Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Parental Impatience with Adolescents

Impatience causes more stress for parents than effort in adolescents

Parental impatience is self-imposed -- not getting what one wants when one wants it or not getting it exactly how one wants it.

It can be a response to the lack of timely compliance one would like. So the parent protests, "Now does not mean later!" A schedule was not met. Or it can be a response to a perceived lack of performance. So the parent complains, "That's not good enough!" A standard was not met.

High controlling or very critical parents can get infuriated with adolescents as frustration leads to irritation that quickly builds to anger. "You never do what I ask!" "You never do anything right!"

No question, adolescents can test parental patience. Concerned with acting independently, teenagers are determined to operate more on their own terms and this often means responding at a time of their own choosing. Concerned with asserting more individuality, adolescents become more insistent on doing things their own way. Hence the adolescent compromise of delay and approximation.

If actions could speak, what the adolescent would be saying is this. "You can tell me what, I'll tell you when, and when I get enough ‘when,' I'll do what you want - partly." So the dishes are finally washed. But the early adolescent, passively resistant to the last, didn't use soap. Now parents finally get what they requested, but not exactly how they had in mind. At this juncture, impatience is tempting, but parental persistence is more productive. "I asked you before and I will keep asking until this gets done the way I wanted."

For both causes - lack of timeliness and lack of adequate performance -- parents find themselves getting more impatient with the adolescent. And for one thing more: not growing up fast enough. They expect a teenager to act more conscientious like themselves, not like a child who they gave more slack for acting immature.

Expressions of parental impatience take many forms:

"When will you ever learn?"
"What is so hard to understand?"
"Why can't you act more responsibly?"
"How many times do you have to be told?"
"Which excuse for ‘forgetting' are you going to give now?"

Because adolescence is a trying journey for the teenager, it can be trying for parents as well. Parents who can still remember their struggles growing up tend to be more patient than parents who have chosen to forget what their own adolescence was really like. "I never gave my parents the aggravation my teenagers give me!" Maybe this is so; but probably not.

Supposed to be an urgency motivator, impatience rarely works as well as intended - getting something "right now" or "right" as the parent desires. Because it pushes and disapproves, it can have the opposite effect that parents want. So when pressed, the teenager may slow down or stubbornly continue the error or offense of his obstinate ways just to show who is really calling the shots. And of course, because impatience is a stressor, the more impatient the parent allows himself to become, the more worked up and stressed he will feel. Parents with "Type A" personalities (hard striving and high strung)tend to be more susceptible to impatience than their "Type B" (laid back and easy going) counterparts.

When adult impatience, provoked by adolescent resistance, leads to parental upset, the parent loudly losing control to get control, it is the teenager who ends up in emotional control of this exchange. "I really know how to get my parents going!" A valuable self-discipline when parenting adolescents is to stay in the moment without letting the moment become your master - the difference between being responsive and being reactive.

To reduce vulnerability to impatience it helps to maintain a perspective that is mindful of normal frustrations that come with parenting an adolescent.

For example: expect that sometimes mistakes will be made, responsibilities will be ignored, tasks will be put off, and commitments will be forgotten. Misunderstandings will develop, disagreements will arise, opposition will be mounted, and conflicts will occur. Errors will be repeated, progress will be halting, and backsliding will occur. Effort will be lacking, performance will fall, and some traditional caring will diminish. Risks will be taken, limits will be tested, and rules will be broken.

At these and many other unwelcome moments, parental patience can wear thin: "What is the matter with my teenager?" The matter is, come adolescence parents will have more difficulty getting exactly the kind of behavior from their teenager that they want when they want it, and they will be getting more behavior that they don't want and did not anticipate.

The curve of parental impatience tends to rise during the last stage of adolescence, trial independence (18 - 23) as young adulthood finally approaches. Now is a time when parents are really ready for their older son or daughter to get their life together, set an occupational or educational goal, show clear progress in that direction, and act responsibly grown up.

But when, as often happens, there is floundering and failing to make responsible headway, parental impatience can give way to fear that their adolescent will never turn the corner and "turn out" as a functioning adult. "Why isn't our child moving along as steadily as her peers?" "What's the matter with her, and what does that say about the parenting we have given?"

RELAX.

This is when parents need to tell themselves: "Be patient!"

1) There is no set rate of growth to independence that all adolescents must meet, or one fixed path they all must follow.
2) Come the final, and hardest, stage of adolescence, many young people lose their footing, get into a wide variety of difficulties, become frightened of the future, get lost in transition for a while, even boomerang home to recover themselves.
3) If your older adolescent is not keeping up with peers that are getting educationally or occupationally ahead, this does not mean that all is lost, only that more time is needed for maturity from life lessons to be learned.
4) The parental expression of impatience at this final stage almost always makes things worse, not better, for the adolescent who is feeling more than enough frustration and self-criticism with herself already.
5) The parental job is to hold the older adolescent to responsible account, affirm positive signs of growth being made, express respect for what the young person is learning from hard experience, and be patient as their son or daughter struggles to find an independent way.

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 problem of blame

 

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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