Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and the problem with problems.

Deciding what is a problem in adolescence can be problematic.

With the onset of adolescence come more problems between parents and teenager, problems most commonly expressed in the form of complaints.

There are problems stemming from adolescent separation. The parents complain how the teenager never talks to them anymore, never has anything to say, and how they feel ignorant about what is going on. The teenager complains how parental checking and questions are invasive of the need for privacy that comes with becoming more independent.

There are problems stemming from adolescent differentiation. The parents complain about the teenager's new taste in dress and entertainment and friends. The teenager complains that all parents do is criticize, refuse to accept that he or she is growing older, and are intolerant of his or her new interests.

There are problems stemming from adolescent opposition. The parents complain that the teenager actively and passively resists their authority and refuses to cooperate at every turn. The teenager complains that parental rules and restraints are over protective and unduly restrictive of his or her personal freedom.

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No wonder adolescence is a more abrasive and contentious time with so many more problems to deal with. Thus some understanding about the nature and management of problems is in order.

So what is a problem anyway? A problem is just a judgment call. It is a perception that something is happening or not happening that is considered not okay, not working, or wrong that needs to be corrected, fixed, or otherwise resolved.

To call some challenge a "problem" the caller complains about what is going on and often wants something different to occur. To call something a problem is to create a perception, make a judgment, lodge a complaint, and often call for a change.

A PROBLEM = A PERCEIVED DISCREPANCY BETWEEN HOW THINGS ARE AND HOW ONE WOULD LIKE THEM TO BE.

For example, some aspect of oneself may be identified as a problem: "I don't like my weight and want to look thinner." Something about another person's behavior may be identified as a problem: "You are always too busy to hear what I have to say and I want you to stop and listen to me." Something about a relationship may be identified as a problem: "I don't like the constant tension between us and want us to stop arguing so much."

It is the dissatisfaction created by an identified problem that can drive efforts to close the discrepancy and restore personal content. In this sense, problems come with their own motivation to resolve them. This dissatisfaction can range from mild upset ("I misplaced my keys!") to major pain ("I hate how I am being treated!") In the first case the person is energized to go looking for what is temporarily lost, in the second they are energized to confront the wrong doer and stop the mistreatment.

Because a problem is a judgment call, it is always a matter of choice - whether or not to take issue with some conduct, circumstance, or condition. And here conflicts can arise between parent and teenager, and between parent and parent, over whether something should be treated as a problem or not.

For example, start with parent and teenager and consider the messy room (see March 22, 2009 blog, "The Messy Room") that the parents consider a problem, but the teenager does not.

If the parents want to get the adolescent to clean the messy room up, they have to make it a problem for the teenager. To do so, they may declare: "You can't go out with your friends until it is cleaned up to our satisfaction." Now the messy state of the room has achieved problem status in the young person's eyes because it stands in the way of what he wants to do. Sometimes parents have to give an adolescent a problem to get cooperation in return.

Then there are those situations where the teenager's behavior is deemed a problem by one parent but not by the other, thus creating a conflict between the two adults.

For example, consider two parental extremes. One parent is accepting to a fault with the adolescent, too permissive for that young person's good. "Oh he's just a typical teenager and there's no need to worry, it's just a phase, it's not that big a problem." And so signs of substance use are ignored and go undetected.

Then there's the parent at the other extreme that is controlling to a fault with the adolescent, too critical for that young person's good. "You can't trust her, she never does anything right, I have to ride her every step of the way, she's nothing but a problem." And so the teenager's confidence plummets as her resentment builds.

The more judgmental, rigid, and demanding a parent is, the more problems that adult will choose to have with the adolescent. The more accepting, flexible, and adaptive a parent is, the fewer problems that adult will choose to have with the adolescent. The first parent goes for control; the second goes with the flow. Each approach has its own strengths and limitations.

Unhappily, when this distinction hold true between parents in the same family, the parenting can become divided and the marriage can suffer. One parent does most of the correcting and directing (the "mean" parent) and the other does most of the ignoring and accepting and (the "nice" parent.)

In this case, what tends to work best is if each parent can move in the other's direction - the corrective parent becoming more accepting and the accepting parent becoming more corrective. If this change cannot be accomplished, there is the danger that the parent who creates a lot of problems will feel unpopular and unsupported, and the parent who creates none will feel marginalized and impotent.

Adolescents need both acceptance and correction, and it helps the marriage if each parent is a source of both.

When it comes to fixing a problem, there are really only three paths to resolution, three ways to close the discrepancy between how things are and how one would like them to be.

1)You can change how things are to become how you would like them to be. So the parents get an agreement that the adolescent keeps about picking up the bedroom at the end of each day.

2)You can change what you want to accept the way things are. So the parents let the adolescent live in her own room her own way, with the door closed so they don't have to see the mess.

3)You can change some of how things are and some of how you'd like them to be so compromise becomes good enough. So each Saturday the adolescent does a bedroom pick up/clean up to the parents' satisfaction, and over the course of the following week they agree to tolerate a growing disorder.

People have two responsibilities for their problems: creating them and intensifying them. Thus having created the perception of a problem, they also decide how important that problem is by the degree of worry and urgency they attach to it. For example, the adolescent decides she has a problem because she can't find an outfit she likes to wear to the party. Now she intensifies the problem by saying: "I have nothing to wear! I'll look awful! Everyone will notice! My life will be ruined!" By turning a minor dilemma into a major crisis, a problem becomes a major source of distress.

The great problem with problems, between parents or between parent and teenager, is the negative effect they have on relationships. Now attention is focused on what's wrong, on what is not working, on discontent, grievance, and unhappiness.

Under the influence of the negative mindset created by the preoccupation with problems, complaints and hard feelings can rule, appreciation of each other and the relationship can be lost, and neither side feels inclined to make the positive initiatives and investments that the relationship sorely needs.

At this juncture the contribution of laughter, enjoyment, play, fun, expressions of interest and love are essential to help renew and restore a relationship that is faring badly at the moment.

Three rules for coping with problems between parents or between parent and adolescent to consider are:

1)Take responsibility for your problems -- for making a judgment and creating a discrepancy that states how things are, is not how you want them to be.

2)Don't let the negative focus on the problem overwhelm the positive perspective on the relationship, thus allowing dissatisfaction to drag you down.

3)When beset by problems, take positive initiative and make positive contributions to keep the relationship nourished with good feelings to sustain you through what can be a hard and unrewarding time.

At the end of my novel, "The Helper's Apprentice," club singer Deuce Donlan puts it this way in one of his songs, "The I.O.U. of Love." Here's the refrain. "Oh the I.O.U. of love, what you're owed is what you earn. What you get is what you give. No deposit, no return."

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

Next week's entry: Adolescence and healthy living.

 

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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