Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Problems of Success When Parenting an Adolescent

Success is worth striving for and worth keeping in perspective

Success can be a sticky concept, particularly applied to raising adolescents, a time when parents start getting concerned about how their daughter or son is turning out.

For example, it’s very common for parents, who felt they were successfully raising a successful child (who followed their rules and met their hopes and expectations for achieving and acting right) to feel less confident when this same child enters adolescence and to some normal degree challenges, falls away, pulls away from, and gets around what they want in order to assert more individuality and independence. “I used to do a pretty good job with my child,” confessed the parent, “but now that she’s a teenager, I don’t know."

In our country, success can be a seductive notion. Sometimes it seems we treat “success” like a secular religion, a concept we worship for the sake of material and social blessings it can provide during our life on earth. In addition, because we are a country where the American Dream of making something of oneself in a land of opportunity is still much alive, it’s hard for parents not to be ambitious for their teenager, for example wanting the young person to do as well or better educationally or economically than they were able to do for themselves.

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Commonly defined, success is usually a matter of performance, of “doing well” in some sense of the term - developing a capacity, meeting a standard, reaching a goal, coping with a limitation, persisting against adversity, overcoming a challenge, excelling at some endeavor, winning some competition, being recognized for an accomplishment, for example. Because successful people are constantly put forward as models to admire and imitate, paraded and praised in the media for their outstanding efforts, the cultural message people receive is: success is good to achieve. And in many empowering ways this can be true. However, attaching the concept of success to parenting and child development can also have a problematic side when undue focus on performance narrows perspective, creates an unhealthy preoccupation, and obscures a broader view. Consider what a few of these problems can be.

PARENTAL SUCCESS CAN BE LINKED TO ADOLESCENT PERFORMANCE.  There is a dangerous equation to which parents can subscribe when evaluating their success: parent = child.  The connection suggests that adequacy of parental performance rises and falls depending on the performance of the child. Now sense of parental well-being can become tied to the well doing of the teenager, sometimes to unhappy effect.

“You’re just blowing off football to make me feel bad!” the angry father explodes at his son for quitting the squad as the boy’s traditional enjoyment of the sport has fallen away. It felt prestigious to this dad to sit in the stands with other members of the Football Booster Club and watch his son playing on the high school team. Or consider the mom who was valedictorian of her graduating class, who expected her daughter to continue straight A’s when entering high school, only to become dismayed by the lowering grade point average as extracurricular activities captivate more of the young woman’s interest and attention. For this mom, the report card graded her parenting as much as her teenager’s academic work.

In both cases, the adolescent can feel burdened by multiple responsibilities – performing not just for personal fulfillment, but also to support parental self-esteem, as well as striving to earn continuation of parental approval, and even love. At worst, the adolescent becomes a pawn in a serious social game between rival adults - competition parenting: the parent whose adolescent turns out most successful wins. Wins what?  Boasting rights?  It’s better for parents not to depend personal pride on performance of their adolescent. Rather than saying to their teenager, “I’m proud of you!” or “You make me proud!” keep credit for the young person’s success where it belongs and simply say, “Good for you!”

ADOLESCENT PROBLEMS CAN BE TREATED AS A FAILURE. One common consequence of pursuing success is a belief in its flip side: failure. Often, the more wed parents are to successful parenting, the more they fear and feel failure when problems occur. By their definition, a problem with their son or daughter is when in their judgment something goes wrong, is done wrong, or an actual wrong has been committed. Again, the parent = child equation can kick in. Now they believe something either looks wrong or is actually wrong with their parenting for the adolescent to act this way. Sometimes a teenager who is wise to this dynamic will exploit this parental tendency to fault themselves for his travails by using their guilt to get out of trouble. “I wouldn’t have taken money to buy drugs if you hadn’t divorced and messed up my life!” No. It’s not to deny that divorce had an unhappy effect on the teenager’s life, but he has to be held accountable for what he decided to do. When parents who feel like failures take blame for their adolescent’s choices, they encourage that young person to escape responsibility.

