Parents and their children relate, or interact, on a number of different levels: as playmates, as teacher and student, as healer and patient, as disciplinarian and offender. Interactions between parents and their children that are characterized by warmth, consistency, reciprocity, supportiveness, and openness have consistently been shown to be related to a range of positive outcomes. For example, children who report having a positive relationship with their parents tend to have higher self-esteem, have more positive peer relationships, do better in school, and avoid behaviors such as substance use and delinquency. In fact, the relationship between a parent and his or her child may be one of the most crucial factors in the personality growth of the child, and the quality of that relationship may determine how susceptible the child is to deviations in normal development. Moreover, despite the popular notion that parents become increasingly irrelevant during adolescence, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests parents remain a constant, meaningful influence on their teen’s attitudes and behaviors well through the adolescent years.
As children grow, the balance of the components of a successful parent-child relationship modifies to account for changing physical, socioemotional, and cognitive needs of both the child and the parent. Indeed, an interactional style successfully used by a parent and a 5-year-old may be perceived quite differently if used by a parent and a 15-year-old. Although the nature of the parent-child relationship changes with time and development, there are several static but key essentials to a healthy and protective relationship from childhood through adolescence. Two of these critical components are attachment and communication.
Attachment, simply defined, is the inclination for one individual to seek closeness with another individual (e.g., parents, romantic partner), to feel safe when that person is present, and to feel anxious in his or her absence. From the time they are born, children begin to form an attachment with their caregivers. Early in development, children learn what to expect from their parents: “If I cry, I will be comforted (or I will not be comforted),” or “if I am hungry, I will be fed (or I will not be fed),” or “if I smile, I will be smiled at.” Based on their experiences and interactions, according to attachment theory, the child will create a “map” (i.e., a “working model of attachment”) of what to expect when interacting with the parent. This map will then help guide future interactions between parent and child.
John Bowlby and his colleagues believed that children could be classified into one of four categories of attachment based on the working models the child created regarding his or her interaction with the parent: (1) secure, (2) anxious-ambivalent, (3) anxious-avoidant, and (4) disorganized. Each of the four types of attachment were thought to reflect certain strategies the child would use either to draw a caregiver closer or to dismiss or devalue the importance of the caregiver. There is strong evidence that secure attachment with a parental figure in childhood leads to greater emotional regulation, less personal distress, higher levels of social support, and better overall psychological adjustment in adolescence. Conversely, insecurely attached children (i.e., those classified as anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, or disorganized) tend to have greater difficulty regulating negative affect, have poorer peer relationships, and exhibit greater levels of psychopathology.
Whereas many perceive attachment to be a static phenomenon established in infancy and maintained throughout childhood, research suggests otherwise. Attachment is a dynamic, interactive aspect of parent-child relations that is constantly adjusting and shifting throughout the life course. Indeed, attachment is not simply the product of a child’s perceptions of his or her caregiver’s early behavior; parent behavior toward the child is, in part, influenced by the child’s own behavior. As such, attachment is a product of ongoing interaction; children update their working models of attachment—and subsequently their behavior toward their parents—based on the quality and nature of the interactions. Parents, in turn, adjust their behavior toward their children based on the quality and nature of the interaction with their children.
Parent-Child Attachment in Adolescence
Historically, parent-child attachment has been discussed in the context of infancy and toddlerhood; however, attachment is an equally important dimension of the parent-adolescent relationship. As is the case in childhood, secure attachment to parents during adolescence is related to fewer mental health problems, less involvement in risky behaviors, better relationships with peers and romantic partners, and better strategies for coping with difficulties. Nevertheless, how attachment works in adolescence is less straightforward than in infancy and childhood.
Adolescents face many critical developmental tasks, including seeking autonomy from parents while increasing reliance on peers. Common sense might suggest that such a developmental task is incompatible with maintaining a secure attachment with parents. Contrary to this view, adolescents who successfully navigate this task are often keenly attentive to the importance of an ongoing relationship with their parents and to how that relationship may provide a critical bridge between dependence and autonomy. So how do adolescents achieve secure attachments with parents while simultaneously seeking autonomy?
