Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and Revisionist Parents

Parents can free themselves from unhappy family patterns in their past

How adults were raised influences how they desire to raise children of their own. Sometimes they want to repeat old parental ways and replicate what felt good to them, but other times they want to discontinue with their children what felt harmful or bad. It’s this second category of mothers and fathers who I call “revisionist parents.”

When their children enter adolescence and become more unpredictable and emotionally intense to live with, revisionist parents can find it harder to keep the resolution they have made. For example, caught off guard by teenage language that would have caused the adult’s parents to break loose with an explosion of punitive anger, the dad or mom finds themselves screaming, scary mad when they vowed they never would do unto their children what was done to them. How did this happen?

The place to start unraveling the complexity of revisionism is with a parent who believes he has no good reference for how to parent because of the family background out of which he came. “How would I know how to parent,” he asked, “when the parenting was mostly bad – neglectful when it wasn’t abusive, two parents who mostly drank and fought. Family times were no fun. Because they didn’t sober up until after I left home, I didn’t get a good model to follow.”

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But I disagreed. “Of yes you did. All parents, no matter how bad or good, give two parental models to follow not one – a mix of how to be and how not to be. They gave you a painful example as a parent of how not to be. So first, ask yourself what behaviors do you not want to continue with your children? Maybe, you don’t want to drink the way they did. Next ask yourself another question, ‘What kind of parent do you want to be?’ Maybe you want to make regular times for family fun. Add how you don’t want to act to how you do want to act and you have created a start toward the parenting you want to provide. And if your adolescents ask why you feel so strongly about limited alcohol use and the importance of hanging out together as a family, you can explain how it was for you growing up. This is not to discredit their grandparents, or to dampen what is now a loving relationship for your children, only to explain why you want to parent a different way. ”

Then there are revisionist frustrations where the parent makes the correction only to discover that the outcome they wanted is not forthcoming. For example, growing up with uninvolved parents, they wanted to be more present in the life of the teenager, only to have the adolescent push them away for more privacy or independence sake. Growing up poor, they wanted to materially satisfy their teenager, only to have the adolescent take the higher family standard of living for granted and complain about not having more to spend. Revision doesn’t guarantee the different outcome that a parent desires.

Then there is the trap of opposites into which some revisionist parents can fall when they try to correct one extreme experienced with their parents by going to the other extreme with their adolescents. These revisions can seem to work during the years of early raising cooperative and compliant children, but are more likely to break down under pressure from their more independent and abrasive adolescents.

So there is the dad, having grown up in an anxious household ruled by his father’s constant worrying, who resolves to deny adolescent dangers to free himself and everyone else from this pattern of unremitting fears. But when one of the teenagers blindly ignores risks and gets hurt, the example of excessive worry reasserts itself with a vengeance. Now he is back repeating his father’s way. Of course the management solution was not to banish fear but to use it wisely by maintaining healthy vigilance.

Or there is the mother who grew up in an authoritarian family who wants to avoid that repressive regime with her teenagers. So she goes to a permissive extreme with them, only to have them start running dangerously wild with freedom, prompting her to impose severe restrictions she hates to bring them back into her safekeeping. “I’m acting stricter than my parents ever did!” Of course the management solution was not giving total license but to oversee freedom by maintaining healthy supervision.

In general, going to one extreme to correct another, at least in parenting, is rarely the path to improvement since one extreme not only denies the other but it disallows the range of mixed choices of moderate behaviors that lay in between.

Finally, consider the case of adults who are still suffering from old emotional wounds in relation to parents, wounds made worse by now acting these issues out with their adolescent, destined it seems to repeat old unhappiness that was never resolved.

“It’s like seeing a ghost,” admitted one father. “I hated my relationship with my dad and vowed I’d never do to any child of mine what was done to me. Yet here I am criticizing and cutting my obstinate teenage son down when he won’t do what I want. No wonder he’s so angry so much of the time. I know that’s why I’m so angry with him. Because I feel he’s making me into the kind of father I never wanted to be.”

Or listen to a mother describe her dilemma in these terms. “I feel caught up in something I am unable to break out of. Trying to be different from my mother, I end up acting just like her. All the ties of guilt in which she entangled me, and with which I still struggle, I find I have created with my own child. All the suffering with which my mother punished me when I disappointed or defied her, I use to control my own daughter when she disappoints or defies me. Is parenting always a repetition of old sins? Is my daughter to grow up estranged from me the way I am from my own mother? Is there no way to break unhappy patterns from the past?”

Old scripts run deep and make repetition easy. Confronting an adolescent who is acting the way the adult did at that younger age triggers the impulse to follow the example of how the parents used to respond in similar situations long ago. The revisionist parent has been ambushed in the present by an event that is intimately similar to their painful past and so is prompted to imitate his or her parent’s hurtful ways.

Revising these kinds of parenting patterns is complicated to accomplish, but it can be done. To emancipate yourself from treating your children how your parents painfully treated you, understand how long ago you identified with these powerful people and internalized their behavior. Then, taking responsibility for having done so, accept this part of you. Acceptance and responsibility will give you a measure of choice. With that choice you can develop an alternative strategy for managing the relationship with your adolescents. Setting aside the example of the old parent, you can put a new parenting practice into play. From such determined labor is liberation made.

Just be gentle as you work to free yourself from following old lessons that were given many years ago, internalized when you were too young to know the patterns you were learning. Consider invoking that mantra from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Progress, not perfection.” Accept that there will be slips along the way, incidents of backsliding or overreactions you wish did not occur. Since they are now exceptions in your conduct, not the rule, they provide evidence that you are gradually succeeding in accomplishing the revision you desire. Now repeat to yourself, “I am not my parent, I am my own person, and I can choose to function my 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 Falling in Love

 

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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