PARENTAL FOCUS ON SUCCESS CAN CREATE INTOLERANCE OF ADOLESCENT ERROR. The more wed to success parents are, the more intolerant of adolescent error they can become. At worst, they can treat an unwise choice as a bad decision, then they can blame all the teenager’s decision making as bad, then that the bad decision makes a bad kid, and finally that they themselves are bad parents. When this series of linkages comes in for counseling, before I can help everyone deal with the event of primary concern, I have to dispel the notions of nothing but bad decisions, bad kid, and bad parents. I have to convince parents that adolescent errors happen, that good parents have good kids who will sometimes make unwise decisions in the normal haphazard process of growing up. A bad decision doesn’t mean that teenager isn’t also making good decisions, that the teenager isn’t also doing well in many ways, or that the parenting isn’t generally okay.  This unhappy episode just means that the young person has something to learn from the errors of her ways. The job of parents on these occasions is to help the young person successfully profit from this mistake-based education by facing the consequences of an ill-considered choice. 

WHEN SUCCESS IS PERFECTION, IT CAN FAIL TO WORK WELL. Those moms or dads who have the need to be perfect parents in order to feel successful put unmerciful pressure on the adolescent. “When my parents say they just want the best for me,” complained a teenage only child, “what they really mean is that they only accept the best from me! Even if I satisfy them today, I have to start all over again tomorrow!” Perfection is not usually a healthy goal for anyone. After all, when linking the performance of parent and adolescent, the only way to be perfect parents is to have a perfect son or daughter, and what loving mom or dad wants to put that degree of pressure on their growing teenager? 

Then there is applying a definition of success that holds them to perfect account – demanding they do everything right with their child. No. Every child and adolescent grows up partly because of and partly in spite of how their parents functioned, so a mixed job is the best that any parent is going to make of their responsibility – a mix of strength and frailty, wisdom and stupidity, of good decisions and bad. This is the same kind of mix their parents gave to them. And in most cases, most children come out mostly okay, which is probably as close to success as any parent gets.

PARENTS AND ADOLESCENT CAN DEFINE SUCCESS DIFFERENTLY. Because it is a matter of judgment, with the onset of adolescence there can be significant value conflicts over what parents and teenager believe are important measures of success. For example, standing up to adult authority may feel like a more grown up thing to do for the young man in middle school (hence his arguing with teachers in class), while his parents consider success as the maturity to comply with adults in charge (hence their urging him to go along with the powers that be.) For him a teacher’s reprimand is a recognition that he is acting older and bolder, something his peers admire. For parents, no classroom conduct complaints seem like a worthy goal. The job here is not for parents to change the young man’s mind about what constitutes success, just to point out the consequences of acting on his beliefs (in this case, being assigned Saturday detention for continually challenging his teachers) cuts into his precious weekend time. What constitutes success is in the mind of the beholder.

FOCUS ON SUCCESS CAN DISCOURAGE A LARGER PERSPECTIVE. It’s well and good to successfully perform up to one’s capacity or even to excel, in the process cultivating habits of determination, self-discipline, and ambition, but that is just part of human development. How broadly a person defines themselves and how they get along with other people can matter as much and even more than skill achievement when making one’s way through life. This is why parents have to keep growth of the whole person in mind when raising their teenager. Adulation for success can distort adolescent self-importance. For example, consider the high school student who, through intensely self-centered efforts, has achieved athletic stardom with a collegiate future, but in the process has become a person who is now more rewarding to admire from afar than to know up close.  As the young person’s parents testify: “She’s so full of herself there’s no room inside her to consider anyone else!”

When success becomes the whole focus of their attention, parents tend to see their teenager more in terms of being a human doer than a human being, the young person can feel encouraged to do the same, and perspective on the larger person is lost. What can be lost? Consider the larger array of human qualities that contribute to a broader base of human development – contentment, integrity, moral compass, empathy, compassion, generosity, to name a few. In addition, it’s worth parents remembering that “How are you feeling?” is often a much more salutatory question to ask a high performing teenager than “How are you doing?” A broader concern by parents can encourage a broader definition in the adolescent.

For a young person in who concern for focus on success has taken over, there can also be another cost: he or she feels driven to be successful at whatever they do. In this case, I have seen parents ease this relentless pressure of performance by advising their adolescent to engage in interests and try recreations just for the sake of enjoyment, with no need to excel, free from the tyranny of accomplishment, with nothing to prove. “Everybody needs some activities in life they can do just for fun.”

Finally, sometimes I find it helpful to remember a quote from Alfred Henry Lewis  about the challenge of performance: "Life ain't in holding a good hand, but in playing a poor hand well."

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

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week's entry: Parent, Adolescent, and The Need for Compromise

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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