Generation gap

A teen crosses her fingers behind her back as she lies to a parent.
A teen crosses her fingers behind her back as she lies to a parent. Illustration by Jeremiah Worley of Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis.
A mom screams at her son to get out
Getting angry and screaming is a common mistake that can hurt parent-teen relationships. Illustration by Jeremiah Worley of Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis.
“Teens are notoriously known for feeling invincible, and parents, having lived for a while, feel like they have seen a lot and know a lot. They feel the need to protect their kids from mistakes they themselves have made in the past.” -- Flory Summers

After prom night last year, Alex Cooke, 17, of Minneapolis, wanted to go to a parent-supervised co-ed sleepover, but felt like her mother wouldn’t let her go even though Alex was sure it would be a safe environment. So she lied to her mom and went anyway.

Alex’s mom found out the next morning where Alex had really gone. When she got home, Alex handed over her cellphone without her mom even asking. She was grounded for two weeks. Alex said she later realized that she could’ve been honest, but she didn’t know how to trust herself to trust her mom.

One of the most common problems in the teen-parent relationship, said Bruce Kohlhase, an adolescent psychologist in Minneapolis, is the loss of trust and of a meaningful connection. “There has to be a two-way connection of respect, trust and care,” he said.

Looking at the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, only 43 percent of freshman guys and 29 percent of freshman girls feel comfortable talking to their dad about problems they are having. Forty-nine percent of freshman guys and 53 percent of freshman girls feel comfortable talking to their mom.

“That’s what I think would be the biggest mistake I could make in the future if I have kids,” Alex said, “having them not know that they can tell me everything. And that they have the option not to (tell me) as long as they are safe.”

Misunderstandings between parents and teens are normal and part of the teen growing as an individual, Kohlhase said. They are so normal, he’d be worried if misunderstandings didn’t happen. These everyday tensions are what prepare teens for the real world.

At this point in a teen’s life, the role parents play is changing. Teens need less guidance because of the natural desire to become more independent.

Kohlhase said tension between teens and parents often arises when teens have personal issues going on outside the home and the parent tries to step in, only to have their help rejected. This applies to about half of the patients he sees, Kohlhase said.

Ways to improve the parent-teen relationship

  • Do activities together that remind both teen and parent that they are on the same team and not rivals trying to ruin each other’s lives.
  • Stay calm. Don’t yell.
  • Involve teens in decisions, even deciding punishments, when they’ve broken a family rule.
  • Accept misunderstanding and tension as a natural part of growing up.
  • Accept that generational differences between parents and teens do exist.

— Bruce Kohlhase, adolescent psychologist

Parents shouldn’t assume their children will experience the same things that they did when they were teens, Kohlhase said. Parents “need to realize there are generation differences,” he said.

But that can be hard for parents. As Flory Sommers, 54, of Minneapolis, a mother of three children – two of them teens – said: “Teens are notoriously known for feeling invincible, and parents, having lived for a while, feel like they have seen a lot and know a lot. They feel the need to protect their kids from mistakes they themselves have made in the past.”

Bill Galik, 51, of Plymouth, a father of two teens, said he thinks the best way to bridge the generation gap is just spending time with teens, “understanding their thoughts.”

Nick Assardo, 19, of Minneapolis, said parents and teens need to be more honest and civilized during confrontations. “Talk to your kids in a relaxed way so that they don’t feel like they have to lie to you,” he said.

Andy Davids, 45, of Apple Valley and a father of two children, 8 and 10 years old, said “parents don’t win any battles by screaming at their teens.”

Davids believes once that he starts yelling, he’s lost his ability to get his point across with his kids and they aren’t likely to listen to him. Kohlhase says that parents should not overreact. Before screaming at their kids they need to stop and think calmly before acting.

Parents also don’t win any battles by being overly strict and overbearing either. “Guiding their teens by command rather than by experience is a huge mistake,” Nick said.

He greatly appreciates how his parents educated him on important aspects of life such as romance, friendships and partying while also giving him the opportunity to make good choices.

Nick’s parents sat him down and taught him step by step the effects of alcohol so he would know exactly what to expect. Nick said that conversation helped him have a better understanding of alcohol and helped him manage how much he drinks.

Parents of teens are walking a bit of a tight rope. This change in the parent-teen relationship should be gradual, Kohlhase said. Parents should hang in there and not give up.

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