Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence -- when there's a "good" child and a "bad."

When parents play favorites, adolescents can suffer.

This seems to be an operating principle in many human systems. When it comes to favored treatment of members in an organization or other social group, one tends to be accepted, approved, and often advantaged by apparent similarity to significant people at the top.

Another aspect of similarity is the degree to which one conforms to their majority ways and complies with their majority wishes. Conversely, one can be disfavored and disadvantaged by dissimilarity, nonconformity, and noncompliance. It's why alike-looking, like-minded, ‘yes' people tend to be promoted faster by superiors than those who appear different, think more independently, and are not afraid to say ‘no.'

Mid-adolescent gang groups usually operate this way. Not formally stated, but clearly implied, are rules for inclusion and advancement: "If you want to achieve good standing in the group, be like us, behave like us, believe like us, be loyal to us, and don't act better than us." If you're so individually different that you don't fit into the group, if you're so independently minded that you won't go along with the group, membership and standing are likely to suffer.

In family systems this principle of similarity, with its corollaries of conformity and compliance, can sometimes also hold painfully true, at least so I have sometimes seen in counseling.

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Favoritism of one child over another is often based on similarity to parents - to how they are, to what they value, and to doing what they want. This can create a problem that worsens come adolescence when independence and individuality become fighting issues for the teenager. Now, to hear some parents tell it, there is a "good" child and a "bad" child in the family

It can happen this way. Suppose the following family scenario unfolds. First-born child is strongly built like both parents, like them is also socially active and outgoing, is generally cooperative, has the same natural athletic capacity, thrives on competition and striving, values pleasing parents, and achieves highly to reflect well on the family. Together, parents and first-born, make up a mutual admiration society in which part of the pleasure of their company is the comfort of sharing so much in common with each other.

Then along comes child number two who from the outset appears different from child number one, and in addition shows no desire to compete with or be a clone of the older sibling. Second child is inward and reflective, physically lethargic, less socially-inclined, favors indoors over outdoors activities, is less communicative, is averse to competing, has no interest in achieving, and becomes stubborn and resistant when asked or told to interrupt concentrated solitary play.

As the poet said, comparisons are "odious." It isn't that the parents love child number two less than child number one, but they do agree that number two "is our difficult child," not "easy" like number one, a judgment that becomes more strongly felt when number two follows number one into adolescence.

Parents describe the family with teenagers this way. "Our first is talkative with us, willing to do what we want and fun to be with, and performs up to our expectations; but our second prefers being left to himself, fights us when we want him to join in and go along, and makes no effort to do well. He doesn't want to be part of family activities, and we find his few friends and interests very difficult to understand and hard to relate to. When he insists on being different, we end up correcting him so he can be more like the rest of us. But he refuses to fit in. That's when most of our fights occur."

Now an adolescent, this correction inflames child number two. "Get used to it! I'm not going to change. I'm not going to be like you and my sister, and I never will be! I'm never going to play sports, like school, or care about achieving well! All I want from you is to leave me alone and let me do what I enjoy!"

Now comes the evaluative trap. When parents judge one child "easy" based on similarity to themselves and another "hard" based on diverging from the family norm, they are in danger of beginning a chain of judgments that can lead to equating easy with "good," and difficult with "bad." From this distinction an appearance of preference and favoritism can arise, the good child receiving more positive reviews and rewards, the bad child receiving more criticism and sanctions.

In the extreme, feeling unfairly treated by this inequity, the bad child (firmly entrenched in adolescence) may act out in anger at this perceived unfairness, increasing his or her negative reputation and treatment, becoming a lightening rod for conflict in the family, monopolizing a lot of parental time and concern. Meanwhile, the good child keeps accumulating praise and reaping benefits parents have to offer, taking care of business, being generally tractable, making parents look well, relieving them of much supervisory responsibility.

These contrasting roles played by each child often gives rise to jealousy between them. The "bad" child envies the disproportionate amount of parental approval and advantages the "good" child receives. The "good" child envies the greater amount of parental time devoted to the "bad" child, and all the second chances that are given and the exceptions made. The "good" child feels constantly taken for granted; the "bad" child feels constantly taken to task.

As for the parents, they are not meaning to be unfair. They are usually just trying their best to straighten the "bad" child out by reforming him into meeting their definition of "good." It worked with the first child, so why not with the second? What they often don't understand is how rewarding similarity can damage both "good" child and "bad," driving the first into proving how good she is, and the second how bad he is determined to be.

Then consider what can happen at the end of adolescence. Ironically the bad child is often better off than the good. Now, departing into more independence, the "bad" child can honestly claim the individuality and self-determination for which he has always fought. He can admit his hard rebellion to parents: "You have known me at my worst." As for parents, at last out of the business of active parenting, they may finally give up the battle and accept their more difficult child for the individual he is. They can even embrace him as a prodigal who has at last been granted acceptance in their eyes. Released from their parenting struggle, they are able to appreciate the good in this child who has been so determined and different, since they no longer feel obliged to change him any more.

Child number one, however, the "good" child since the beginning, may be left with a serious problem. To preserve this positive family reputation all these years, she may have sacrificed some individuality to keep earning a positive parental evaluation: "I must stay at my best." To please the parents or to avoid the kind of criticism and conflict that child number two has received, child number one may have suppressed her different, difficult, and more determined side.

Thus, on the threshold of true independence the "good" child feels trapped, committed to maintaining an ideal image for fear of breaking it and losing traditional standing in parental eyes: "I couldn't bear disappointing them!" It is painful to deny authenticity for the sake of similarity and suppress honest individuality for the sake of acceptance. "I hate feeling unable to be the person I want to be!"

To keep from falling into the trap of making a "good" child/ "bad" child distinction in the family, parents can treat similarity to them and diversity from them as part of the human mix to which every child is entitled. To grow into the fullness of how one truly is, each child needs room to act both easy and difficult, similar and different, sometimes good child and sometimes bad.

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

Next week's entry: Parent, adolescent, and mutual dislike.

 

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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