Resolving The Fight Between Parents and Teens


Is it becoming worse, the fight between parents and teens, or has it always been this way? I guess this question has always, and will continue, to be asked for generations to come. However, surely this question depends on the perspective from which we are looking?

Could it be that parents and children are confusing ‘independence’ with freedom?

What if we looked instead at ‘Freedom through Interdependence’?

Let’s start by saying, my partners and I teach a concept of 'Interdependent Rules of Engagement©' and try to model this as best we can, including using this model within our family environments and work. Do we have more or less arguments and disagreements in our family? I can’t answer that. What I do know is, we have always tried to give our children as much freedom as possible within the boundaries of our family values, including that of Interdependence.

What does ‘Freedom through Interdependence’ look like and what are Interdependent Rules of Engagement© anyway?

This is part 1 on a series on the interdepenndent relatioship children, teenagers, parents and teachers and has been co-authored by Samantha McDonald and Robert Fenlon. Here we will share our personal experiences, both in an environment of home, as parents, as well as from Rob’s perspective, as a former Teacher and Headmaster - this is in an effort to explain why Interdependence can go a long way in resolving the conflict between adults and teenagers.

Some people are very independent in relationships, others are dependent, and a number of people are co-dependent (which means they maintain a relationship with someone else at the exclusion of their own wellbeing). The healthiest way we can interact with those close to us is by being truly interdependent. Interdependence is mutual dependence on, and in, interactions with each other – we serve us, so we can serve others. As they say, there’s no ‘I’ in Team.

I personally value freedom very highly, in fact it is at the top of my value chain. My interpretation of freedom will differ to yours and that’s ok. Yet when it comes to Interdependent Rules of Engagement©, more explanation is required, because for me to exercise my freedom, this has to be in line with not depriving anyone else of their way of being.

Yet how do we do this? How do we find a middle ground that allows all people to be heard, seen, and feel that they are valued through freedom to be who they are, without judgement, and model this for our teens?

When I’m on my parenting forums, I often hear parents complain of children having lack of respect for themselves and others, answering back, disregard, sometimes darn right rebellion, etc. I have wondered for a sometime what needs to happen for this to change. Many teachers have similar complaints and, I’m sure, if we were to ask our children, they too would say adults never listen to them, and feel we are trying to boss them around and stop them from doing things the way they would like to, etc – ‘their’ expression of independence.

It was through this wondering, that I began to realise something very significant. Significant yet simple.

In South Africa, due to a lack of transport system within my environment, children are very dependent on their parents to get around, in particularly their Mothers. Some Mothers do not work and we have been used to ferrying our children around and, I would argue, this has given us a large part of our value as Mothers. This ‘looking after our children’ gives us meaning and purpose in life - value. I see many of us feeling vulnerable and try to hold onto our children, inadvertently keeping them dependent on us. We ask ourselves, for instance:

  • What value would we have without our children relying on us?

  • What ‘use’ are we if we do not work, and our children no longer need us?

Children on the other hand, from as young as a couple of weeks old, have already begun to express their ‘freedom to choose’. Watch a baby as it screams because it wants the cake not the vegetables. Here he/she is exercising their right to choose, exercising and expressing their ‘freedom’.

As children grow up we focus very much on the word ‘independence’. Children focus a lot on their independence too, and before we know it, all types of traits relating to claiming independence begin to emerge and be expressed, and many such associated behaviours we do not like or appreciate.

What comes to mind is a statement I heard when I was a younger mother, participating on a parenting course:

“we want our children to be wilful, but not with us”

Children are dependent on us for a large part of their lives, we have been the ‘leader’ the one to be listened to, the one with all the answers and, like it or not, we are largely responsible for keeping our children at ‘dependency’.

Rob points out here: “If you’ve been a teacher you might relate to my experience of wanting to be ‘in control’ in the classroom. For a number of years, I felt the pressure to be the ‘expert’, I was operating independently leading to the one-way street of giver-receiver. A fixed mindset led me to believe I had to have all the answers, any perceived weakness would see my credibility vanish. There had to be very clear boundaries in how we operated in the classroom. I wrote and held the script and, as long as the exam results impressed the parents and the ‘powers that be’, why would anything need to change? The negative impact of operating from independence led to passivity in the students; their ideas, energy and enthusiasm becoming stifled because ‘this is the way it is done’. Without the extrinsic motivation of ‘house points’, upcoming exams and reports, life in the classroom would become flat, and my energy levels drained”.

