Acknowledging right off the bat this is dangerous territory for any male to navigate, there is a demographic in the field of family studies that still continues to baffle even the most seasoned veteran of human relationships: mothers and their adolescent children.

Not unlike a solar eclipse, one cannot stare directly at this phenomenon unless you want lasting damage to your shins or your eardrums. I say this with all due love and respect toward my own wife and her just-turned-13 female accomplice, because this is a relational dyad worthy of much honour, but also guilty of much misunderstanding. And when this mother-daughter relationship is fraught with conflict, the stakes for the family unit get much higher.

Research on mom-teen conflict

While I have watched with some bemusement – from a safe distance – how mother-child conflict occurs and is resolved in our own family, others are trying to determine the critical factors that contribute to its doing and undoing. Canadian researcher Joan Grusec and her colleagues at the University of Toronto recently investigated the conflict patterns between more than 40 mother-adolescent pairings. Specifically, they set out to explore how adolescent goals (e.g. wanting to get their own way, the need for autonomy) interact with maternal perspective-taking (e.g. how much the mother can take of her teenager’s point of view) to predict the intensity of conflict.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to mom-teen conflict, the street goes both ways. Younger kids were found to report more conflict with their mother over pure desire to get one’s own way (e.g. "I just want to go the concert"), while kids closer to the teenage years indicated more conflict over wanting to change their mother’s thoughts or actions (e.g. "I wanted her to know that I never wanted to hear that again").

Lack of understanding

But here is where it gets interesting: conflict over these and other adolescent goals escalated only when mothers did not make attempts at understanding their teen’s perspective. The researchers suggested that this may be because when the mother really listens, the teen feels more confident that a resolution can be achieved without negativity or anger from the mom, and that the mother is then able to better explain her position to the child. Thus, keeping it cool as a mother resulted in more confident teen behaviour and better communication from the mom.

So perspective, as usual, matters greatly. To our dear moms, try to remember what it was like to be a teen. And to our dads, remember that you’ll never know what it’s like to be a mom. Everybody clear on that?

Dr. Kelly Dean Schwartz is a developmental psychologist at the University of Calgary. A husband and father of three, he is founder of FamilyWise Canada, an education and research directive focusing on positive family development.

© 2009 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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