Perception of parental power tends to change the older a girl or boy grows.
For example, the baby is awed by the seemingly magical power of parents to create so much of what happens in the infant’s world. The child respects what parents believe is important and appreciates all they have the power to give. The adolescent, however, develops a more mixed view of parental power.
Starting in Early Adolescence (9 – 13), she finds herself (and parents find her) increasingly resenting these adult governors who impose structure, create conditions, issue demands, set limits, make rules, decree punishments, and often act like they are in charge of the young person’s life when she wants to act her own authority. “What right do you have to tell me what I can and cannot do? You’re not the boss of the world!” she objects.
Except, they are the boss of her world, and although she didn’t mind it during infancy and most of childhood, now that she is interested in gaining more independence, there are a lot of times she doesn’t like their personal power and wants more for herself.
So what is personal power, anyway? For purposes of this discussion, consider a crude definition: personal power is whatever you can do to get things to happen, to get what you want, to get your way.
For adolescents, there can be problems associated with having too much personal power, and problems associated with having too little.
TOO MUCH PERSONAL POWER
What can be too much personal power? A strong-willed parent or adolescent, for example, may assert an extreme amount of personal power in the family when it comes to pushing for what they desire or to opposing what they don’t. If both individuals, feeling similarly entitled, are regularly at cross purposes in the same home, a lot of conflict can ensue. “Yes you will!” is frequently pitted against “No I won’t!”
And now each party may instinctively resort to a favored personal power tactic to win their way. The parent may exercise the power of control, of conditionally giving or of withholding valued resources and freedoms. The adolescent may exercise the power of resistance, of actively refusing and arguing, of passively ignoring and playing for delay. Who’s going to prevail?
In the long run, the answer is neither one so long as the outcome is limited to three alternatives -- getting “my way,” “giving in to “your way,” or giving up and declaring “no way.” These ways, the relationship can stay pretty contentious until they learn, through talking and listening, discussing and negotiating, compromising and contracting, to come up with a fourth alternative, creating “our way”– pooling personal power to work out a shared solution both can agree to support.
Parents need to teach adolescents how to satisfy needs for personal power in family relationships so everyone can get along, so no party gets all of their way all the time, so everyone’s need for some personal power is respected, and so the exercise of personal power causes no one personal harm.
Because the management of personal power in family relationships is not only influential at the time, but is formative for the future, parents need to be in the business of preparing the adolescent to manage it in later relationships. What isn’t helpful is when a teenager learns from family life that it’s okay to get his way at all costs, or to give way to keep the peace at all costs, or to give up and treat all disagreements as irresolvable. Such training is poor preparation for managing personal power in significant relationships to come.
The adult model matters. A parent who domineers to get their way with yelling, threats, or anger (loud or sullen), or emotionally manipulates with disappointment, worry, guilt, or suffering, just passes this education along by influential example. Bullying, for example, is an abuse of personal power, and it is sometimes learned at home from bullying parents. Now an impressionable young person may be inclined to use or be used by such tactics in the future.
An adolescent’s treatment in the family also matters. For example, when parents decide to tip toe around their teenager to avoid her explosive upset, that young person can learn to employ temper as a tool of personal power, for its extortionate effect, to get his way now and likely use later.
TOO LITTLE PERSONAL POWER
At the other extreme are adolescents with too little personal power. They seem unable to assert themselves on their own behalf or to make effective headway in their lives, at least for the moment. This is common in cases of school bullying. There is no such thing as a self-made bully. Bullies are always made partly by victim consent. So in these situations, parents do their supportive and coaching best to help their target child find choices to effectively brave up for themselves, only intervening when the situation is psychologically damaging and beyond their son or daughter’s power to cope.
I have particularly noticed the lapse of personal power during the first and last stages of adolescence, when separating from childhood at the beginning and when getting ready to enter young adulthood at the end. At both stages, it is really easy to feel overwhelmed by the more demanding next step onto a larger playing field of life. Feeling diminished, anxious, and not up to many challenges to be faced, the young person can feel at a loss of adequate personal power to cope.
Consider first the early adolescent entering sixth grade and having a really hard time with a “mean teacher” who is much stricter and critical than any teachers experienced in elementary school. Not liking this unfamiliar treatment, with a show of bravado to cover up feeling helpless, the young adolescent acts surly and uncooperative in response and gets on the teacher’s bad side big time. For the record, he is not misperceiving. She is riding him pretty hard to get him broken in to secondary school life.
Over the years, I’ve been able to help a few male students beginning middle school, who wanted to act manly, avoid self-defeating aggressive behavior and instead assert their personal power to alter this painful relationship for the better. “How can you tell the teacher is mean,” I ask? And the answer usually is something similar to this: “The teacher gives me hard looks, is always on my case, and grades me down for work I turn in late.” “Sounds pretty mean to me,” I agree. “Of course, you could turn that meanness around. It’s up to you.” Here the student objects. “It’s not up to me. I can’t change a teacher. I don’t have the power.” And now I disagree. “Sure you do. If you want, I’ll tell you how. You can run a kind of psychological experiment on the teacher, and see if you can’t switch that person’s treatment from mean to nice.”
Then I give the student a very simple psychology of teacher management. “Teachers want three things from students,” I explain. “They want to be liked by their students. They want to be in charge of the classroom. And they want to successfully instruct. Right now with you, this teacher knows you don’t like them, you’re a challenge to control, and you’re not learning much of what is being taught. So here’s what I suggest. Just try this for a week and see if the teacher isn’t acting less mean at the end, all because of the psychology you’re using. First, act like you like them. Greet them when you enter class, smile and act friendly. Second, follow all rules and directions and pay close attention by looking at the teacher while they talk. And third, just for this week do all your work carefully and get it in on time. My bet is that by the end of the week you will have changed that teacher’s behavior toward you, and they won’t even know how you have taken charge.”
A lot of times, students have more personal power than they like to think. They can work the system so the system works for them. And of course, they can work parents the same political way – giving some of what parents want to get some of what the young person wants in return. Parents have primary needs similar ro what teachers do.
Now consider the last stage adolescent (ages 18 -23), who is feeling really overwhelmed by the many responsibilities that come with actual independence now that parents are no longer around to take care of a lot and keep after her all the time. “I thought I’d have more freedom after leaving home, but I have less because of having more to do!” is the lament. It turns out that nagging parents helped more than she appreciated.
What is usually needed at this point from parents is some positive coaching. “You don’t have to know exactly what to do or have to get everything right the first time out. You just need to keep trying. As long as you do that, you’ll learn from good consequences and bad, competence will grow, further choices will open up before you, and you’ll find your way.” Effort is an act of personal power.
It’s complicated. Parents want their adolescent to have enough personal power to be able to speak up and stand up for what is needed, to advance self-interest and get done what needs doing. But the young person also needs to restrain assertion of that power so they don’t run down or run over people in relationships, or injure people that stand in their way.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE (Wiley, 2013.)
Next week's entry: Confronting the Complexity of Young Love