As our children become teens, we wonder how much freedom we should allow them and under what conditions. What we cease to realise, is our children have been thinking this exact same thing for a very long time, some scheming, and figuring out ways of how they can express their independence and stop being ‘told’ what to do. I feel sure this is why when they reach the age of eighteen (and younger of course), and are given their ‘license’ to drink, often teenagers go overboard. This is one way to express they are able, in control, independent, free.

However, for the purpose of this article, I would like to suggest we replace the term ‘independence’ with freedom – The ‘freedom’ to choose ‘Interdependently’ - and look at what this might mean for parents and for teens, and how this could make huge headway into resolving the conflict between parents and teenagers.

My hope is that by the end of this article, you can see the benefit of Interdependent Rules of Engagement© serving all of us in freedom, within the boundaries of a set of rules of engagement, for everyone.

Interdependence Rules OK?

What if children could be given freedom, through interdependence, instead of from independence? How would this look? For this we need to spend some time looking at the definition of interdependence and Interdependent Rules of Engagement©. However, firstly we have to explore the other types of dependencies.

There are three other types of dependency that I would refer to as negative dependencies, as they do not serve people long-term in a positive way. These would include:

  • Independence

  • Dependence

  • Co-dependence

What do these dependencies mean?

  • Independence is all about “I look after myself and my needs”.

  • Dependency is “I expect you to meet my needs”.

  • Whilst co-dependency is all about “I please you, so you will please me”, a very transactional way of being where the balance of power can tip at any point.

Interdependence, on the other hand, looks out for the needs of everyone, it is about mutual respect and is about working together to serve others and create a more harmonious environment. It is about seeing the needs of others before our own. It is an accepting environment where we listen deeply and feedback what we hear, in order to clarify what is really being said, to ensure better understanding. There is no judgement, and everyone has the honour of being heard. With this comes responsibility and also a high energy, which is collaborative and proactive in nature, unlike the other three dependencies which are very, ‘reactive’ in nature.

I’m not saying for a moment we don’t all fluctuate between these four dependencies all the time. However, what I am saying is that we can become responsible, make an informed, intentional, decisive choice to act and model Interdependence.

Also, to be noted here:

“we have to experience all of the other three dependencies, in order to know how to act from interdependence.”

When talking of co-dependence, an example would be when a group of children get together and they keep each other in negativity. The relationships are transactional, judgemental groups are formed, often to the exclusion of others, whilst we gossip, seek validation from each other, judge and have a sense of not feeling ‘good enough’.

We all have limitations, doubts and contradictions which cause anxiety, guilt and resentment. When we can project the cause of such negativity, through co-dependence, as outside of ourselves we find a degree of relief, at least temporarily. The formation of alliances between siblings may occur to validate each other, blaming inadequacies, perceived and real, of their parents as the reason for their lack of ‘success’, opportunities or wellbeing. ‘If only dad wasn’t away so much, he didn’t encourage me to study…etc’ or ‘Mum did everything for me, I feel a failure as I have no confidence in myself’.

Parents likewise can ‘collaborate’ to justify why their child is ‘failing’ in school; ‘he never listens to us; the teachers don’t understand our child’s needs’. This Co-dependent validation to stay within their comfort zone of responsibility will again perpetuate the same conversations, responses and passivity common to the ‘toxic triangle’ of the three negative dependencies, with the focus on preserving ‘me’.

As Rob points out: “In the workplace I recall the divide between many staff and management, the ‘us’ and ‘them’. There were clear and predictable ‘rules of engagement’ – however, not from interdependence - between the two camps, negotiations were weighed down with ‘self-preservation’, ‘what can we get out of this’ and meetings ended with respective parties more polarised. The waste of opportunity was disheartening, cooperation minimal and a revolving door of attrition of teachers annually, with the negative knock on effect this has on students.”

Should we choose the route of co-dependence, we need to be aware of what happens when one of our fellow ‘conspirators’ chooses to leave the group, operate from a positive mindset, and make a success of their lives. How does this leave the rest of the co-dependent group feeling? In co-dependence we literally need others to feel needy in order to stay in negativity and make us feel useful and wanted. In co-dependence there is no growth, no positive freedom. Instead, this is replaced with, for example, judging ourselves and others. Seeking validation, feeling anxious, hesitant, waiting for someone to say we’re ok, gossiping behind each other’s backs, and it is a very reactive way of being.

