Parent, Adolescent, and the Need for Compromise

The relationship between parent and adolescent is always a compromised one

Posted Oct 08, 2012

The question was: “Why is it harder for me and my teenager to get along now that he is no longer a child?” My answer is, “because now basic compromises in the relationship become more difficult to make for all concerned.”

There is the greater and there are the lesser compromises to be made. Start with the greater compromise. Oversimplifying the complexity of relationships, what I mean by compromises is this. I believe that to satisfactorily maintain ongoing relationships – between fellow employees, friends, marriage partners, and parent and child or adolescent, for example – three important human factors that must be managed are these.

There is the factor of REWARDS: how to make a working relationship sufficiently beneficial for both parties so it is mutually worthwhile enough to be of positive value.

There is the factor of RESPONSIBILITIES: how to make a working relationship sufficiently sharing of sacrifice so both parties consider contributions mutually equitable enough to be fair.

There is the factor of RISKS: how to make a working relationship sufficiently sensitive and respectful so both parties consider it mutually protected from interpersonal harm enough to be safe.

There is no “benefits only” relationship of a lasting kind (as the myth of “free love” promises) because any rewards (what you value giving and getting with the other person) always come with two costs to be paid – personal sacrifice in the name of responsibility and personal vulnerability in the name of risk. Responsibility is about how you must and must not behave for the sake of the relationship. Parents must financially support the adolescent, for example. Risk is about exposure to harm based on what the other person does or doesn’t do. The adolescent can feel hurt by parental criticism, for example. So this is the greater compromise: RELATIONSHIP = REWARD + RESPONSIBILITY + RISK.

With sharing RESPONSIBILITY comes loss of freedom. Parent and adolescent must each accept some limits and obligations because of the other person. To some degree, the parent is bound to set ground rules to direct, regulate, and supervise the adolescent’s behavior. To some degree, the adolescent is bound to consent, comply, and live within the family structure upon which the young person must depend. Both must give up some personal freedom to get along.

With exposure to RISK comes loss of safety. Parent and adolescent each become vulnerable to injury or slight arising from depending on the actions of the other. Intentional and unintentional acts of omission and commission by the other person can result in feeling hurt. The parent must endure the absent-mindedness and thoughtlessness of the adolescent when that young person becomes more focused on what he or she wants. The adolescent must put up with the irritability and disapproval of parents when they are slow to get their way. Both must endure some mutual abrasion as they get along.

Then there are the lesser compromises. Sometimes they must make due with some, not all, of what they want when it comes to rewards. Sometimes they must shoulder more responsibilities that they ideally like. Sometimes they must put up with slights they’d rather do without. For example, there are times when neither parent nor adolescent feels they get enough appreciation for all the efforts they make. There are times when both parent and teenager feel they have to give up too much freedom for the sake of the other. There are times when each one feels more exposed to the other’s bad moods than they would like. In general it is easier for parent and child to make these greater and lesser compromises and get along than it is for parent and adolescent. Consider why this may be so,

Start with rewards. In the childhood years, up to about ages 8 - 9, each other’s companionship tends to feel desirable and enjoyable, pleasing each other a shared objective, and seeing each other in positive, even idealized terms a common view – the adored parents and the adorable child. The childhood years can feel like a mutual admiration society, a rewarding time indeed!

Then, around ages 9 – 13, comes the pulling away and pushing against and getting around parental authority as the separation from childhood and the journey to independence begins. Now parents become more unpopular, the adolescent feel less appreciated, each feeling more thankless in the other’s eyes. A mutual irritation society sometimes becomes the order of the day as parent and teenager often find each other less rewarding to live with.

What happens with Responsibility? For the child, contributing to the relationship with parents in responsible ways like helping out, for example, can earn parental approval, demonstrate reliability, and mean acting more grown up and in consequence feeling affirmed. True, personal freedom is sacrificed to make these contributions, discharge these obligations, and deliver these services, but the appreciation and status conferred make the efforts feel worthwhile. Come adolescence, however, the sacrifice feels less appealing because now freedom has become all important, along with doing more what one wants and less what one is told, as the age of more active resistance (argument) and passive resistance (delay) begins.

Now getting the teenager to kick in his or her share of household responsibilities requires the insistence of ongoing supervision (nagging) that parents find exhausting and irritating to do, and the adolescent resents. However, to avoid living in a one-way relationship (where all runs the adolescent’s way), parents need a sufficient compromise of responsibility to feel that the teenager is carrying his or her share of the personal load (picking up, for example), the family load (following rules, for example), and the household management load (doing chores, for example.) Responsibilities must be shared for a two-way relationship to be maintained.

What happens with Risk? For the child, parents are positive and powerful people who treat her with special consideration, and she mostly treats them with affection and care – people of primary social importance in her life. They treat her sensitively and she treats them the same, both avoiding doing injury, both treating their relationship carefully so as not to do this loving connection between them harm.

Come adolescence, however, the ground rules of mutual treatment can alter in a harder direction as the teenager becomes more socially reliant on peers and less tolerant of parental authority, and there are more family conflicts over her freedom and independence. With heightened emotional intensity from more frustration at this increased opposition, it is easy for both sides to become less courteous in communication and more impulsive in conflict, heightening the likelihood of hurt from the exchange of angry words. Because adolescence increases this potentiality, increased monitoring of the language used in disagreement must be done. Awareness of risks must be maintained because it’s easier for both parties, in increased frustration, to act and react with less sensitivity.

For parents, it’s important to remember, that with their adolescent a compromise of rewards, responsibility, and risk is going to be the best they are going to get in the relationship, just as the adolescent is bound by this reality in relationship to them. Their job is to make sure that the compromises parents make are good enough so that they remain generally content and positively disposed toward their teenager. To monitor this, they must take seriously any time they reach a BAD BARGAIN POINT with their adolescent where it feels to them that rewards received in the relationship are insufficient to justify the burdens of responsibility they take and the risks of discomfort they run. “For all we do and all we put up with, the return we get doesn’t feel worth it.”

This recognition usually means some redefinition in the relationship is needed – to make it more rewarding, to get more or take less responsibility, and to lower hurtful risks. From what I have seen in counseling, when parents reach a bad bargain point with their teenager, they often discover that their teenager has also reached a bad bargain point with them. That’s why the standoff is so intense between them. Now the goal on both sides is to reach a set of compromises that for each party at best maximizes the rewards, moderates the responsibilities, and minimizes the risks in their relationship -- all parties understanding that even at best, getting “some” of what they want and putting up with "some" of what they don't want is going to have to be good “enough” for them to get along.

For a fuller discussion of the ‘compromise theory of relationships,’ see Chapter 8 in my book, “Stop the Screaming.” Information about my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013) at:

I welcome questions and suggestions for further blogs.

Next week’s entry: Early Socialization and the Older Only Child