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Adolescents and Parents: Navigating Ethical Dilemmas in the Relationship Dynamic

The quality of our family relationships can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health and thus is also an important ethical consideration to make when developing mental health interventions for adolescents. Teenage years are crucial to the development of our relationships over time, layered with shades of change and a growing struggle of independence and choice. Parents typically take the center stage in our lives during childhood and are the primary caregivers. During the transition from childhood to adolescence, individuals eventually seek a higher degree of autonomy to establish a greater sense of control in their lives.

As teenagers begin to develop relationships of their own in the outside world, they may be introduced to different beliefs which might be at contrast with the values they’ve been taught at home. This mental conflict can arouse emotions of anxiety, frustration and confusion in young people. With a generation gap at play, some parents often attempt to mold their kids into the best version of their past experiences and elevated expectations. A clash between a teenager’s novel experiences in the outside world and parents dictating their expectations can potentially have negative effects on the parent-teen relationship. However, these ethical disagreements can be translated to healthy discussions between parents and their children by making room for understanding opposing perspectives.

Establishing Autonomy & Relationship Boundaries

Peers prove to be important figures of social support during adolescence and can be a source of positive or negative influence in a young person’s life. As they have similar ongoing experiences, it is common for teenagers to confide in their peers for advice, especially if they fear judgment or reprimands from their parents. Any instances of parents belittling their child’s concerns can further sever the ties of trust between parents and teenagers. While adults may trivialize the idea of choosing a favorite outfit to dinner with friends, it could be an important part of a teenager’s day. Opposing viewpoints from both ends can instigate an ethical dilemma between providing guidance and granting autonomy to young people. However, listening closely to their needs and giving them the liberty to make their own decisions can = be an empowering and transformative moment for a young adult.

The role of a parent as a disciplinarian also transforms during this transition and they typically tend to take the backseat as their offspring develops cognitive and emotional maturity. However, while some cultures prioritize independence at an early age, other cultures – such as in South Asian households – maintain a level of parental authority even into late adolescence. Sustained toxic authority can become limiting to an adolescent’s social and emotional development. There must be a cut-off point where parents remain as an active guide but also allow room for their children to exercise a degree of independence in making their decisions and developing their opinions. Herein lies the importance of ethics to maintain relationships based on healthy boundaries, autonomy and justice. Overbearing parental behavior can threaten the individuality of a growing young adult and potentially trigger resentment and angst in young people.

Maintaining Confidentiality & Creating a Safe Support System

Any perceived threat to a young person’s privacy and confidentiality in their relationships can be detrimental. Poor peer and parental relationships can weaken the quality of an adolescent’s support system and may even lead to the pursuit of attachment in harmful ways. Teenagers struggling to find a place of acceptance or being unable to confide in their family and/or friends circle are at a greater risk of turning to unhelpful thinking patterns and adopting risk-taking behaviors (e.g., substance abuse and self-harm). These unhealthy behaviors bring dangerous implications in the long run. It is then no surprise that these young people struggle with poor academic performance, may engage in delinquency, have a lack of motivation, and suffer from declining overall emotional and mental health. This makes it essential for researchers and clinicians to maintain confidentiality and protect the privacy of these individuals when planning support interventions and/or rehabilitation programs.

Good parenting and healthy parent-teen relationships can have lasting positive effects on adolescents’ mental health, acting as a protective barrier to serious mental health issues. Research has shown that positive parent-child relationships and strong family connections make youth less likely to develop serious mental illnesses such as depression.

The Ethical Framework in Building Strong Family Bonds

As a parent, it is essential that you allow your child the opportunity to form their own identity, even if it means them making mistakes along the way. Setting adequate boundaries with your child strengthens trust in the relationship and eases their journey into adulthood. By encouraging them to form meaningful social connections outside of the home, your teenager can build a strong network of support for when they need it most and eventually develop a sense of independence. And it is equally important for children to consider their parents as support and not authority figures in their lives. It may be worthwhile for parents to create a safe space for their teens so that they may share their concerns without any judgment or consequences. Offering young people the right support for access to mental health care is also incredibly important to prioritize their overall wellbeing. Talking to teens about mental health resources (e.g., support groups, counselling, therapy) and ways to practice self-care can be a great tool in making them feel safe and establishing trust.

Growing teens can also take small steps to prioritize their mental health by practicing self-help strategies such as meditation, journaling, exercise, socializing with friends, connecting with family and loved ones (virtually if in-person meeting is not possible). The role parents play in the lives of their teens is impactful in shaping the direction of their mental health journey. Healthy family relationships can be maintained by embracing young people’s individuality and allowing them to explore their identities, while providing active guidance at the same time. Any overbearing parenting strategies or neglect can be a hindrance to the positive development of adolescents.

A robust support system can equip young people with resilience and high self-worth to overcome mental health challenges and times of adversity. Cultivating these strong family relationships is integral to supporting the mental health of adolescents. The role of researchers is in recognizing the ethical dilemmas that families often face while raising young people, in order to devise strategies to combat these issues and eventually support adolescents through their journey into adulthood.

Written by

Bushra Ali Shah

Content Writer