Antecedents of Parent-Adolescent Disagreements

By Rueter, Martha A.; Conger, Rand D. | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 1995 | Go to article overview

Antecedents of Parent-Adolescent Disagreements


Rueter, Martha A., Conger, Rand D., Journal of Marriage and Family


The quality of an adolescent's relationship with his or her parents is a key component to healthy adolescent development. Secure bonds between parents and their adolescent children allow young people the freedom to grow and explore, knowing their home represents a safe haven to which they can return when necessary. Yet conflict, which may denote weak or weakening interpersonal bonds, often occurs within parent-adolescent relationships. In most families, however, this conflict usually amounts to little more than mild arguments and bickering (Hill, 1993; Steinberg, 1990), and some researchers believe that such disputes may serve to strengthen the parent-adolescent relationship (Anderson & Sabatelli, 1990; Cooper, 1988; Galatzer-Levy & Cohler, 1993; Steinberg, 1990). These writers have suggested that parents and their adolescent children raise important developmental issues during disagreements. By successfully negotiating responses to issues such as adolescent demands for greater autonomy, parent-adolescent relations are restructured to allow adolescent growth while maintaining close family ties.

Unfortunately, some families do not successfully resolve disputes between parents and adolescents and disagreements become intense or long lasting. When this occurs, conflict can weaken the parent-adolescent relationship (Patterson & Bank, 1989) and thus pose a threat to healthy adolescent development. In fact, adolescent reports of severe or unresolved disagreements with their parents have been associated with many adolescent adjustment problems, including emotional difficulties (Montemayor, 1983; Robin, Koepke, & Moye, 1990), alcohol or other drug use (Brook, Whiteman, & Finch, 1993; Selnow, 1987; Thompson & Wilsnack, 1987), poor school performance (Forehand, Long, Brody, & Fauber, 1986; Robin et al., 1990), and conduct problems (Adams, Gullotta, & Clancy, 1985; Garbarino, Schellenback, & Sebes, 1986; Montemayor, 1983; Rutter, 1980).

An important question, then, addresses what conditions lead to healthy parent-adolescent disagreements and what conditions result in detrimental conflict (Steinberg, 1990). A growing group of developmental scientists favors a theory suggesting that whether or not parent-adolescent conflict becomes dysfunctional (i.e., persistent or severe) depends in large part on the family context (cf. Anderson & Sabatelli, 1990; Cooper; 1988; Galatzer-Levy & Cohler, 1993; Hauser & Bowlds, 1990; Hill, 1993; Paikoff & Brooks-Gunn, 1991; Steinberg, 1990). According to this theory, an atmosphere of trust and emotional closeness among family members sets the stage for the successful resolution of parent-adolescent differences. In the absence of these qualities--that is, when critical and coercive interactions characterize the family's typical interactions--family negotiations are often doomed to failure, and differences between parents and adolescents grow to dysfunctional levels.

In spite of its large following, this theory has not received a strong test due to methodological limitations in previous investigations. For example, the theory describes a process that unfolds over time. However, most studies of parent-adolescent conflict utilize a cross-sectional research design, precluding the examination of dynamic, longitudinal family interactions (e.g., Holmbeck & Hill, 1986; Sabatelli & Anderson, 1991; Werrbach, Grotevant, & Cooper, 1992; Youniss & Keterlinus, 1987). Also, this theory proposes several important factors (e.g., family atmosphere, problem-solving ability, parent-adolescent disagreements). An optimal test requires simultaneous analysis of the relationships among these factors. Unfortunately, small sample sizes have limited the power and the range of statistical techniques available to many earlier studies (Forehand et al., 1986; Papini & Sebby, 1988; Rubenstein & Feldman, 1993). Finally, the theory suggests that the family's typical interaction style sets the stage for members' behavior during a situation calling for flexible negotiations. …

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