Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Parenting Adolescents and the Play of Chance and Risk

Accepting the rule of chance and the reality of risk is what parents must do.

Life is a chancy process, every chance we take creating hosts of risks. This includes the chance we take by having children and the risks involved with becoming parents, particularly becoming parents of adolescents.

It’s humbling to reflect upon. Because outcomes in life are determined by the coincidence of many factors beyond our knowing, we must work for likelihood, not certainty in our parenting. We are in charge of effort, but not outcome. We can inform adolescent choice, but we can’t control it. We can be correct some of the time, but not all of the time. We can assert adult influence, but we can’t ensure compliance. We can prepare, but we can’t prevent. Try as we may, there are no guarantees about how our parenting decisions, or our children, much less our adolescents, are going to “turn out” -- that is, function as adults.

Uncertainty, the unexpected, and constant change all play havoc with the best laid plans in what writer Thomas Wolf aptly called “the groping accident of life.” So much that unfolds along life’s way is happenstance, a mix of unexpected opportunities and accidents, accidents just events that happen for complicated causes we could not foresee and so could not predict.

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Being human, looking ahead seems  more mysterious to us than looking back, or at least so we assure ourselves in order to make sense of our history in life. Actually, the past is about as difficult to make sense of as the future is to foresee. It’s just that data from past lends itself more readily to interpretation than the future where experience is yet to be revealed. Hindsight is never “20:20,” as the adage would have us simply believe. And in most cases, the understandings from history don’t exactly apply to a later time because so many variables have changed over the intervening years. This is why knowing their daughter or son as well as they did in childhood does not enable parents to anticipate a lot of adolescent behavior to come. Adolescence is always a surprise. The rule of chance and reality of risk sees to that.

Adolescence itself is also more unpredictable than childhood because the young person is growing into a more complex individual who now wants to function on a larger and more complicated social stage. As the child separates from childhood around ages 9 – 13 to begin the adolescent journey to young adult individuality and independence ten to twelve years hence, the shelter of the family circle is left more frequently as exploration of the larger world begins.

For our children, the play of chance starts with the endowments they are given – the human nature (physical characteristics, temperament, personality, aptitudes, and other inherited strengths and limitations) that equip a child at birth. In addition are the human nature of primary caregivers on the scene (usually parents), the social, cultural, and economic circumstances into which one is born, and the changes that proceed to unfold. These are all parts of the chance hand dealt to the child that the adolescent must come to understand and then learn to play the best they can. As writer Alfred Henry Lewis bluntly put it: “Life ain’t in holding a good hand, but in playing a poor hand well."

A general goal for parents is to prepare their adolescents to stand a grown up chance in life, to be able to make their self-supporting way. This is why for most parents, the power of formal education is important. It imparts much of the basic skills and knowledge, and credential for mobility, upon which much of their daughter or son’s passage will depend. However, readiness to engage with the educational system varies widely as a function of chance.

In addition to individual differences of the physical and psychological kind, there are powerful issues of social continuity in play that the child does not control. For example, to what degree does a child fit into the existing school and school system? To what degree is she or her already familiar with the content being taught, is significantly similar to the majority of adults in charge, and is used to the rules and regulations that apply? This fit can make an enormous difference in how easily or with what difficulty he or she progresses, how socially advantaged or disadvantaged the child is at the outset.

Sometimes parents will attach more importance to successful school performance than it deserves, treating it as an immunity against other hazards of adolescent life, preventing chance of danger elsewhere. This is not necessarily so. Simply because an adolescent academically achieves doesn’t mean that all will be well in the rest of his or her life. For example, blinded by his good grades in high school, parents don’t suspect significant substance use because they subscribe to the myth that “good students don’t use drugs.” Denial of risk is no protection against it.

Of course, adolescents are inveterate risk takers, gamblers all. They’re always calculating the odds of giving something risky a try, of getting away with something, of getting out of something, of not getting found out about something, at least not right away. In addition, because growth requires experimenting with the new, the different, and the unknown, no adolescent can grow without taking risks and throwing themselves on the mercy of chance. And adolescents are often amazingly fortunate, at least according to the stories they tell about near misses, narrow escapes, and miraculous survivals that I hear in counseling. When it comes to adolescent adventures, surely Luck is the greatest guardian of them all, and unhappily their greatest victimizer as well.

What are some ways adolescents might increase the odds of chance in their favor? Here are a few suggestions.

Number one, they can stay sober. Seven dire threats in adolescence – of serious accidents, social violence, school failure, sexual misadventures, dangerous risk taking, law breaking, and suicidal despondency – are all more likely to occur with substance use that alters judgment and favors impulsivity. The safest path through adolescence is substance-free.

Number two, they can exercise predictive responsibility. Knowing that all choices come with consequences, they can take a minute before automatically going along with some impulse or wild idea, and ask themselves three questions. “Why would I want to do this? What harmful outcomes might occur? Is the benefit worth the risk?” Or simply invoke that common precaution learned when very young: “Look both ways before you cross the street.”

Number three, they can remain mindful of how group adventuring can cause members to go along with risky ventures into chance they would never individually undertake. Social momentum of the moment and pressure to conform to belong can both be hard to resist. Thinking by one’s self and for one’s self at such moments can encourage a young person to refuse to go along for better judgment’s sake, an act of courage often greater than what it takes to accept a dare.

Number four, they can commit to pursue some objective. Thinking ahead and working for what you want in life is powerful because it reduces the temptation to follow chance distractions. Future goals help organize and focus present choices.  

Number five, they can be determined. By keeping trying, by not giving into discouragement and not giving up because of failure, they keep the possibility of a successful outcome alive. The more often they try to get what they want, the more frequent is the opportunity for chance to look their way. Luck can favor the persistent.

So what can parents tell their adolescent about playing the great lottery of life? If it sounds congenial, try something like this: “You make your choices, acting and reacting as you think best. You take your chances, never knowing for sure what the outcome is going to be. You face your consequences, taking what responsibility you can. You learn from what happened, from what went wrong and what went right. And then you ready yourself to choose again, because the chain of choice and chance and consequence binds us all our lives.”

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: Adolescence and the Agony of Decision Making

 

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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