Parents need this skill for the frustrating teen years

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Parents who are less able to diminish their anger are more likely to resort, over time, to the use of harsh, punitive discipline and hostile conflict behavior toward their teenagers, research finds.

The field of adolescent psychology increasingly focuses on parents, with researchers asking how mothers and fathers control themselves—and their anger—in difficult interactions with their children.

“Discipline issues usually peak during toddlerhood and then again during adolescence, because both periods are really marked by exploration and figuring out who you are, and by becoming more independent,” says Melissa Sturge-Apple, a professor of psychology and dean of graduate studies at the University of Rochester.

Thinking on your feet

Yet the developmental changes during puberty and the transition to adolescence mean that parents need to adjust their parenting behaviors, she adds. Part of that adjustment is parents’ ability to think on their feet and navigate conflicts with flexibility as their teens strive for more autonomy and greater input in the decision-making processes.

Sturge-Apple is the lead author of the study about mothers’ and fathers’ capacity for self-regulation as well as hostile parenting during their child’s early adolescence. The study appears in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

In this study, Sturge-Apple and her colleagues looked at how mothers and fathers regulated their stress in response to conflict with their adolescent children. They then examined how the stress response affected their discipline of the child. The researchers measured parents’ physiological regulation using RMSSD, a common way to assess heart rate variability. The laboratory-based assessments took place roughly one year apart.

Why ‘set shifting’ matters

The scientists also measured parents’ set-shifting capacity—that is, the parents’ ability to be flexible and to consider alternative factors, such as their child’s age and development.

“Set shifting is important because it allows parents to alter flexibly and deliberately their approaches to handling the changeable behaviors of their children in ways that help them to resolve their disagreements,” says Davies.

On average, fathers were not as good as mothers at set shifting and were less able to control their physiological anger response. As a result, they were more likely to think that their teen was intentionally difficult, or “just trying to push buttons,” which in turn guided their decisions about discipline.

However, the researchers found that those fathers who were better at set shifting than others were also better able to counteract difficulties in physiological regulation. These episodes of physiological dysregulation, the team discovered, predicted over time an increase in parents’ angry responses—and that essentially, set shifting offsets this angry response tendency.

“As we learn more, these findings may have important implications for building and refining parenting programs,” says Davies. “For example, there are exercises that help increase physiological regulation in ways that may ultimately reduce hostile parenting behaviors for mothers and fathers.”

Dad the ‘enforcer’?

An obvious deficit sparked the research: more than 99 percent of parent regulation studies have focused exclusively on mothers.

There’s an irony in past research studies’ almost exclusive focus on mothers.

“Dads are typically the enforcer in the family and this role may be difficult to override,” says Sturge-Apple. “Thus, the ability to be flexible in responses may help dads, more than moms, adjust to the changes of adolescence.”

The research, which included 193 fathers, mothers, and their young teenagers (ages 12 to 14), took place at the university’s Mt. Hope Family Center. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development supported the work.

Source: University of Rochester