Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Late-adolescence (15–18) = Acting More Grown Up

What do late teens think acting "grown up" means?

Late adolescence generally encompasses the high school years, beginning with entering as an unworldly (and low status) freshman awed by the size of the institution, intimidated by older and more experienced students, and excited by growth possibilities that did not exist before. Wanting to catch up with what older students know about and are able to do usually increases the teenager's push for more independence. An enormous amount is learned in high school, and most of it is not from classroom instruction.

Both parent and adolescent agree on the same objective for the young person in late adolescence: to learn to act more "grown up." Where they differ, however, is the meaning they attach to this objective. For parents it means learning to taking on more adult responsibilities. For the teenager it means getting to take more adult adventures that certify he or she is now officially old enough to act "older."

For many young people, these activities serve as rites of passage toward adulthood; and all entail more risk. For example, there is driving, dating, working for money, having more money to spend, falling in love, having sex, getting served a drink, getting drunk or high, going to a college party, staying out all night. Because at least some of these objectives are now on the teenager's mind, parents need to state where they stand on these matters, and inform the young person's choice about dangers, precautions, and responsibilities. Most discipline problems in late adolescence are "speed violations" from wanting to grow up too fast. So the parent's job is to act as a drag on this growth, to slow it down with delay and discussion so it unfolds within safe and healthy limits.

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How fast does the teenager learn in high school? The more your freshman teenager (through physical maturity looking older than her age, or through acceleration based on academic, athletic, or other ability) is thrown into the company of juniors and seniors, the steeper and swifter this learning curve becomes. Therefore, as much as possible, during freshman year in high school, support social association with same-age friends. At the same time, so that he or she can get a social foothold, insist that your teenager join some curricular or extracurricular group or organization that first year.

THREE ROCKETS TO INDEPENDENCE

Come high school, three "grown up" activities in particular are now within your teenager's reach, each one of which empowers your son or daughter, like a rocket, to want to act in a more adult ways. The desire for more independence is dramatically increased, particularly if two or more of these "rockets" are fired off at once. Now you have a more headstrong teenager to deal with than you had before.

What are these rockets, and why are they so powerful?

1. Being old enough to drive a car causes the teenager to believe that this independent mobility means, "I can come and go as I desire!"

2. Being old enough to hold a part-time job causes the teenager to believe that earning independent income means, "If I make my own money, then I can make my own choices!"

3. Being old enough to socially date and party causes the teenager to believe that going out means, "If I can go out and take someone out, then I can act socially grown up."

What you don't want is for your teenager to put all three grown up freedoms into a lifestyle that takes over the young person's life. Thus a part time job pays for a car, a car enables dating, dating is expensive, and so more hours must be spent upon the job. Who has time to spend with family or for chores and schoolwork now? So you let your adolescent know he or she can do none of these activities without your permission which will only be given so long as he or she is responsibly taking care of business at home, at school, and out in the world.

DRIVING A CAR

Ask any teenager. A car is the "freedom machine." No longer dependent on parents to drive you where you want to go, when you want to go, it gives you the freedom to "drive" your own life. For the young person to rein in all that freedom so it is not abused by harming self or others takes enormous attention, judgment, and coordination (all of which substance use alters for the worse.)

It takes being reminded that a car is not a toy to have fun with, it is a dangerous transportation device for getting around. Parents should ask themselves: "In our judgment, is our teenager sufficiently mature to be entrusted with the freedom to use a potentially deadly weapon?" Driving is a privilege, not a right. Responsible parents do not allow an irresponsible teenager to drive at any age. And if they do allow her drive, they insist on a safe driving record and that she shares the operating expenses.

HOLDING A PART TIME JOB

Entering the workforce feels like an adult thing to do, and it is. Exchanging labor for money is what the teenager will be doing throughout his or her adult life. You want your son or daughter to learn the discipline of being able to secure and sustain employment. It takes initiative to find a job opening. It takes assertiveness to interview for a position. It takes responsibility to hold a job. It takes obedience to work for a boss. It takes cooperation to work with co-workers. And it takes patience to work with the public (which is what most entry-level jobs require a teenager to do.) It also affirms self-worth to know that one has skills for which the world of work is willing to pay money. All of this is on the positive side of the ledger.

