The Diverging Paths of Parents and Teens

We usually think of the teen years as a period of major changes in our children. Often overlooked is the fact that parents are also experiencing significant changes of their own. One of the things that makes these changes interesting — and challenging — is that mid-life parents and their teenage children are often changing in ways that are opposite to one another. These diverging paths are one of the reasons why parents and teens frequently don’t see eye-to-eye, causing stress and sometimes even conflict in the family. These differences can also have consequences for how parents relate to their teens. Consider the following areas of development and how parents and teens often differ:

Physical Changes

One of the most obvious changes is the physical growth and maturity that teens experience beginning with puberty. They get bigger and stronger, develop secondary sex characteristics like breasts (in girls), beards (in boys), pubic hair and become sexual creatures with the ability to reproduce. This usually leads to an interest in romantic relationships and a new preoccupation with their body and appearance.

In contrast, midlife parents are often beginning to experience clear signs of aging: weight gain, hair loss, cellulite and graying hair. They may start having concerns about their diminished sex appeal and attractiveness. Mothers may be anticipating menopause and the end of the reproductive years. Parents may begin to recognize that they are no longer as strong and agile as they once were.

So, as teens begin moving into a period of peak physical ability, sexuality and attractiveness, mid-life parents are beginning their decline in these areas. These contrasting developmental differences can sometimes, perhaps unconsciously, lead to tensions and concerns. What might this mean for the parent-teen relationship?

IMPLICATIONS for the Parent-Teen Relationship

  • Parents, unknowingly, may become jealous of their teen’s attractiveness and sexuality, while longing for their youthful past.
  • Parents may worry about their child’s new physical maturity and its consequences (like sexual behavior and pregnancy); they may become uncomfortable with their teenage daughter’s revealing clothes or worry about their teen’s romantic pursuits.
  • Because of their teen’s new physical abilities parents may develop a sense of competitiveness in areas where their teen is beginning to surpass them.
  • The incest taboo comes into play and can lead to awkwardness and distance in the parent-child relationship — especially between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons.
  • Just as their child is reaching their physical peak, parents are on a downward slope and may for the first time experience feelings of being physically vulnerable.


Changes in Emotions and Relationships

During the teen years relationships with peers become increasingly important. Teens want to spend more time with their friends and less time with their parents. In addition to peers, others outside the family take on greater importance (e.g., teachers, coaches, sports figures, rock stars). Teens seek to build their own unique identities distinct from their parents’. Consequently, they are looking for role models beyond their parents for how to live and how they fit into the world. As their social and emotional worlds expand, teens seek more freedom, responsibility and control in their lives. And while today’s teens have increasingly greater freedom they have fewer responsibilities than past generations.

In contrast to their teenage children, middle-aged parents have often reached an occupational plateau. They may once have dreamed of being a millionaire by 40 or the CEO of their own company but by the time they hit midlife, the reality of early life expectations usually become clearer — often not living up to one’s earlier dreams.

At the same time that their teens are experiencing their first love, parents are often settling in to a less exciting period of a long-term relationship. Sometimes this can lead to a decline in marital satisfaction accompanied by greater risk for divorce. And while most teens are looking to spend less time with their family, many parents are hoping to spend more, often realizing that this may be their last chance to have quality time with their children.

Because teens are striving for greater independence from parents, parents typically lose some of their influence and authority. This can lead parents to sometimes feel as if they’re losing control and are less important due to their waning influence. These changes can also precipitate the beginning of changes in a parent’s identity. Though they were once the center of their child’s life and childrearing was a critical part of who they were and what they did, as teens begin moving farther from the nest, parents may begin to realize that this once important role is no longer as central as it once was. Like their teen, they are beginning to move into a new stage of life.


IMPLICATIONS for the Parent-Teen Relationship

  • Parents may experience feelings of sadness, loss and regret due to disappointments in work, family life and marital relationships.
  • As parents’ influence over their teen declines, they may feel stressed by their loss of control and more worried because of their inability to have as much sway over their teen’s new found freedom and the risks that sometimes accompany it.
  • Parents may become frustrated by the fact that their children seem to have few responsibilities while parents are at the peak of their work, family and financial responsibilities (e.g., trying to save for their child’s college tuition). And at a time when teens often feel like time is endless and the future holds infinite possibilities, mid-life parents are beginning to realize that their options are narrowing and time is slowly slipping away.
  • On a more positive note, the growing independence of their teens means that parents can have more time for themselves and opportunities to explore new pursuits. In addition, the mid-life identity changes that some parents experience can be a catalyst for personal growth and new career opportunities.


What can parents do to adapt to the changes?

Focus on adjusting your relationship with your teen

It is important for parents to get to know their teen as a maturing individual and to focus on what they have in common. Parents often seek to expose their young children to their own interests. During the adolescent years, parents need to increasingly learn and follow their teens’ interests.

Develop some new interests

As kids get older, parents have more time and sometimes more disposable income with which to explore new interests, develop new friendships, and cultivate relationships that are not built around their children. Focusing a bit more on themselves will help to ease the transition as teens become more independent and eventually leave home.

Enjoy the fact that you are more content with who you are

While middle-aged parents may not have the nubile and agile bodies of their younger selves, ironically, they do tend to gain a greater acceptance of their physical selves. The cellulite, extra pounds and gray hairs have been well earned and mid-lifers are less likely to sweat the blemishes and more likely to feel comfortable in their own skin.


“Age is a seasoned trickster. To our parents, we will always be children. Within ourselves, the same yearnings of youth; the same aspirations of adolescence, will last a lifetime. Only to the young – blinded by our grey hair and slowing gait – do we appear old and increasingly beyond the pale.” 

–Alex Morritt, Impromptu Scribe


The adolescent years are an important time of change for parents as well as teens. While it is easy to get bogged down in differences in perspectives, interests and goals that exist between youth and parents, it is important to remember that parents continue to play a central role in their youth’s development. Our relationships are often a reflection of our own place in life. Parents who are aware of how their own development might influence the way they relate to their teens, are more likely to view their changing role in a positive light. Equally important, parents who see these changes as opportunities for their own personal growth are more likely to have fulfilling and satisfying lives as they continue on their own journey through life.

SteveSteve Small has been a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension for 30 years. He and his wife have 3 adult children, two son-in-laws, and a new granddaughter. Steve had a somewhat turbulent adolescence and his parents couldn’t wait until he grew out of it and left home. In his spare time he likes to bike, hike, build stuff, travel and play softball.