I can think of a number of co-dependence relationships I have seen in my own environment and, I’m sure, I’ve engaged in at some time in my own life. What comes to mind is parents appeasing their children when they come home complaining about friends, school work, social environments, their weight, ill health etc. Instead of empowering children with the right tools to cope with such situations, parents will constantly take over and feed whatever is being judged as incorrect. If we were to look at which needs are going unmet in our children and ourselves, we may be able to begin to empower each other to deal positively with things as they occur and have each other’s immediate needs met at the same time.

I recall a situation where a young family were visiting South Africa and were settling down to eat in a restaurant. The youngest child insisted she wanted something out of a shop next door. As the mother got up from the restaurant table to go next door, her older child screamed that she was not prepared to be left alone. She clearly felt intimidated in the surroundings. The Mother then sat down, refusing to go anywhere. The tears that ensued from the younger sibling thereafter, eventually forced the Mother out of the restaurant, with the middle child sauntering after the her, clearly dependent on the situation, whilst the older one sat with a face like thunder having been left to sit on her own.

We can all recall situations such as this one. However, given a choice, wouldn’t you prefer things to be different, more positive? These situations finish up triggering everyone and the negativity that ensues is painful and disruptive.

Let’s take a look at dependence. What type of rules of engagement would this offer? We’ve all met a person, or been that person ourselves, when we feel we’re not as good as everyone else. We berate ourselves and look towards others to be the expert, whilst we wait around to be told we’re good enough or for someone to tell us what to do. When we feel dependent, it’s simply impossible to optimise ourselves, because we spend our lives waiting for validation. This waiting, leaves us feeling unsure, anxious, inadequate, not good enough. We easily take offence, especially when others play from a different dependency to ours. When we feel at our worst, we can become judgemental, and we are constantly seeking validation, looking for permission to contribute. Can you take a moment to imagine what this must feel like for our children, our teens, never mind us adults?

Take the example of a mother who came to me desperate for her son to be coached. “I feel I have spoilt my child” she said. “he is just not able to do anything for himself and his confidence is at an all-time low”.

Where does dependence come from? As adults, we need to take a look at ourselves. When we do everything for our children, we disempower them. Confidence comes from overcoming and being able to say “I made a plan and I did it”. Not all adversity is bad. Through adversity we learn our strengths.

Lastly, yet in some respects, more importantly, is Independence. This can come across as a very powerful dependency and you might be asking yourself ‘what’s wrong with this?’

Yes, we have to have walked in independence to know what it feels like, before we can move to interdependence, so there is a time when independence serves us. However, it gives only short-term wins and is unsustainable over long periods. Why is this?

Independent people, at surface level, look like they have it all together. These are the people shouting the odds and giving the orders. It doesn’t matter that others feel belittled, insignificant, undervalued, dis-empowered. Independence is all about getting our needs met no matter what, disregarding the feelings and needs of others and the obvious consequences that comes with putting ourselves first. I’ll be the first one to admit, independence can bring short-term wins. However, long-term, relationships are broken down as a consequence.

No one wants to maintain relationships with someone who thinks only of their own needs and have all the answers, unless there’s something in it for you. How do you feel working with someone who is independent, when they come across as a ‘know it all’, talk over others and are controlling? These people are extremely judgemental in their behaviour because they think they are the expert and we ‘are the idiots’. They have a tendency to give an impression of being ‘better than’ everyone else. There’s no question when we’re around such people we do begin to question our own abilities.

Independent people are often ‘know-it-all’s’ and never listen because they feel they have all the answers. Around people like this, we feel disenfranchised, disempowered, and dependent. Let’s not even think about the toxicity that arises when two independent people are battling it out for leadership and power.

When you think of how teens feel around parents and adults who behave this way, is it any surprise they begin to rebel or regress? It is a natural progression to want to be our own person, after all we all have between 12-15 Strengths which dictate how we all think, feel and behave, and there is a 476 trillion chance of anyone having the same top 10 Strengths in the same order as ours. Therefore, we are so very different from anyone else, and have a need to contribute in our own way. I’m afraid to say, the ‘fight’ and discord between parents and teens, will continue unless we can buy into, and practice, interdependent rules of engagement©.