On the negative side of the ledger can be investing time in the job at the expense of education because now making money feels more rewarding than making grades. Also negative can be what is learned from workplace associations, like exposure to more varied substance use. Jobs can grow teenagers up in a hurry as they work alongside older employees. So parents have to see part-time jobs for what they are—an opportunity for growth experience and possibly harmful exposure. Their job is to monitor the mix so the good outweighs the bad.

DATING AND PARTYING

Late adolescence is the time when dating becomes more common and partying becomes the socially grown up thing to do. In general, dating at first can create discomfort, the teenager feeling awkward, anxious, even embarrassed about how to act and what to say. This is why going out with a group is usually a more comfortable, and less pressured, than going out with a single person.

In addition, casual dating is less pressured than serious dating. Casual dating tends to focus on fun without loss of freedom from significant involvement. Serious dating tends to focus on enjoying a single relationship and coming to know another person deeply and well. When serious dating becomes exclusive dating, it can tie a teenager down and can be conducted at the expense of social time with same-sex friends. Now the serious couple must manage tensions around mixing togetherness and separateness, and if infatuation develops they must also manage tensions from possessiveness and jealousy.

Loss of social freedom, distrust of commitment, and fear of betrayal can create a lot of discomfort when teenagers fall in love, so being in-love usually means being unhappy a lot of the time. It puts the couple out of social step with most everyone else who are just casually socializing for fun, and it increases the likelihood of becoming sexually active (so explain risks, declare your parental position, encourage delay, and advise about sexual protection should it appear that sexual intimacy will occur.)

If serious attachment occurs, make sure you get to know your teenager's girlfriend of boyfriend because that will maximize your chance to influence the conduct of that relationship. Prohibit this attachment on principle that they are "too young" to be so serious, and you risk driving them even closer together in response to your opposition. And appreciate that when in-love relationships do work at this young age, they usually mature young people more quickly than their peers, which can be to the good.

Parties are a problem for most teenagers (and many adults) because they lack the social confidence and communication skills to meet and greet and chat with people they may or may not now. That's where the "get-to-know-you drug," alcohol, comes in, providing the liquid courage to loosen up and feel less self-conscious about how one looks, and what one says. Smoking cigarettes give nervous hands something to do. If, when asked what he or she is going to do at a party, your teenager says "I don't know, just hang out and have fun," that means he or she is probably attending a social occasion at which substance use will be required for social comfort's sake.

SENIOR YEAR

Given all the grown up freedoms to be experienced in high school, its no wonder senior year is glamorized as the pinnacle of social power and sophistication. Seniors are supposed to "know it all" because they have experienced so much and "rule the school." Except, when students do get to senior year, the anticipated glamour is tarnished by harsh reality.

The greatest year in high school usually does not live up to its reviews. Now there is letting go to deal with—of childhood friends, of high school, of home. In all likelihood, he or she will never live in such a large community of friends again. He or she will never do as well or achieve the relative prominence in the larger world than was true in the much smaller world of high school. And it will be many years before he or she is able to create an independent sense of home and family to supplant the one that going to be left behind.

For those young people fortunate enough to graduate, late adolescence ends with a mixture of triumph, loss, anxiety, and regret. There is triumph from knowing that one has actually completed high school. There is loss as one's community of friends begins to disband and disperse. There is anxiety about managing the next step into a larger world or job or further education. And there is regret that the simpler time of living at home and going to school is over and now the true complexity of earning and making one's way in the world begins. For those who dropped out or were pushed out of high school, the challenge of finding one's way has already begun, often handicapped with a lack of confidence for not making it through, and the lack of diploma when seeking a job.

When late adolescence arrives, the time for some serious parenting begins. Once your teenager enters high school, parents need to literally list out what exit competencies and knowledge she will need to possess by graduation in order to successfully manage the next step to more freedom of independence away from home. For example, there are the three B's: banking, budgeting, and bill paying. Then decide specifically when and how during each of the four high school years you are going to enable each part of this practical life skill preparation to happen. Late adolescence is in fact the time when parents must teach their teenager how to RESPONSIBLY act more grown up.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: TRIAL INDEPENDENCE (18-23): Struggling to catch hold.

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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