Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescent break ups.

Break ups are a painful part of adolescence.

Break ups are a painful part of adolescence.

Of course the greatest break up that adolescence brings is between child and parent, as abrasive and estranging changes in the young person begin to strain the relationship that was once so companionable and close. To a degree, the separation from childhood stresses the old relationship as the adolescent begins to pull away from the ties that bind. 

Gone are the constant companion, best buddy, and mutual admiration society that the parent may have enjoyed for so long. Hard on the child, this loss can be harder on the parent because it is easier being the person leaving than the one left behind.

In response, it's easy to empathize with the parent who expressed her loss partly sadly and partly indignantly: "Who stole my child?" On the receiving end of this break up it's easy for a parent to feel hurt, rejected, grief stricken, or lonely. It's easy to take the break up personally, blaming the child for change that is not personally meant. "We used to have such a great time together,what happened to you?" No. The adolescent is not doing anything to the parent, only braving the challenge of growing herself up.

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Now those three relentless engines that drive independence - separation (wanting time for peers and privacy), differentiation (experimenting with unique expressions of individuality), and opposition (pushing to live more on one's own terms) - break up the old easiness together. Henceforth the parenting challenge becomes how to keep the relationship connected as adolescence is growing them apart.

Then there are the break ups that are often associated with the four phases of adolescence. Each can be painful to the young person in a different way, and should be cause for parental concern.

In early adolescence (ages 9 - 13) a very painful break up can occur when best friends grow apart. Consider two childhood friends who are so close and similar in every respect that they seem to inhabit the same person, so much commonality and intimacy do they share. Why they even read each other's minds, sensitively attuned to each other's thoughts without being verbally told. Of course, they spend most of their social their time together.

Then adolescence begins its transforming work. One youngster differentiates from the child she used to be and develops new interests while the other remains the same; or one youngster enters puberty and starts to look manly and gets older attention while the other still looks like a little boy.

Notice that the changes are nobody's fault, are not the result of a falling out. So what happened? Significant growth differences sever the similarity that supported the closeness they once shared. For the changing partner, the old friendship ceases to be compatible and more suitable associations and activities must be found. While the young person doing the leaving can feel guilty, the old friend left behind feels bereft. Parents need to be sensitive to this grief and supportive because so much of the young person's sense of self has been torn away at a very vulnerable age.

In mid-adolescence (ages 13 - 15) pairing up across the sexes begins as an act of social completion, signifying that now one is more young womanly or more young manly for having a boyfriend or a girlfriend. It identifies you as having achieved a more grown up social standing and status. Who is interested in who, who is going with who, who is breaking up with who become important items in social gossip at this age.

Because they tend to enter puberty earlier than boys, girls (who are usually more relationally socialized anyhow) often take pairing up more seriously. Less socially mature, boys often take it more lightly, treating pairing up and breaking up as casual or even funny to do. Although social pairing up in mid-adolescence is usually based on interest and compatibility more than intimacy and love, to be broken up with can impact one's social reputation: "She (or he) got dumped!" And significant social identity and standing can be lost. Not heart breaking, this break up can be socially costly, and for that reason parents need to pay empathetic attention.

In late adolescence (ages 15-18) romantic attachments become more common as sexual attraction, meaningful companionship, and emotional intimacy create more powerful attachments than young people have known before. Now they matter to each other to the point that secondary break ups are common when for the sake of their infatuation with each other, social interest in spending time with old friends can be set aside, those friends feeling cast off and hurt.

The major risk of break up is for the couple themselves when the challenge of balancing common tensions in the relationship becomes too much. Desire for time together contends with the need for time apart, jealousy erodes trust, competing interests get in the way of commitment, freedom is sacrificed to control, conflicts commit injury, and disenchantment for one party sets in, setting the stage for a break up to occur.

In cases where the couple was deeply in love, parents must beware of depressive or aggressive reactions when their adolescent is the jilted partner. At issue is how the rejected party manages pain. For example, pain over love's loss can lead a young woman into depression when she feels all that is worthwhile in her life is lost; while turning pain to anger at rejection can cause a prideful young man to retaliate with degrees of serious aggression - from attacking reputation, to harassment, to physical assault. To prevent such outcomes, parents need to set a watch over their late stage adolescent to make sure the break up does not lead to further hurt.

In trial independence (ages 18-23) the young person begins pointing to young adulthood, marked by settling down, focussing on a job with a future, and finding a life partner, all of which can be at a social cost. "Getting serious about life," was how one young man put it, which he contrasted with the years when playing around and having fun with his buddies was what mattered most.

The old song had it right: "Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine." Adulthood is the enemy of adolescence because growing up requires giving up and that means breaking up the circle of peers that has provided primary social companionship and social belonging for so long. The young person will never have a group of friends like this again, peers with whom one shared the pleasures and perils of growing up. Hence there is significant loneliness when, usually during trial independence, this break up starts to occur, first one and then another and then oneself beginning to separate off to pursue an independent future ahead.

With those young people who find this loss of old companionship particularly rending, and so delay it as long as they can, parents need to be patient.

Best for them to remember the title of another old song: "Breaking up is hard to do."

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

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the evaluation of parents.

 

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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