Take a deep breath for a moment, let’s put our judgement of self and our teens aside for a while. What is it we are all wanting? Surely, we are all seeking some kind of equilibrium and peace in the home and at school? Collaborative, respectful relationships, right?

We should not want our children, or anyone else for that matter, to be wilful with anyone, because this is a negative form of dependency.

Our uniqueness is central to our identity so when it is stifled by the ‘system’ we feel resentment and want to kick against it. There is an inner angst that won’t go away, we long to fit in but not at the expense of our true identity. Teenagers ‘rebel’ and join peer groups for co-dependent support in their fight to be seen as more than a name on a register. When the validation of academic or sporting success is absent this rebellion becomes more pronounced, destructive or desperate. Their equilibrium imbalance is aggravated by physical and emotional changes, as well as uncertainties with future education and career choices.

Adults are often better equipped and subtler in coping with these pressures. Coping mechanisms such as excessive drinking, ‘busy-ness’ and co-dependent alliances help dull the pain and avoid facing up to the underlying issues of identity, purpose and contribution.

Interdependence is like a positive dependency, because it allows us to all work together in service of others. Just imagine that for a moment. It’s all about “serving us, so we can serve others”. It’s about putting others first. It’s about listening deeply to what is really being said, so others feel deeply an truly listened to and heard, putting our own perceptions on hold. We are made to commune. When we are part of a community that works well, we feel valued, esteemed, included.

Confident Vulnerability

Interdependence is also about not being afraid to show our vulnerability and asking when we do not have the answers and when we are in need. Modelling this way of being for our children and others is crucial. This is something that needs to be expressed early, not saved for when our children become teenagers. It needs to become a way of life, as we say, an ‘Interdependent Strengths Culture’.

Confident vulnerability is not weak. It is about confidently standing in who you are as a person and admitting that you cannot be everything. Out of 34 Strengths, we have 12-15 of these. Therefore, yes, we have non-strengths too. Being confidently vulnerable is recognising we need each other and allowing others to bring what they are good at, to complement our weaknesses. Confident vulnerability is an acknowledgment of what you are good at and asking for help where you are not. It is liberating when we realise we are not expected to have all the answers and know everything. It’s hard work pretending to be someone we are not, ask our children.

I love the saying “don’t try be me, I’m already taken”.

If children were taught emotional intelligence (EQ) from a very young age, they would learn about who they are through their innate Strengths, that they do have non-strengths, and that’s ok. They can stand in their own potential and empower others to bring their strengths where they are weak.

Most of us can name our weaknesses quite easily but our Strengths are not so easily seen. We take our Strengths for granted, since they come so naturally to us, and we don’t often ‘see them’ - much like a fish not being aware of water until it is taken out.

A great way to identify our natural ways of feeling, thinking and behaving is by taking the 45-minute online Clifton Strengths Assessment. From many years research on human flourishing, these 178 questions accurately detect the order of the 34 talent themes showing where we have most potential for growth and where we are deeply energised. As Tom Rath, a leading Strengths writer explains, we get much further if we build on who we already are, just like a tree is likely to produce fruit on certain branches.

Don Clifton, the father of the Clifton Strengths Assessment posed the question, ‘what would happen if, instead of weakness fixing, we focused on what is right with people?’ In short, if we use the Strengths’ Report to guide our Strengths Spotting, which is identifying and affirming Strengths in real life situations, we would be confident in the knowledge that we can excel through working on our strengths to optimise who we are and allow other to fill in, bringing their Strengths, where we are weak. Moving away from the ‘weakness fixing’ mentality immediately creates an environment where we work to excel and when we add ‘Interdependence’ to the mix, we begin to grow our confidence.

This is about ‘planting the right child in the right soil’ and allowing exponential growth of their confidence and strengths.

As children become better versed to ‘own’ their freedom and make choices on their own, many people, especially stay-at-home-Mothers, have to begin to create a ‘new normal’ for themselves. How many Mothers out there are confidently vulnerable enough to admit how scary it is now the children are getting older, that they feel their role is becoming obsolete?

How many Fathers and partners would be interdependent enough to say they are willing to put their own desires, objectives, goals to one side, whilst they help their marriage and relationship re-establish a ‘new normal’ - where the wife and mother becomes a newer version of herself, an ‘interdependent’ woman?

When one considers the number of divorces that take place following the ‘empty nest syndrome’ how might this interdependent way of being improve not just the relationship between teens and parents, but also have a knock-on effect on the marriage, and relationships, instead of tearing them apart?

