Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

How Adolescence Takes Everyone Out of Their Comfort Zone

Adolescence is more uncomfortable than childhood for both parent and teenager.

Of course, just becoming a parent takes the adult out of their comfort zone.

Parenting entails enormous self-sacrifice, setting one’s needs and wants aside for those of the child, plus coupling great responsibility with relatively little influence over all that happens to their child and what the child chooses to do. Parents constantly wonder and worry about what is really going on with their child and what is best for their child. To a large degree, they have to operate in more ignorance about these questions than they would ideally like, hence their worry and anxiety – the intermittent stress of parenthood that seems to never go away.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. It takes endless work supporting, nurturing, and preparing the next generation of human life. Being tired is not a problem for most parents; it is a daily reality. Rewarding in many ways parenting can be; but comfortable it very often is not. Perhaps this is partly why (in addition to economics and starting families later) family size has diminished in recent years in this country, and partly why many married couples choose to remain childless. Parenting is not some automatic obligation that comes with a committed partnership or marriage; it is a life changing choice to be carefully considered.

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This said, parenting a child tends to be more comfortable than parenting an adolescent. For example, the child tends to be closely connected to parents, admires and looks up to them, is openly confiding, is content to remain in the family circle, is usually willing to comply with rules and requests, is often in agreement with what parents say, and generally wants to please the family powers that be.

The adolescent, in contrast, has begun to disconnect from parents, is often critical of them, is less openly communicative, wants to be out in the world with friends, is increasingly resistant to parental authority, is inclined to argue more with what parents have to say, and is less concerned about earning their approval.

Just as a healthy childhood requires a strong attachment to parents that creates a secure dependence the child can trust and count upon; the process of adolescence requires gradual detachment with caring for independence to grow, detachment that demands parent and teenager let each other go. This process puts a strain on their relationship that creates mutual discomfort in consequence of more ignorance from less communication, more distance from social separation, more incompatibility from growing diversity, and more conflict from opposition over who is in charge. Detachment creates discomfort for all concerned. 

This change from child to adolescent doesn’t mean that parent and young person have lost love for each other, no longer enjoy each other’s company, and cannot get along. It only means the strain of growing apart has started to tell.

Of course, adolescence takes the child out of her comfort zone.  The comparatively simpler, sheltered, and secure family circle that circumscribed most of childhood becomes too restrictive and small. What opens up is the vast outside world of older experience through which she or he must journey now. Just consider duress that comes with the entry into early adolescence (ages 9 – 13) when she transitions into the more challenging world of middle school.

The self-management skills of elementary school are no longer sufficient to cope with a greater complexity of secondary school – more aggressive push and shove among students, more diverse demands from subject area teachers, more sources of homework to remember, more responsibility that is expected, and more arbitrary rules to be followed. Hence for a while the young adolescent typically becomes increasingly disorganized in the struggle to adjust – more forgetful, distracted, messy, inclined to misplace things, in general having a harder time keep track of everything in life.

Or consider the last phase of adolescence, trial independence (ages 18 – 23), another major disorganization point, when self-management skills for going to high school and living at home prove insufficient to cope with the much greater demands of operating more on one's own – budgeting money, holding a job, going to college, making oneself work, coexisting with roommates, the habit of procrastination, moderating recreational substance use, for example. The future looms less as an opportunity than a threat: "I don't know how I'm going to make it!" “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life!”

Growth is not a comfortable thing to do because it entails the challenge of personal change – upsetting and resetting the terms of one’s existence to more fully define and develop oneself. This is why many adolescents, at some stage along the way, decide that although they want to grow up, they also don’t. It feels more comfortable to just stay where they are, how they are, doing what they are used to. Going on strike against further growth may not yield many rewards, but at least it avoids the discomfort of trying something new, unknown, unfamiliar, different, and daunting.

And now the opportunity for some unwelcome parenting arrives: pushing the adolescent out of his comfort zone for the sake of growth. Maybe there’s a summer chance to go to an overnight camp for a few weeks. Maybe there’s a youth activity or group she could join. Maybe she is now old enough to hunt and apply for and hold a job. Maybe there’s an advanced course he can take. Maybe there’s a team sport to try. Maybe there’s some volunteer work he could do. Maybe there’s more responsibility to assume – taking over some service parents have been doing for her.

In each case, the adolescent protests against these proposals. “I don’t want to! I’ve never done that before! I want to keep things how they are! Why do I have to?”

What the parent sees is a way for their adolescent to get unstuck and strengthen himself by attempting something new at a time when staying with what’s old feels more comfortable and secure to do. So putting her popularity at risk, the adult insists that the teenager attempt something untried, and the result is often perplexing to the parent who gets angry protest up front and a lot of blame.

But after the experience is grudgingly tried and happily mastered, and the teenager is feeling proud of what he has accomplished, she gets no appreciation or credit for pushing him out of his comfort zone and helping her son grow up.

Thankless parenting strikes again as the dance of discomfort continues.

For more on parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Growth Reversals

 

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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