One way is by walking a fine line between achieving their own agenda of obtaining autonomy and maintaining certain objectives within their relationships with their parents. Within this so-called goal-corrected partnership, secure adolescents seek autonomy yet are still attentive to the need to maintain a stable, trusting relationship with parents. When there is a disruption within the parent-adolescent relationship, such as high conflict or a breach of trust, the adolescent makes corrections in order to reestablish the relationship. The result, therefore, is limited negative interactions, greater support within the parent-adolescent relationship, and greater levels of trust. This family environment allows the adolescent more opportunities to seek and establish meaningful, positive peer rela-tionships in two ways. First, secure attachment with parents serves as a model for other relationships; this often translates into having secure peer and romantic partner relationships. Second, adolescents who have the trust and support of their parents are afforded more opportunities to engage in appropriate peer relationships, social activities, and environments outside of the home that promote autonomy.
Another key element underlying strong and protective parent-child relations throughout the course of childhood and adolescence is the extent to which parents and adolescents talk openly and honestly with one another. Both the quality and the content of parent-adolescent communication serves as the framework upon which values and expectations are shared, information seeking and monitoring are influenced, and explanations and deeper understanding of behavior are obtained. Related to the attachment process, this communication framework is built from the beginnings of life and transforms with time.
Being able to discuss one’s intentions, plans, and activities without being criticized or punished promotes greater understanding for both the parent and adolescent roles. The sharing of values and expectations decreases the possibility of conflict in the relationship by increasing mutual understanding and eliminating confusion around established rules and roles within the family. As a result, parents may be more comfortable and efficient in situations where they can grant moderated independence, while adolescents are more likely to abstain from behaviors perceived to drift away from the parents’ values and expectations.
Communication also provides protection in terms of collecting increased amounts of information about the adolescent’s current activities, peers, and locations. Parents use varied approaches for increasing their awareness of their children’s activities, yet one of the most effective means of increasing parent awareness is by collecting information directly from the adolescent (self-disclosure). Warm relationships and open communication between parents and their children are integral to increasing the likelihood that adolescents will feel comfortable enough to self-disclose information about their plans and activities to their parents.
Finally, there is a natural tendency for parents and adolescents to investigate situations in which they perceive most others to engage. Parents may investigate monitoring or parenting behaviors that may seem off center with their current relationship with their adolescent. Likewise, adolescents may find themselves in situations of which their parents disapprove. In both instances, the establishment of open communication increases the opportunity for each to discuss their behaviors. Understanding why someone engages in an activity decreases perceptions that the behavior was done in malice toward the other or as a result of the lack of trust or sense of privacy. Likewise, while challenging the warm and open parent-adolescent relationship, these situations require parents and ado-lescents to build from their relationship to react and communicate with one another effectively. A breakdown in communication in reaction to a challenging situation could alter all of the remaining protective processes (e.g., monitoring) that depend on an open communication between parents and adolescents.
Additional prevention against adolescent risk involvement or problematic parent reactions has been found in parent and adolescent discussions of particular issues. Conversations about sensitive topics such as community drug use or teenage pregnancy have been shown to decrease adolescents’ drug use or sexual involvement. While most effective if started in a natural conversation while engaging in a different activity rather than being premeditated, these conversations have been shown to increase parent and adolescent awareness of these issues, to directly align parent and adolescent values with regard to participation in these behaviors, and to identify successful ways to avoid these behaviors in the future.
The strength and quality of parent-child relations can provide powerful protection against a range of negative outcomes for adolescents. Whereas peers become increasingly relevant over the course of adolescence, parents continue to have a significant amount of influence on the attitudes and behaviors of their children. The key to this relationship is for parents and adolescents to be aware of the necessity to build and maintain strong, secure attachments and to communicate thoughts, plans, and experiences on a consistent basis. Moreover, both the parent and the adolescent must be aware that the bidirectional nature of the parent-adolescent relationship requires consistent appraisal and alteration to allow for the changing developmental needs of both parties. Finally, parents and adolescents should be aware that maintaining secure attachments and positive communication between parents and children during the adolescent years is not incompatible with the goal of achieving autonomy from parents; rather these may be critical factors leading to the successful attainment of that goal.
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