Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Early Adolescence and Anxiety about Growing Up

Separating from childhood and entering adolescence (ages 9 - 13) can be scary.

Most young people do not separate from the comparative simplicity, stability, and shelter of childhood and enter the more uncertain, more complex, and more dangerous world of adolescence (usually between the ages of 9 and 13) without experiencing some anxiety about old comforts they must give up and new challenges they must undertake.

This is why so many mixed messages are given to parents at this conflicted age: “Hug me”/ “Don’t touch me”; “Tell me what to do”/ “Stop telling me what to do”; “Listen to me”/ “I have nothing to say”; “Help me”/ “Let me do it”; “Include me”/ “Leave me alone.” Feeling justifiably confused, parents ask themselves: “Which way does our pre-teen want it?” The answer is both ways depending on the mood of the moment because she is feeling honestly mixed about growing up -- eager and anxious at the same time. 

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She wants to act older on the one hand, but she also wants to stay younger on the other; she wants more independence, but she doesn’t want to give up comfortable dependencies; she wants parents to let go, but she also wants parents to hold on; she wants to leave the world of childhood behind, but she’s not ready to release all her precious child interests, belongings, and relationships. The adventurous part of her is excited about growing up, but the insecure part of her is afraid as she struggles to accept a hard bargain. Resolving to no longer be treated and defined as a “just a child” any more, she closes the door to those early years. Henceforth, she cannot go home to childhood again.

Because early adolescence is such an anxious and ambivalent time for the young person, it is an awkward time for parents, and complicated. Parents have to honor what the young person says he wants, like trying more freedom and independence, and yet they have to provide what the young person says he doesn’t want, but actually does -- a continuing family structure to define what must and must not be done that he can rely upon for safety and security. This creates another source of ambivalence for the early adolescent.

The young person resents parents for limiting his freedom, but wants their protections in world that has suddenly grown dauntingly large compared with the childhood that now seems attractively but unacceptably small. So he pushes against and pulls away from parental authority, but after all his complaint, argument, and protest is said and done, he most often gives his compliance and consent to their limits and demands.

Why? The answer is because the early adolescent knows he now has more freedom of choice than is good for him, knows that they can’t actually force him or stop him, knows that he needs them to make a lot of life decisions for him, and when they do he feels more protected that way. In a host of areas in his life, he trusts their judgment more than his own, even though he would never admit this to them. Criticism is easier for him to give. The age of thankless parenting has arrived.

In general, it is better for the early adolescent to be angry at parents for providing too much protection than anxious because they have provided too little. After all, the purpose of parental directions and prohibitions is to give the young person ‘choice points’ (to comply or not) for going along with the family structure that parents safely provide. When this oversight is not given, the young person is left with no choice but to figure what is best and right to do, or to rely for guidance on the influence of immature peers. Parents must always give the clear option of living within a family structure so the young person has a prescribed code of personal conduct he can decide to follow. That he sometimes elects not to is no excuse for parents to discontinue providing it.

Then there is feeling more out of control. What the young person discovers, and what parents observe, are common changes in behavior that indicate how the self-management system that worked well in the simpler, sheltered childhood years is no longer sufficient to handle the social complexity of adolescent growth. For example, a middle school is not as simple as was an elementary school.

So there are signs of slippage everywhere: increased disorganization, distractibility, confusion, scattered attention, forgetfulness and losing belongings, inconsistency and impulsivity, to name a few. In the words of one dad: “All of a sudden it’s like the wheels have come off the truck.” Lots of children appear to careen into early adolescence, and the experience is not a comfortable one: “What’s the matter with me!” Important for parents to remember at this juncture is that their impatience and irritation are not helpful; their supervisory support and coaching are what is needed.

Although parents have only occasionally reported to me an early adolescent openly declaring “I don’t want to grow up!” it is very common for a young person to announce this growth reluctance in non-verbal ways. For example, socially a child who was confident and outgoing becomes the early adolescent who is more inclined to stay home and decline invitations from friends. Emotionally, the child who was calm and relaxed becomes the early adolescent who is nervous and worried, but can’t explain why. Physically, the child who functioned without major health complaints becomes the early adolescent who is prey to mysterious ailments the doctor cannot pin down, aches and pains with no readily identifiable cause. Life support habits that used to be taken for granted like eating well and digesting well and sleeping well, now become challenging to accomplish, creating anxiety in the young person that she or he is not functioning well. One way or another, the early adolescent’s system can feel out of whack for a while.

While treating these alterations seriously and sympathetically, even medically checking them out, it helps if parents can see them as passing and not permanent, as enabling and not disabling. They are often associated with anxiety at making this very hard transition from childhood into early adolescence. About six months or so seems to be a reasonable expectation from what I have seen for the young person to gather the determination to struggle forward, overcome these self-created obstacles, and start engaging with the new challenges at hand.

During this adjustment anxiety to the onset of adolescence, what I believe is playing out is the acute conflict between the forces of regress (clinging onto the comforts of childhood) arrayed against the forces of progress (daring the challenges of growing up), fearful regression slowing the process down, but progress courageously moving forward and prevailing in the end. Always important for parents to remember: adolescence is an act of courage.

What can make this conflict more painful and protracted is when parents resist the onset of their beloved child’s adolescence too. They sense this change is a point of no return after which they will never have their daughter or son as little child ever again, ending that golden time in their relationship. They can’t bear the thought of losing the endearing and adoring child she was and so keep inviting her back by treating her in old childlike ways – recalling old fun times they used to have together, applying old terms of affection, engaging in old family pastimes, providing kiddie comforts, even giving her the old kinds of gifts that were once a source of childish delight.

One of the hardest parts of growing up, and of parenting too, is accepting the necessity of letting go.

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

I welcome suggestions and questions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Attachment Parenting of Children/Detachment Parenting of Adolescents

 

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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