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The Collateral Damage of a Teenager


This morning, Kate and Lee are talking about that discord, or at least trying. It’s hard.

“If the kids go to a party at somebody’s house,” Kate resumes, “I want to know that there’s going to be a parent present. And this time I let it slip a little bit. And the kid lied—he told his parents he’d be sleeping at somebody’s house, but instead he invited everybody over in his grade, and the police showed up.”

So what, I ask, was Kate and Lee’s argument about?

“Whether he should have been allowed to go,” says Kate. “Lee didn’t think it was as big a deal.”

“Which remains my view,” Lee says.

“It shouldn’t,” Kate replies. “If we left the house, and there was a party, and the police came, and our house was trashed, that would have been a nightmare. I don’t want my kid to be party to that.”

If adolescents are more combative, less amenable to direction, and underwhelmed by adult company, it stands to reason that the tension from these new developments would spill over into their parents’ marriages. This strife is by no means preordained (indeed, if your marriage has survived into your first child’s adolescence, it’s more durable than most). But overall, researchers have concluded that marital-satisfaction levels do drop once a couple’s firstborn child enters puberty. A 2007 survey published in the Journal of Marriage and Family went so far as to track the “growth spurt[s], growth of body hair, and skin changes” of the children of its 188 participating families—as well as the voice changes in boys and the first menses in girls—in order to see if marital love and satisfaction levels dropped even more precipitously as these changes occurred. They did.

Andrew Christensen, a UCLA professor who both does research on couples therapy and has a clinical practice, gives a perfect example of the kind of more subtle conflict he sees among parents of adolescents: “Inevitably we see ourselves in our kids. And then we see our partner acting toward our child the way our partner acts toward us.”

Projection is now possible. Identification is now possible. Which means that competitiveness, envy, disgust—all can rear their heads. These aren’t feelings evoked by younger children. They’re brought on by other adults.

Mistaking teenagers for adults can be especially problematic in high-conflict relationships. As children develop the capacity to reason and empathize, it’s increasingly tempting for their parents to recruit them in their arguments, which only aggravates the situation: Now you’re dragging Charlie into this? In one intriguing study, teenage girls felt more pressure to side with their mothers if their parents were still married, while teenage boys felt more pressure to do so if their parents were divorced—suggesting, perhaps, that teenage sons feel compelled to step in as their mothers’ protectors if their fathers are no longer at home. In another, fathers experienced a significant dip in marital satisfaction once their teenagers began to date, especially if those teenagers were sons, suggesting they were jealous, or at least nostalgic for a time of open-ended possibilities.

As children become adolescents, their parents’ arguments also increasingly revolve around who the child is, or is becoming. These arguments can be especially tense if the child screws up. “One parent is the softie, and the other’s the disciplinarian,” says Christensen. “That comes up a lot, and it’s a very big challenge. Dad sharing his recollections with drugs and alcohol, but Mom remembering something bad happening. And then they divide over it.”

This is the kind of argument that Kate and Lee seem to have a good deal. She said as much at Deirdre’s kitchen table, in fact: “I’m really strict with the kids, so he’s totally not. We just had a fight about it today.”

This gender divide is suggested by data too. In a recent sample of nearly 3,200 parents of 10-to-18-year-olds, a disproportionate share of mothers said that the task of discipline fell to them alone (31 percent, versus 9 percent of fathers). Mothers also reported setting more limits for their adolescents: They were 10 percent more likely to restrict video-game use and 11 percent more likely to restrict what types of activities their kids did online.

For the last decade or so, says Darling, research has also shown that adolescent girls and boys direct more verbal abuse at their mothers than at their fathers, and mothers are more likely to quarrel with their adolescent children.

These fraught dynamics may explain why mothers, contrary to conventional wisdom, tend to suffer less than fathers once their children have left the home. Kate readily admits her relationship with her daughter improved once she went off to college. As Steinberg puts it: “Women’s personal crises at midlife do not come from launching their adolescents but from living with them.”


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