PROVO, Utah — A new study out of Brigham Young University sought to understand what teens think about the appropriateness of their parents’ reactions to their behaviors. The upshot: whether parents are perceived negatively by their adolescents or not depends on the situation.

Laura Padilla-Walker

The research, published in the August issue of Social Development, found that parents’ actions – yelling, talking it out, or punishing – are not that important to teens. The clincher is teens’ perception of how well that reaction fits the situation. And the study found that teens, not surprisingly, can have a very different take on a situation than parents.

“If children feel they are being treated inappropriately, the negative emotion accompanying the interaction may cloud the children’s ability to understand and accept what the parents are actually trying to get across,” said Laura Padilla-Walker, senior author and assistant professor of marriage, family and human development at BYU.

Walker and her coauthor, Gustavo Carlo of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, surveyed 122 teenagers, asking them to tell how their parents would react to some hypothetical situations and to rate the appropriateness of the reactions. The researchers then ran statistical tests to validate the trends they saw in the data.

The results show that parents and teens are generally on the same page when it comes to problems in moral contexts — issues like lying or stealing that are violations of generally accepted societal rules. Teens expected their parents to be more upset with their moral violations. Adolescents reported that parents were more likely to yell at the teens’ moral infringements, and teens also reported feeling guilty more often in these situations.

“Parents and adolescents rarely disagree about issues in the moral domain,” Walker said. “Both know that lying and cheating are wrong.”

The divide starts to surface, however, when dealing with violations of social conventions, issues like table manners or coming home by curfew. According to the study, teens felt that a parent yelling over an issue like breaking curfew was not the right reaction or response. Adolescents felt that parents tended to overreact in such non-moral settings.

“For example, there are clear societal guidelines regarding honesty, so adolescents may not perceive as great an injustice in being reprimanded for lying as they would for breaking curfew, which is an arbitrary sanction that may vary greatly from one family to another,” the researchers wrote.

This generation gap also extended to parental reaction to the positive things that teens do. Teens thought it was okay that parents didn’t praise them for making correct moral choices, because the adolescents believe such behavior is obligatory. But teens felt that parents could do more to recognize and praise their positive activities outside the moral realm, such as cleaning their rooms. The study found that parents acknowledging positive behavior that teens view as optional, or not an issue of right or wrong, leads to teens’ perception that their parents’ responses are appropriate. This positive reinforcement can lead to future positive behavior.

“Adolescents find it relatively more unacceptable when parents fail to notice or respond to the times when they believe they’ve gone above and beyond their duty,” Walker said. “A parent’s ignoring such actions was related to heightened negative emotions from adolescents, as well as perceptions of negative intent on the part of the parent.”

In attempting to explain the difference in teens’ views on the way they are treated in moral situations versus non-moral situations, Walker suggests that adolescents have clearer expectations from their parents regarding possible consequences in moral or obligatory situations. Therefore they are not as easily surprised or angered by parental reactions in response to moral misdeeds.

As for advice to parents, Walker suggests parents make sure they acknowledge what their teens do well, especially if they are going above and beyond. According to Walker, a common problem arises when parents feel they do acknowledge their children, but adolescents feel their actions go unnoticed.

Walker is now studying data that more deeply examine the different types of parent-child interaction and adolescents’ perceptions within those areas.