Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and Commitment

Commitment is complicated for adolescents because of risk and sacrifice

“Our teenager keeps changing what she likes and wants to do. She can’t seem to catch hold, find something that matters to her, and make up her mind to stick to it! She keeps shifting focus with every new influence that comes her way. What’s exciting today is boring tomorrow! Nothing seems to have lasting value.”

In this case, parents see adolescent changeability as the enemy of commitment to some interest or activity that can anchor her caring and direct her growth. But talk to their daughter, and commitment sounds like a bad idea because it is the enemy of youthful change. “I want to stay open to whatever comes along, not just care about one thing. I want to be free to try lots of things!”

So on one side you have parents who, after special scheduling, financing, transporting, and being loyal spectators for their athletic daughter first in gymnastics and now in soccer, feel like they have made a commitment too—to invest, to support, and to care about her working to excel in a chosen sport. On the other side you have their restless 8th grader explaining how she doesn’t want to continue soccer after the season ends and she enters high school in the fall. “Soccer doesn’t feel right for me anymore. I want to play something else.” At such a time, parents have to ask themselves what best serves their daughter’s growth – continuing or stopping an old commitment?

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Then there are some adolescents who shy away from committing to any serious interest or activity or relationship to avoid the risks of disappointment. “Suppose I commit my best effort and don’t do that well, don’t make the team or, if I do, don’t get to play?” “Suppose I work really hard memorizing and practicing my lines, then try out and don’t get the part?” “Suppose I get the best grades I can and then don’t get into the program I want?” “Suppose I agree to go with someone and then they break it off?” Fear of relative or absolute failure, or of failing again, can be a great disincentive to commitment.

Then there is this. Commitment can lead to disappointment when no matter how hard or lasting his effort, it doesn’t yield the outcome the young man wants. And now commitment is revealed for what it is—a gamble. Yet, as parents may point out, in another sense it is not. Commitment is a sure and good thing. So they might remind their disappointed teenager: “When you commit with a full heart and dedicated effort and still fail to reach goal you were after, at most you have suffered a short term loss. In the long haul, you have gained from daring to try, from trying hard, and from learning what the experience has taught. So be grateful and proud for the commitment you were brave and determined enough to make. You have developed more of yourself than you had before.”

Of course, there are those young people who are distrustful of their capacity to make and keep a commitment, and of significant adults to do so as well. In the first case, an adolescent pattern of distractibility or procrastination may make it hard for them to keep their own commitments (failing to complete what they start, for example) so they can’t count on themselves to carry through. In the second case, parents may have divorced, for example, and one common legacy for children of divorce is more distrust of loving commitments people make. After all, if you can’t count on loving parental commitments to each other and to family, what can you trust?

Commitment is a complicated mix of trust, intent, effort, and sacrifice. Trust has to do with believing that commitments can be kept. Intent has to do with formulating what is wanted. Effort is what it takes for commitment to carry through. And sacrifice is accepting that all commitments come with a price.

The sacrifice has to do with the issue of freedom and the question of tradeoff. “Is what I am getting from commitment worth what I am giving up for commitment’s sake?” From a choice of sport in school to choosing a major in college, to choosing an occupation for earning a living, to choosing a life partner, the gain of commitment is always offset by the loss of other possibilities. Those young people who cannot bear the loss of freedom that commitment brings, and feelings of entrapment that come with it, tend to move through life more in a drifting than directed manner, preferring not to catch hold lest that hold catches them. Commitment always closes more doors than it opens, but the door it opens can outweigh all that is lost.

Because adolescence is about opening doors to more freedom—experimenting, experiencing, exploring life—commitment threatens to shut that freedom down. So you can empathize with some young adults (around ages 23 – 30) caught in a very common life crisis of commitment. Theirs is an honorable struggle between wanting to keep options in life open and feeling the need to finally settle down, between playing while they still can and getting serious at last, between wanting free dating and wanting a life partner, between having any passing job and finding an occupation with future, between pursuing old adolescent dreams and engaging with hard adult reality.

So “settling down in life” is what parents called it, only to have their 24-year-old daughter call it by another name, “selling out to the system.” The young woman had practiced and performed her music since middle school, playing where she could, investing untold hours in practice, sticking to her dream of making it as a musician like the idols she worshipped growing up. Now, after estimating her artistic chances for success and facing financial necessity, she commits to earn her way through the world on more practical and less glamorous terms, sadly setting this dream of a young lifetime aside and experiencing true loss from letting it go.

Both she and her parents were correct – “settling down” or “selling out,” call it what you will. Among the hardest decisions in a younger or older person’s life is when a new commitment requires giving up or breaking one that’s old.

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

Next week’s entry: Parenting Adolescents and the Dance of Detachment

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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