Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Neccessary Losses of Adolescence

Because growing up requires giving up, both adolescent and parent feel the pain

Think about adolescence as a journey parent and teenager take together through a series of Necessary Losses that both must endure in the normal process of a young person growing up. (I believe the concept of “Necessary Losses” in life was first popularized in a book with that title by Judith Viorst.)

During adolescence, these losses are like painful challenges that must be encountered if young person and parent are to proceed. In this sense, these losses are like rites of passage. Although I believe there are many necessary losses during adolescence, I will describe just five.

THE LOSS OF CHILDHOOD

Early adolescence (ages 9–13) begins with a declaration of change, in words and actions the young person saying: “I no longer want to be defined and treated as ‘just a child’ anymore.” This separation from childhood is hard for the young person to make and mean. It requires an act of self-rejection as some old possessions and interests and affectionate companionship with parents, “kid stuff” that felt so comfortable and comforting, must be given up. This act of self-sacrifice is a necessary loss for the emerging adolescent to be free to grow forward. She or he cannot go home again, cannot go back to that simpler, sheltered, secure time that was largely focused on life within the family circle. Looming ahead is the exciting and scary world of older experience just waiting to be tried. This is why adolescence is often requires daring.

For many parents, the necessary loss of their daughter or son’s childhood can be profoundly grieving. “Who stole my child,” they wonder? Gone is their little best buddy and constant tag-along who looked up to them in wonder and enjoyed nothing so much as spending time in the adult’s company. This is the necessary loss for the parent: the Mom or Dad will never have their daughter or son as an adoring and adorable little child again. This is a loss to celebrate with mourning, being grateful for all that was so magically given, treasuring the memories. And then with a full heart, the adult needs to look forward to the equally moving next leg of their parenting journey, adolescence, and getting to watch the child transform into a young adult, the girl into a young woman, and the boy into a young man. By suffering this loss and letting go, parents get to do some growing too.

THE LOSS OF THE GOOD CHILD

To become fully adolescent, the young person must “let the bad child out.” By “bad” I don’t mean immoral, illegal, or evil. I just mean by some degree becoming more contrary and abrasive to live with—more self-centered, more contentious, or more dissatisfied, for example. Why is this? The answer is the awakening drive to independence and the firing off of three psychological engines that propel this transformation. There is Separation from parents and family to create more social room to grow that can put time with family in competition with time with peers. There is Differentiation to experiment and try out a variety of images and beliefs in order to discover and develop a uniquely fitting individual identity, a process that can test parental tolerance for diversity. And there is Opposition to operate more on one’s own terms that can create more conflict through more active resistance (argument) and more passive resistance (delay.)

Now a necessary loss is created for both adolescent and parent. For the parents, these developmental changes erode the image of the “good child” who mostly strived to please. The little girl or boy who frequently delighted them becomes the adolescent who frequently disagrees with them. For the adolescent, however, confronted with more impatient, critical, and corrective responses, the image of the “good parents” has suffered too. Adolescence is also about “letting the bad parents out,” as the young person now finds it harder to get along with these adults than during the childhood years. Less fun to be with, often on their case, increasingly frustrating his desire for freedom, now parents have also changed for the worse. Thus to some degree adolescent and parent have each lost some childhood luster in each other’s eyes.

THE LOSS OF PROTECTION BY PARENTS

Children often subscribe to three powerful security assumptions about their parents: “My parents know best,” “My parents can make me and stop me,” “My parents will keep me safe.” Inspired by a greater desire for personal freedom and pushing for it, the adolescent no longer believes these earlier assumptions. Now there is this necessary loss: “My parents don’t always know best,” “My parents can’t make me or stop me,” “My parents can’t keep me safe.” This is why more adolescent independence is both exciting and scary for the young person. When it comes to managing freedom, now the young person knows that she is primarily at the mercy of her own choices and the play of chance. Her necessary loss is registered by increased anxiety.

As for parents, as their daughter or son ventures more out in the world, they have more concerns and and are less in charge. This is their necessary loss: they can’t give more permission without giving up more control. They can’t patrol the world and they can’t protect the young person from himself. More parental worry registers this loss. Although painful, this response can be put to some good use. Parents can use worry productively by asking the “what if?” and “just suppose?” questions to help their adolescent stop and think ahead, predict possible problems, take precautions, and have a plan in place should some anticipated difficulty occur.

THE LOSS OF ADOLESCENT DREAMS

Because, both for parents and young people, adolescence can be filled with promise, it can generate dreams for the future about what the young person is going to do and accomplish in life. Imprinted by the popular media with models of young success, it’s hard for adolescents not to identify with these idols and create exaggerated hopes for themselves. So the talented high school student starting a band imagines stardom ahead only to discover that it’s rare to make a living, much less a splash, as a professional musician. Or, on a less glamorous scale, the student who studied hard to get into a good college in the belief a degree would ensure good employment graduates to find that not only a good job, but any job, is hard to find. So the necessary loss is this: unrealistic dreams must give way to harsh reality.

As for parents, they too can have dreams for their adolescent—dreams of similarity and dreams of diversity. In the first instance they can dream about the young person following in their footsteps; in the second they can dream of the young person not repeating their mistakes or perhaps finding a better way. To these ends, they direct their teenager toward what they believe is a best or better future until, at the end of adolescence, the young person increasingly insists on his own independent course. For example, dropping out of college to sign up for military service, the young person declares: "My life is up to me now and I'll lead it how I like."  This is not the entry into adulthood his parents had in mind. So their neccessary loss is this: the agenda in life that they set for their son or daughter is often not exactly the one, or even the one at all, that the older adolescent chooses to follow. 

THE LOSS OF PARENTAL IMPORTANCE

With parents at home is how the adolescent grows up until she leaves and that familiar nest is emptied. Starting in the final stage of adolescence (about 18–23), however, the young person becomes busy running her life and living at a distance. In consequence, she devotes less daily focus on her parents who now find themselves not less loved but less attended to as her preoccupation with what it takes to live independently becomes consuming. All this creates a final necessary loss for parents: loss of importance. One outcome of successfully raising an independent young adult is that parents become more socially peripheral in the life of their grown daughter or son than when the child and adolescent lived at home.

As for the adolescent stepping off on his own, separated from family and more alone, he has a necessary loss as well: the loss of place.  It will be many years before he is able to create a sense of home and family as powerful as the one that social independence has left behind. For example, it’s often a telling question to ask a young person in their twenties: “Where is home?” For the young person who is still struggling to get settled, the answer usually is that home is where they grew up, where parents are, and where he or she used to live. For the young person who has settled into an established independence, however, the answer is increasingly that home is the place of living now.

Traveling together down the road that leads a young person from childhood to young adulthood requires Necessary Losses for adolescent and parent in the forms of giving up and letting go. Pain from these losses accompanies much of the progress of growing up.

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

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Attitude toward Ignorance

 

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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