There are similar challenges at retirement, where couples may now expect to live for twenty or thirty years - a new and radical interdependent exploration of the changing roles and expectations is needed. A Strengths approach here, just like in all stages of life, will indicate the specific contribution and needs of each Strength in order to maximise positive outcomes.

Just as a certain tree requires optimum light, water, temperature and type of soil to flourish, so one’s ability to contribute fully and be ‘alive’ depends on the ‘environment’.

I wonder how many teens, once they understood interdependence, would be willing to actually utilise the freedom they are given through ‘Interdependent Rules of Engagement©’ and make their own way? If this was instilled from young, I might argue lots. However, for teenagers to take on this new way of being, it would take time, patience and commitment. However, the benefits are enormous.

‘Interdependent Rules of Engagement©’ include freedom, freedom to make your own decisions after you have included, and put the needs of, others into the conversation too. This is freedom, within the boundaries of caring consideration for others, and optimising not only ourselves, but optimising others too. This is about ‘treating others as we wish to be treated ourselves’, it is about seeing the untapped potential in others and holding them in high esteem, so they can become what we see. It is about trust and becoming the best version of ourselves.

Our confidence is raised, from overcoming things. Any overcoming of even the smallest adversity gives us confidence and growth, and by not becoming interdependent, we can potentially rob our children of the power real freedom can bring, and to feel and experience this for themselves. When we constantly do everything for our children we dis-empower them and with disempowerment brings toxicity, resentment, conflict. Feelings of worthlessness and being seen as undervalued become the norm, because we have a natural inclination to stand in our own power and freedom.

Positive change and exponential growth can come if we all embrace relationships within a win/win frame of mind through interdependence. To not teach this, is to our own detriment. However, by now we are sure you have realised, a very obvious and positive alternative is interdependence. We can become proactive and begin to model Interdependence through Interdependent Rules of Engagement©.

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If you are interested in booking a ‘Parenting Workshop’ or a ‘Teacher’s Workshop’ - either in person or online, email us at

Rob Fenlon (BTEC, BTh, PGCE, (London), Cert IV (Training & Assessment, Australia), Strengths Strategy® Certified Coach (USA), Certified Professional Life Coach (UK)) understands the joys and the challenges of inspiring students to reach their potential, having over 25 years global teaching and education management experience in UK, Thailand, Burma,

United Arab Emirates and Australia. Throughout his career he has looked for opportunities to integrate classroom learning with a holistic outlook to include family life, sports, hobbies and work experience. His team created and delivered the National Award-Winning Education-Industry Liaison Course between Batchelor Institute, NT and the Mining Industry by developing life skills and well-being components. He has the ability to see the wider picture, enthusing diverse groups to work interdependently on common goals.

Available for Business Coaching Facilitation Programmes, Talks and long-term Strengths Educational Programmes for Schools & Parents. Read more about me here

Sam McDonald has been married for twenty-five years and has four children. Their home is in Camps Bay in South Africa. She is a Strengths Strategy Coach with a dream to have Strengths Facilitation Programmes in Schools at Government level.

She works with motivated clients using the Strengthsfinder® assessment as a power tool for:

  • Strength Based Interviewing & Recruitment

  • Assisting motivated individuals to fall in love with their careers and find the work they were born to do.

  • Working with high achievers to discover their value and purpose

  • Working with Start-ups to gain momentum, motivation & self-awareness of the Entrepreneur

  • Assisting Students to gain a greater self-awareness, expediting their career path, building confidence and self-esteem.

  • Working with individuals to re-engage in their work environments & leveraging their strengths

  • Working with marriage relationships to help you love again and understand the toxicity, reduce negative experiences, create understanding and, in turn, assist with long-term strategies for lasting transformation

  • Finding your true Purpose, Passion and Value in Life

  • Falling in love with your life and work again

She teaches the 'Interdependent Rules of Engagement© & 'Confident Vulnerability' to focus on living 'Interdependence' as the key to healthier environments - choosing this as 'rules of engagement' over 'Dependence', 'Co-Dependence' & 'Independence'.

She moved to South Africa in 1983 from Nottingham in the UK.

She is available for Business Coaching Facilitation Programmes, Talks and long-term Strengths Educational Programmes for Schools & Parents. Read more about me here.

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