Anyone who has raised a teenager, or lived with one, knows how day-to-day life is not always easy… Opposition, withdrawal, risk-taking often lead to conflict: but should the parent let go – disinvest – or persevere to continue to advise, reason, help your child? The young person goes through real hormonal, biological and psychological upheavals, his personality develops, and he changes his behavior, but also his social relationships, often favoring his peers over his parents. Nothing could be more normal in reality: adolescence is a necessary period of transition that manifests itself differently in everyone. But it is stressful: day after day, the teenager must adapt to new situations, new associations. How best to help him?
The way in which the mother (or the main attachment figure) interacts with her teenager, namely the emotional climate of complicity and cohesion that reigns between them, plays a crucial role in the “social adaptation” of the young person: according to Xiaomei Li, a researcher at the University of Illinois in the United States, and his colleagues, “adolescents often turn to their mothers to discuss their problems, especially when they are having difficulties with their peers. When mothers give them advice, it’s not just what they say, but how they say it that matters. In my team, we were interested in the emotional climate of these conversations”.
To do this, the researchers evaluated for about a year the emotional closeness of a hundred mother-teen duos, made up of 53% young boys, 47% girls, aged 11 on average, then they determined in the extent to which the family atmosphere predicted, the following year (on their entry into the equivalent of the fifth grade), the ability of young people to face social challenges. First, Li and his colleagues observed (in the laboratory) and analyzed discussions between mothers and their child when the child talked about the difficulties encountered with his friends. Simultaneously, they recorded the youngster’s sinus breathing rate, which is an indicator of how he naturally, physiologically, handles stress. The following year, the teenagers told the scientists about the social difficulties they encountered and how they did or did not overcome them.
Complicity and cohesion are essential
Result: the more the pairs were emotionally united during their conversations, the more the young person then asked his mother for help; moreover, the more the maternal “affect” was positive during the exchanges, the more the adolescent adapted, the following year, to the stress caused by his social relations and managed to overcome it. In other words, a supportive, attentive and caring mother allows her child to actively engage in her relationships with others, to better solve problems when they arise and to manage her emotional reactions effectively. Whereas a more critical mother or one who shows less interest in her teenager does not help her to manage her social stress… Especially if the youngster is already “naturally” anxious.
“A parent can always give advice to their teenager, of course, but what our study shows is that the way they talk to their child is even more important in helping them cope with stress than what he will say,” the researchers conclude. Trust, dialogue, security, autonomy, responsibilities, affection and hope: these are, roughly speaking – according to the French sociologist Michel Fize – the seven capital needs that will allow a teenager to become a more serene adult.
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