Are adolescents a stroppy lot who view mum and dad as idiots?

Research into teenage-parent relationships shows this is not the whole story

Are adolescents a stroppy lot who view mum and dad as idiots? That seems to be the general view, if we were to go by the hostile and disapproving adolescents on the thousands of detective series we’ve all been consuming since the start of the pandemic.

In all languages they archly look down their noses at mum or dad – usually dad. Yet, research into teenage-parent relationships shows this is not the whole story. The research is reported in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology. One intriguing finding in neuroscience research shows that the pleasure centre of the brain is activated in adolescents if they receive a benefit for themselves or their parents but not for strangers. This suggests that adolescents and their parents form a very specific and strong group even when one side despairs of the other.

Maybe it also suggests that they are more canny than they are given credit for – there are a lot of strangers in the world for whom it might not be wise to provide benefits.

Adolescents, as we know, have a heightened emotional sensitivity to social interactions, to their place in the group. That applies to a close group of friends or to a much wider group who, for instance, dress in a particular way or follow the same band. It’s easy to think of this as peer pressure and a potentially bad thing, leading to risky behaviour and drug use. Peer pressure can work two ways, however.


It can also work to encourage the teenager into beneficial behaviours such as sports or non-violent social activism for instance. It’s worth remembering too that people of every age are subject to peer pressure, though it might be more accurate to call it peer influence.

This is why word of mouth is regarded as one of the most effective marketing tools. At all ages, too, we can be influenced by how our friends feel and what they do. For instance, the friends of a person who gives up smoking are more likely to give up smoking themselves. If you take the time to think how many of your adult choices have been influenced by word of mouth, you might be surprised.

With social interaction, though, comes the possibility of rejection where one is cut out of the give and take of the group. Research also states that those adolescents who are especially sensitive to rejection are more likely to suffer depression or indeed suicidal thinking later in life. Most, if not all, adolescents are sensitive to rejection but to be especially sensitive to it is truly painful. This underlines the importance of school mental health programs, school counselling and good services in the community for adolescents. We are a long way from that now.

Yet, such services could determine the whole future direction of many people’s lives. Images of what is going on in the brain suggest the brain activity of adolescents mirrors that of their parents. It’s easy to imagine, especially during the more conflicted periods, that parents or adolescents are two different species but it isn’t so. The bond is stronger than it may seem. (These images track the flow of oxygen in the blood which in turn shows which areas of the brain are active.) If the relationship is going through a stormy patch – which can be long – the information that the activity of his or her brain mirrors that of the parents might not, of course, be welcomed.

Dr Jennifer Silk, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, says: “I think a lot of parents believe that it’s too late – that by adolescence, peers have all the power. But this research is showing that parents shouldn’t give up, that they still do have the power to help their adolescents learn how to process and regulate their emotions.”

Needless to say, part of that means being unpopular with your adolescent as you set boundaries.

When it’s done with love and consistency, however, it’s worth it.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Acceptance – create change and move forward. His daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (