The family lives of young people

Val Gillies, Jane Ribbens McCarthy and Janet Holland

In this study 'ordinary' young people (aged between 16 and 18) and their parents talk about their lives on their own terms.

In-depth interviews explore issues of independence and relatedness, understandings of parental support and the meaning of 'family'. They reveal how independence may mean different things to parents and young people; how parental control and authority can conflict with young people's growing independence; and how there can be a very delicate balance between openness, guidance, secrecy and surveillance. In contrast to the problem-centred approach of much previous research, the study found that the vast majority of the sample described their family relationships in positive terms.

Parents described how relationships with their children improved over the teenage years, becoming more based on companionship; young people emphasised personal responsibility and individual accountability. The researchers conclude that policies should build constructively on parental concerns to guide and advise their children, while being ready to rectify inequalities and fill absences around this vital resource for young people.

Summary

Summary

Young people have long been the subject of public concern, and tend to be seen as problematic. In this study, the researchers interviewed 'ordinary' young people (aged 16-18) and their parents from a variety of households. The findings provide a contrast to the problem-centred content of much previous research on young people.

  • The vast majority of the sample described their family relationships in positive terms, emphasising the supportive and emotionally meaningful nature of their lives together.
  • Most parents and teenagers reported that their relationships had improved as children moved through the teenage years, becoming more a companionship between equals.
  • Even when parents discussed very difficult problems, and felt distress and anger, they also described feelings of love and pride towards their children.
  • Young people interpreted increasing independence as individual freedom as well as an obligation to accept personal responsibility. Parents emphasised freedom and opportunity, and saw themselves as gaining increased independence as their children grew up.
  • Both teenagers' and parents' understandings of independence were shaped by a strong sense of connection to each other, through mutual obligation and commitment.
  • Young people relied on parents for practical and emotional support, although support in the form of guidance and discussion also carried the potential for control and obligation.
  • While parents often felt that direct control over teenagers was inappropriate and unworkable at this age, they did see a continuing role for themselves in steering and advising teenagers as they grew into adulthood.
  • There are tensions between privacy and trust in parent/teenager relationships. Parents as well as teenagers varied in their views about secrecy, 'surveillance', and open communications.
  • Mothers and fathers tended to carry out 'traditional' roles, with mothers seen as more central in family lives. Getting support as a parent could carry costs as well as benefits, but while fathers normally sought support from their partners, mothers sometimes also looked for other sources of support.

Background

In social policy and research, young people are often seen as problematic whilst research more directly about family lives and parenting has tended to concentrate on parenting younger children. As a result we know very little about how parents and teenagers experience and make sense of their lives together. In this study, the researchers interviewed a range of 'ordinary' young people and listened to them talking about their lives on their own terms.

Not so bad after all

The vast majority of the sample described their family relationships in positive terms, emphasising the supportive and emotionally meaningful nature of their lives together. Few parents identified with common public representations of the teenage years as particularly difficult; indeed most reported that their relationships with their children improved through those years, with exchanges becoming freer and relationships becoming more based on companionship. Some parents discussed specific problems, but there were only three accounts of serious difficulties resembling more closely the image of teenagers as troublesome and rebellious. Even here, parents described mixed feelings of love, warmth and pride as well as distress, frustration, anger and ambivalence.

Accounts given by young people themselves also contrasted with common portrayals of teenagers as increasingly disconnected from family life. The young people placed a powerful emphasis on personal responsibility and individual accountability and identified their families as an important area of their lives where they saw themselves as 'moral agents', i.e. responsible for their own actions, and taking charge of their lives. Altogether, the accounts suggest that being a teenager or the parent of one is not necessarily as difficult as we might be led to expect, and that young people themselves may appreciate what their families have to offer.

Independence and relatedness

Independence was a major theme in the interviews with both young people and their parents, but parents and teenagers differed on what it means to be independent and leave childhood behind.

For parents, independence seemed to be equated with freedom and autonomy in a straightforward way. In contrast, young people understood independence as entailing new responsibilities and obligations as well as new freedoms. They demonstrated a strong sense of a developing moral agency in their accounts of 'growing up', and saw independence as a personal resource they had developed over time. Neil, for example, reflected on his bad behaviour:

"This teacher come in, and said to us ... as you're getting older and going to go to the next school you're gonna build up a reputation for yourself and it's not gonna be good for you and it's gonna go on your record and everything. So that made me think, you know, well it's time I grew up now, stop being this kind of person." (Neil, African-Caribbean, middle-class young man)

Parents attached importance to events such as reaching a certain age, having a sexual relationship, gaining qualifications or a driving licence, achieving some financial independence, or leaving home, and seemed more focused on the significance of passing such milestones than the teenagers themselves.

Mothers and fathers were keen to highlight the importance of their role as givers and receivers of love and support. While the independence associated with moving into adulthood allowed self-determination and freedom, enduring family bonds were still actively maintained, with family relations a key part of life. As one mother described her family life, "it's got looser, more space, but not less close".

Support, guidance, control?

Most of the young people relied on a network of support including parents, other family members, friends and professionals, and often themselves provided support for others. Teenagers emphasised three facets of emotional support from parents: concern and care, comfort and consolation, and 'being there'. One young woman described how her parents are "... always there for me if I need them - not that I want to need them, but you do, everyone needs them".

