It's a familiar scene in many homes with adolescents.
The mother " can't stand" her teenage daughter's "unpleasant tone of voice." The daughter blames "the habitual, unnecessary bickering" on her mother's "nagging and insensitivity."
As discussion of their "love-hate relationship" builds, the daughter begins crying hysterically. The mother appears stunned, fighting for composure. In response to almost anything the mother says, the daughter wails the unbiquitous lament, "You just don't understand."
This mother and daughter are not in their home, and they are not alone. They are airing their problems before a trained therapist and an audience of about three dozen parents and teens at IPA Family Education Center in Chevy Chase, Md.
The center holds an open counseling program for parents and children on the first three Saturday mornings of each month (moving to Tuesday evenings during the summer). IPA is a nonprofit, volunteer organization of lay persons, educators and mental-health professionals dedicated to the principles of Alfred Adler, often called the father of humanistic psychology. p
On a recent Saturday morning, this demonstration was led by psychologist and author Manford Sonstegard as part of a workshop called "Listening to Teens," based on his possibly controversial view of teens as "partners."
Sonstegard, professor emeritus of counseling and psychological services at West Virginia College of Graduate Studies Institute, has helped establish numerous Family Education Centers around the country, including IPA.
Sonstegard prefers calling the audience "participants" because they can get involved in the discussion.
"By having participants you can involve a larger number of people in trying to understand the problems between teens and adults.And they have a therapeutic effect on the people you're counseling, because often they support their feelings.
"Every teen-ager thinks their problems loom large. When they realize other people have similar problems, it puts things in perspective. They begin to understand they're not the only person who's ever thought this way."
The therapist's goal, Sonstegard says, "is to look for the purpose behind the behavior. Why does this teen-ager behave the way she does? As the youngest child and only girl she's been treated like a princess. She feels she can talk anyway she likes, and everyone else is to blame."
After helping the family uncover this purpose, the therapist works to "help redirect the mistaken notion and come up with some concrete things they will do to improve the situation."
Although adolescents have traditionally rebelled, the problem is often intensified in today's families, because "We are a generation of equality. In the past, there wasn't this emphasis on women being equal to men, black being equal to white, and labor being equal to management," he claims. "Now everyone feels equal to everyone else, including children being equal to adults."
But "equality," he says, "shouldn't be confused with sameness. We're talking about basic human rights and respect. Yet we treat teens and talk to teens differently. They feel they're not accorded the respect they deserve, and problems arise."
The autocratic family of the past, in which the father's word was law without appeal, doesn't fit the "equal '80s," maintains Sonstegard. "Teens want to be consulted about decisions that are made. Until we take teens in as partners we will continue to have problems."
While parents should "set firm, but kind" limits "in certain situations where the teen's life is endangered" (like going to the movies when there's a blizzard outside), Sonstegard believes most issues should be discussed between the teen and the parent, with "the judgement left to the teen."
"If the relationship is good, the teens -- without fail -- will make the right decision," says Sonstegard. "Parents have to get away from resorting to controls -- doing and deciding things for the child they could do themselves.
"If a teen-ager wants to do something, they'll find a way to do it no matter what you do or say. But if they have a good relationship, you can influence the teen, which is much more effective than trying to control them."
To build a relationship with a teenager, Sonstegard suggests that parents:
Learn how to live with teens as equals. "The rule of authority is no longer appropriate." Accord a teenager the same consideration and respect you would a close friend.
Respect privacy. "Don't feel you always have to meddle." Express interest in activities, but don't pry.
Beware of great expectations. "Overly high expectations can discourage a teen-ager," who may feel that if they can't be the quarterback, they shouldn't even try out for the team.
Accept them for the way they are now." "Be willing to listen, without always making value judgements. And be willing to concede that parents don't always know the right answer."