Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Early Adolescence and the Negative Mindset

Entering adolescence requires a painful rejection of oneself as child.

In addition to more disorganization (distractibility, messiness, and forgetfulness), what notifies parents that early adolescence has begun is the young person's more negative mindset, or what they often say is his "bad attitude." Early adolescence usually begins between the ages of 9 and 13.

At this juncture, parents wonder what has happened to the child who was full of enthusiasm all the time and such a pleasure to live with. Now it's like someone pulled the plug on the young person and all that positive energy for fun and constructive activity has been drained away.

One parent described this change poetically. "Developmental lumphood," she called it, by which she meant that all her son wanted to do was lay around and complain about having nothing to do because whatever he used to enjoy doing wasn't worth doing anymore. And the parent was correct.

Now the old childhood interests, activities, and entertainments no longer satisfy because he no longer wants to be defined and treated as a child. He wants something different, something older, something more, he doesn't yet know what, and until he finds it he is filled with discontent, the name for which is boredom.

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Feeling bored for the early adolescent is not a trivial emotion. It is really a painful expression of loneliness—the inability to connect with self, with others, with the world in any good feeling way. There is the sense of being disengaged, undirected, and at loose ends, hence the complaint: "There's nothing to do!"

But when parents suggest some work around the home that needs doing, the adolescent just gets angry. "Oh, leave me alone! You don't understand! I'm too tired!" And the parents wonder, "Tired of what?"

The answer is: of not knowing what to do with himself. He knows what he doesn't want to do (like what he used to do and being told what to do), but he has no clear vision of what he does want to do. When it comes to motivation, he increasingly feels he's riding on empty.

The basis for the negative mindset is the early adolescent's rejection of herself as a child. The problem is, although the young person knows how she doesn't want to be, she hasn't yet developed a good feeling alternative. This self-rejection is costly because she can't reject the child she was without rejecting part of herself. And that hurts, at least until more self-redefinition has been accomplished as happens when the insecure and dissatisfied 6th grader finally becomes a more confident and content 8th grader.

One way to manage hurt from self-rejection is by turning it into criticism of those around her or him at home. She can get down on other members of the family, particularly younger siblings; but what parents often don't see is how she can get down on herself. "I can't stand how I am!" At this vulnerable age, the self-consciousness of puberty doesn't help. "And I hate how I look!"

In a mood to reject everything and everyone, she can strive to bring other people down to her unhappy level. That adage, "misery loves company," was made for the early adolescent age.

Rather than parents acting offended by the negative mindset, they need to be sufficiently sensitive to it to assess how badly the young adolescent is actually feeling about himself. They often have to infer this emotional state by how he is behaving, since that is how unhappiness is likely to be expressed.

For a minority of young people, there is a risk of self-harm at the outset of adolescence when extreme negativity about self leads to a painful sense of inadequacy, inferiority, or worthlessness.
These feelings flow from the negative mindset at its worst, and they can be managed self-destructively.

For example, parents have to keep a weather eye out for such punitive actions as scratching or cutting on oneself, falling into despondency or anxiety and socially withdrawing, developing an eating disorder, self-medicating with early substance use, engaging in dangerous risk taking, or committing serious rule breaking.

Self-harm is the exception, not the rule in early adolescence, but it does happen, and when it does outside counseling help should usually be sought.

Of particular notice should be early adolescents who have an extremely negative mindset and are on the receiving end of significant social cruelty (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, ganging up) because when negativity toward self and negativity from others combine at this vulnerable age, a young person can be driven to desperate acts. Self-rejection plus social rejection can be more than he or she can bear.

Why is the early adolescent so miserable? Rejecting his child self and much of value that went with it is emotionally costly. As he casts off the child he used to be, he must give up some cherished trappings of childhood. For example, because he doesn't want friends coming over and teasing him about playing with Lego's and sleeping with stuffed animals, he feels he must wean himself of these childhood attachments by throwing them away.

He doesn't want to accept parental affection, but misses their loving touch. Because his grandparents still treat him as a child, he pulls away from them, all the while missing how they love to cherish him for how he used to be. Growing up takes giving up; and loss from what is given up feels sad.

What additionally feeds early adolescent negativity at this time is intolerance of parental demands and limits that now stand in the way of new freedom that she wants, even though she doesn't know precisely what she wants to do with it. So a sense of grievance, a chip on her shoulder, develops. As a child she didn't mind their authority so much, but as an early adolescent who wants to break out of the boundaries of childhood to create more room to grow, she resents the demands and limits they impose.

The negative mindset in early adolescence is multiply determined. It is partly based on the loss of childhood, on the self-rejection of childish ways, on not yet finding how to redefine oneself, of not knowing what to do with oneself, and on antagonism toward parents who often stand in the way of freedom wanted now.

More negativity is a necessary condition for adolescence to begin because people, young or old, do not generally transform themselves unless they are discontent with how they are. The early adolescent is developmentally dissatisfied. The negative mindset signifies that she is done with childhood and now feels ready to grow on to something more.

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

Next week's entry: Adolescence and Entitlement

 

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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