerleading, an activity she had been involved with since age 4. Rebecca reported that she stopped cheerleading because she was tired of the hectic schedule and the pressure from her mom. According to Rebecca, “My mom’s whole life has been cheerleading, that’s all she ever cared about,” and she added that after she quit cheerleading, her mother had very little interest in or time for her.

Since quitting cheerleading, Rebecca has had difficulty finding a new interest or activity with which to align herself. She is no longer considered part of the cheerleading group and has found herself drifting toward the kids at school who are involved in partying. Rebecca’s anger at her mom was evident in the conflict between them and appeared to be an attempt by Rebecca to get mom to pay more attention and acknowledge her. It is also likely that mom’s anger reflected her resentment about Rebecca’s leaving cheerleading, which was a significant part of mom’s life.

This book is divided into four sections. The first reviews the basic characteristics and challenges of adolescence. The second identifies five parenting styles: My House, My Rules; Your Life Is My Life; Cool; Not Now, I’m Busy; and Easygoing. Parenting styles are identified, with the characteristics of each style provided. Possible etiologies of each of the five styles are provided. Each chapter then delves into the various adolescent reactions (both positive and negative) and discusses possible effects on teens’ personalities and resultant adult characteristics.

The third section of The Parent Effect addresses some of the life situations that can affect parents’ functioning and, through them, their adolescents. Divorce and remarriage, especially during a child’s adolescent years, can result in significant changes in the teenager’s world. Physical illness, psychiatric disorders, and substance abuse also create stressful home environments. The final section of the book provides suggestions and exercises to help readers become more balanced parents and improve parent–teen relationships by addressing the life issues that have affected the way they interact with their teenagers. Most adults can benefit from the insights derived from these exercises, becoming more aware and thoughtful and parenting with specific goals in mind.

Examples are provided throughout to illustrate the information presented. Although these examples are based on real clients’ experiences, all identifying information has been changed to ensure client confidentiality. Some examples are composites of several situations.

Parenting style is not a new concept. Baumrind’s 1971 identification of three primary parenting styles—authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive—has been the cornerstone for social research on parenting. In 1983, Maccoby and Martin further divided the permissive category into two subcategories: indulgent and neglectful. The resulting four categories are based on high and low levels of two elements, responsiveness and demandingness. Responsiveness is associated with warmth, involvement, and nurturing. Demandingness is associated with supervision, monitoring, expectations, and strictness. Authoritarian parents stress obedience and tend to be less responsive and more demanding. Authoritative parents are high in both responsiveness and demandingness, providing structure in an environment of openness and warmth. Indulgent-permissive parents make few demands and are highly responsive to their teens’ requests and needs. Neglectful-permissive parents provide neither structure nor responsiveness. This book builds on insights from these categorization schemes but is organized around five parenting styles that reflect the various parent–teen interactions I have observed over the years in my work with families. The My House, My Rules parenting style is similar to the authoritarian style; Cool parents are permissive and neglectful; Not Now, I’m Busy parents are low in responsiveness; Your Life is My Life parents are high in responsiveness and expectations; and Easygoing parents are similar to those in Baumrind’s authoritative category. Additional characteristics of each style are addressed in detail in the various chapters.

Even though The Parent Effect focuses on how parents influence their children’s development, teenagers themselves play a pivotal role in parenting behaviors. Further, it is possible (if not highly probable) that teens will behave in inappropriate and even dangerous ways despite the best parenting efforts. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the most significant influence on teens’ behavior and personality development is their relationship with their parents.

As I was writing this book, colleagues raised the question of whether I was going to write about abusive parenting. Parents who are abusive, openly hostile, or blatantly damaging to their adolescents’ emotional well-being are not exhibiting parental behavior but are self-centered and often psychologically disturbed. Thus, I did not consider abusive parenting as a category of parenting style and did not include it in this work. This does not preclude certain abusive behaviors from being exhibited in the context of some parenting reactions. Often, one sees what I call “screamers”—parents who respond to their teenagers with yelling rather than calm discussion. Most parents are capable of yelling at their adolescent at one time or another, but when this becomes their primary form of communication, it is problematic and detrimental.

Thirty-five years ago, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I began working with adolescents at a psychiatric hospital, and my passion for working with adolescents and their families was ignited. I earned a master’s degree in 1980, and since then I have provided psychotherapy to adolescents and their families in a variety of settings. Although many therapists hesitate to work with teenagers, as they can be difficult, obstinate, dismissive, and even combative, I have found teens to be endearing, creative, funny, and genuine. Many have shared their pain with me, their struggle to understand their intense emotions, and their unique outlook on the world. I have worked with teens trapped in dysfunctional families, waiting to be old enough to move out and assume their own care; teens who struggled to meet unrealistic expectations; and teens who were dealing with the heartbreak of failed relationships. Most adolescents come into therapy reluctantly, denying any problems, but the overwhelming majority of them quickly open up and work hard to help themselves. Adults, on the other hand, often enter therapy identifying their emotional pain but are slower to make changes.

I have been privileged to work with many parents who have been open to making changes in themselves for the well-being of their children. I have also worked with parents who were unwilling or unable to address their parenting practices, and I could only hope to make some small inroad into their family struggles. Some were too afraid to face their own issues and insecurities but sought help for their teens. Others simply wanted their teens’ problems “fixed,” without much expenditure of effort on their part. However, the majority of these parents have been loving and concerned, dealing with their own flaws borne out of their own life struggles. Few have been completely disconnected or abusive. To all these families, I express my gratitude for sharing their most private lives with me.

This book has offered me an opportunity to provide parents and other professionals with valuable information on how parents and their teens interact. It is based on an extensive review of relevant literature, consultations with colleagues, and over 33 years of experience in treating adolescents and their families as well as the personal experience of raising two teenagers. It is my hope that The Parent Effect will be of value to parents, psychotherapists, teachers, and clergy, all of whom deal not only with teenagers but also with their parents.