Your teenager asks for permission to spend a glorious summer weekend sleeping on the beach with a couple of friends. Your spouse views this as an outdoor adventure and a bonding opportunity for close pals. You see red flags—empty beer bottles and the peril of open water.
Parenting an adolescent is more demanding and perplexing than parenting a younger child, and the pressure of raising a teen can strain your marriage, says Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence: How to Understand, and Even Enjoy, the Rocky Road to Independence.
When children are young, couples often make joint decisions on breast vs. bottle, cloth vs. disposable, preschool or not. But the teen years present a barrage of judgment calls on dating, drinking, curfews, co-ed sleepovers, social media use, sex, sexting, truancy, failing grades, college decisions, and more.
The breakneck pace of change during adolescence gives couples little time to ponder choices as a team, and personal differences can make it difficult to come to consensus.
Over time, divisive decisions can drive couples and families apart, according to research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The stress of parenting teens can spill over into a marriage, and couples argue more during the teenage years than at any other stage of their child’s development.
The more couples argue, the less likely they are to be happy together; as adolescence progresses, marital satisfaction often decreases.
Parents of teens are already nearly as stressed as people who are chronically ill or work potentially dangerous jobs, according to a nationwide survey, “The Burden of Stress in America,” by the NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.
The upshot? The challenges parents face during this stage of development can threaten a couple’s “stability, predictability, authority, intelligence, sleep, and even sexual patterns,” writes psychologist Suzanne Phillips, blogger for PsychCentral, an online mental health resource. When stepparents and co-parents are involved, the dynamic is even more complicated.
Fortunately, good communication and a willingness to compromise can safeguard a marriage and help the whole family emerge from the teen years as a stronger unit.
Each parent brings distinct values, experience, personality, and family history to the mix, so it isn’t surprising that couples diverge when they confront challenging decisions about how to raise their teen. Parents tend to want to duplicate their own adolescence, if their experience was positive, or veer in the opposite direction if it wasn’t, Pickhardt says.
When parenting styles collide, tensions build, and tempers flare. Instead of finding common ground to deal with their teen, stressed parents turn on each other. Phillips likens it to being caught in a traffic jam and taking the stress out on your companion in the car.
3 Strategies for Preventing Marital Tension when Raising Teens:
1. Protect your time as a couple.
To prevent this tension from overwhelming a relationship, parents should find ways to prioritize their marriage and partnership over the relationship with their adolescent, no matter how demanding a teen is, says Vicki Hoefle, author of Parenting as Partners: How to Launch Your Kids Without Ejecting Your Spouse.
“Without that, the family structure changes significantly,” says Hoefle, a parent educator for 30 years. “If the marriage is on the back burner, everything else is going to suffer.”
And don’t feel guilty when you set aside time for yourselves, Phillips adds.
“If teens see you abdicate your role as people and as partners, you do them no favor,” she says. “Although some parents think, she needs me, he needs me, they don’t need you at the cost of your marriage.”
Protecting your time as a couple can include any or all of the following:
- Make and keep a date night each week.
- Be intentional about time together.
- Let your teen know you won’t be doing all the driving; encourage them to make carpool arrangements with friends.
- Tell your teen when you need time with your spouse. If you want to watch a movie as a couple, it’s okay to ask for privacy.
2. Understand each other’s point of view.
Disagreements between parents are inevitable, says Hoefle. It’s key to respect each other’s perspective and avoid making unilateral decisions or choices that will cause resentment.
“The most important thing is to understand your own upbringing and why you came to the conclusion you did about parenting,” Hoefle says. “Because that history is what’s driving your decision.”
If you clash over whether your daughter can attend a co-ed sleepover or wear those short shorts, discuss your feelings without using inflammatory language. If emotions rise, take a break and cool off before continuing the discussion, Pickhardt advises.
3. Find common ground that you can both live with.
“You have to be able to talk through issues—and that doesn’t mean that you necessarily like every joint decision that you make, but you can live with it, and you understand it, and there’s give on both sides,” Pickhardt says.
- Articulate your position without trying to prove you’re right.
- Try to find one point that you agree on and start there to find a solution.
- Remember that your teen learns how to negotiate and handle conflict from
- If you feel you’re in over your heads, seek professional counseling.