Adolescence expert Dr Laurence Steinberg asks two very pertinent questions of family dynamics, firstly: “How can we best characterise normative family relationships during adolescence and is adolescence a time of parent/child conflict?” Secondly, “How do variations in parent/child relationships affect the developing adolescent?”
Parental control, authority and influence have truly changed within Bahamian households. The concept of parent/child relationships in 2017 are different and discussions are still to be had regarding a clearer understanding as to an ‘ideal’ Bahamian parent/child dynamic in a technological era and in a once very traditional collectivist culture.
Yet, regardless of our current understanding, there is little dispute that there has been a change, for better or worse. In due time this will be realised. However, there is a viewpoint I will propose that may facilitate the closing of a rapidly widening rift between parents and offspring, and may address Dr Steinberg’s questions as they relate to a Bahamian context.
It is now up to parents and guardians to talk – not about drugs, alcohol or sex – but to encourage dialogue and to ask their children,“How can I best help you to grow and develop in order to assist you with making the best choices?”
Radical as it may seem to those of us that hold the view of ‘I am the adult and you are a child, what I say goes…’, it may be imperative to start this dialogue. Due to the advancement in technology, youth are socialised and exposed to adult content in pre- and early teen years, educating both themselves and each other about content with limited contextual knowledge and maturity. This in turn, creates strife in teenage years, sometimes unbeknownst to parents and forcing, at times, teens to raise themselves socially and emotionally as they avoid talking to parents or adult figures. At times parents too feel this strife and are challenged to find out how to mediate it, therefore making the parent/child dynamic even more important to foster.
Perhaps adolescence is a time of parent/child conflict. However, why not endeavour to lessen tensions in this relationship? Why not ensure that despite our reservations about allowing teens to have a stake in their growth at an earlier age, they feel safe enough to talk and feel heard; that they are confident enough that even if what they want is not what they get, they still feel a sense of respect from their parents during their transition from child to teen and from teen to young adulthood.
There is a need for a new perspective on the family, one that emphasises the different viewpoints that parents and adolescents bring to their relationship with each other. (Steinberg, 2001)
During my last short six years of working with youth and families, both in the United States and The Bahamas, I saw that there was less tension and conflict within the home when both parties felt heard. And teens tended to be less obstinate as a result.
So, as a parent who may be fearful of giving autonomy too early, ask yourself the following questions when a conflict arises between you and your teen:
• Am I as a parent being unreasonable? Why or why not?
• Am I truly listening (actively and emphatically) when my child speaks?
• Am I afraid that my child will make a mistake they regret and I am embarrassed about that mistake if I do provide them certain liberties?
Parents and guardians fear that if they permit their child to provide a perspective, it may mean they relinquish their power and control as adults. They fear that autonomy too soon may mean abuse of independence by teens. They fear embarrassment in a culture founded on Judeo-Christian principles and communal living. These fears may be warranted. Parents may have experienced tough situations with another child, heard of or seen a situation with a friend or family member’s child. Nonetheless, with the change in era there has to be some degree of change in rearing, as children fall into negative situations due to lack of autonomy, lack of communication or mutual trust and respect between they and their parent/guardian(s).
In an article in the Bahama Journal (2012) with Melanie Griffin, she revealed that “up to the 1960s, only 30 per cent of children were born out of wedlock...Today, more than 60 per cent of all children are born out of wedlock.”
Again, despite the reason, this is evidence of a shift in family structure that infers that there has to be a change in family rearing, specifically when it comes to our teens.
In the past, single mothers had the support of the extended family. Regrettably, with the collapse of the extended family...children are often left on their own to do as they wish while their mothers seek to earn a living, said Mrs Griffin. Therefore, in certain familial instances it may be immediately necessary for the fostering of open dialogue. So the conversation Bahamian parents fear is, ‘autonomy during adolescence – too soon or not soon enough?’
This article is by no means applicable to all parent/child or family situations, and there is no ‘normal’ family structure, especially within the Bahamian context. This article is based largely on experience with youth in a therapeutic context, along with the inclusion of several other literature sources.
It aims to provide insight on the adolescent perspective, but the intent is to emphasise the encouragement of dialogue, active and empathetic listening as an adult figure, in order to bring about a greater bond, trust and mutual respect for children and teens that isn’t mandated due to age, but acquired as a result of personal vulnerability.
Through their means of communication, adults are at times, by default, forced to be reflective and introspective regarding their personal insecurities and challenges. They are able to be an example to teens of what true respect, conflict resolution and management looks like, especially when feeling challenged. An opportunity is now presented for youth to be trained in a manner of thinking and behaviours before entering the workforce. Exploring new ways of supporting our youth can only serve to help and benefit the growth and development of a future generation and improve the relationships within households and society alike.
• Kandra Knowles is a Bahamian who has studied, trained and worked in New York to become and function as a licenced social worker for children and families. She is currently working in Nassau.