Teenagers saw their parents' concern and care as an expression of love and valued this highly. They drew on their parents for comfort and consolation, especially in bad times and for everyday ups and downs, but this could carry some costs, which might include an obligation to live up to parental expectations, and a degree of loss of autonomy. Teenagers saw their parents 'being there' as a crucial form of background support. Practical support ranged from advice to physical help with particular tasks, and teenagers valued having their parents' skills and capacities to draw on:

"When I got done for shoplifting dad was there. And you know he helped me and that 'cos he sort of knew what to do, you know get a solicitor and that and he used to talk to her 'cos he's brainy." (Leanne - white, working-class young woman)

As their children grew, parents saw a shift in the form of support required from care and control to guidance and advice. Some parents emphasised their respect for the teenager's autonomy, while others felt a responsibility to ensure that appropriate decisions were made, even though this might provide flashpoints for potential arguments. Other parents assumed a more subtle role, seeing dictating to teenagers as counter-productive, "you sort of advise instead of telling", although this can also be understood as a form of subtle control.

If there were a real crisis, some teenagers expected unconditional support, while others felt the support would depend on what they had done:

"Depends what kind of trouble - with the law, or I don't know, really depends on what kind of trouble... If I didn't do it, then they'd be supportive. If I did it, then they would just give me earache." (Imran, Bengali, working-class young man)

Discussions about support varied markedly between mothers and fathers; a large number of mothers spontaneously talked about support as an important issue in their lives, while fathers were less likely to mention any need for help or reassurance. Fathers seemed to regard their partners as the primary source of knowledge about parenting.

The meaning of family and family life

All interviewees were asked about the meaning of the word 'family'. Their responses indicated that they used the term in a powerful and emotive way, and that it was suffused with strong ideological overtones. Ambiguities in the way interviewees saw the family revolved around three notions.

1. The family as a chosen creation or something fixed:

"I would define family as a group of people who develop intimate bonds that only long periods of time spent together can promote." (Brandon, white, middle-class father)

"They're sort of the people you're stuck with." (Emma, white, working-class young woman)

2. Members as separate individuals or the family as a shared identity:

"I don't think family is just mum, dad and two kids, it's the end result. I think it's four adults who like each other, and are keen to be associated under the same name." (Andy, white, middle-class father)

"Family means to me speaking with one voice. You know, if you see one, the other will represent the same thing." (Otis, African-Caribbean, middle-class father)

3. The family as support and responsibility or as comfort and happiness. Some regarded these elements as mutually reinforcing rather than in tension:

"The reality of my family ... was a bit of a power struggle thing, it was about duties, perceived responsibilities ... not comfortable a lot of the time." (Moira, white, middle-class mother)

"Family means, um, um, a bond between people ... Um, a loving relationship between a group of people, between all the parties that are involved in that relationship." (Peter, white, middle-class father)

"I would describe it like a strong relationship together, parents, husband, wife and love and responsibility for each other." (Amna, Pakistani, middle-class mother)

Differing perspectives

There was considerable common ground in how teenagers and their parents discussed their lives, but there were also differences. Teenagers' accounts were striking in their emphasis on agency and responsibility, and most focused on psychological and emotional development. In contrast, parents were more likely to evaluate change in terms of their children's physical development and age-related status. For them, psychological continuity in their child's stable personality seemed to link past, present and future:

"I don't think she's changed at all. Just grown bigger, and older and a bit wiser I suppose. And I suppose, well, I was going to say perhaps her personality has developed more, but I don't think it has, I think it was always there." (Penny, white, middle-class mother)

There were tensions between privacy, secrecy and trust in parent-teenager relationships. In some cases there was a disparity between the assumptions parents made about their children's lives and the experiences described by their teenagers. Parents were often confident, for example, that their children had not experimented with sex and drugs, while teenagers might consciously keep such encounters from them. Similarly parents discussed a tension between respecting their children's right to privacy and trust and their parental responsibility to protect them from potential harm. This could result in surveillance and hidden control (reading letters, following teenagers' movements). Both teenagers and parents suggested that some silences and secrets were necessary, either to protect against inflicting anxiety or to preserve trust within relationships.

The majority of the sample identified mothers as playing a primary role in mediating and maintaining family relationships. Fathers tended to be represented as slightly more distant, fulfilling an important, but less central position. Parents' perspectives on their own future when their children were grown also differed noticeably; mothers tended to share more dynamic ambitions for the coming years, in comparison to fathers' relatively low key aspirations.

Conclusion

The interviewees' accounts highlight the contradiction and complexity of their family lives. Overarching key themes of independence, agency, responsibility and relatedness characterised teenagers' and parents' understandings, but these themes were played out in quite variable ways, some of which differed between parents and young people themselves. While family support may involve compromise and ambiguity, many parents were doing a great deal in many quite subtle ways to encourage their children as they grow up.

In parents' accounts, their central value and goal was to achieve independence for their children. This was incompatible with exerting direct authority over them, as was the teenagers' own strong sense of personal responsibility. The researchers conclude that any policy moves towards increasing the emphasis on parental authority with this age group must take this into account. Such parental control may be appropriate for younger teenagers, but might be inappropriate for this age group.

About the study

This was a qualitative, small-scale, in-depth study, interviewing individually 32 young people aged 16 to 18, 31 fathers and 30 mothers of a child that age. When possible, individuals from the same families were interviewed, resulting in 14 family clusters in the sample. Interviewees lived in a variety of locations in South East England and the Midlands, and were reached in a range of ways, both formal and informal. The sample included interviewees from a wide variety of class and ethnic backgrounds.

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