Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Parenting and Not Taking Adolescent Behavior Personally

It's easy for parents to attach personal issues to how their adolescent behaves.

Goodness knows, it’s easy to do — taking personally what the adolescent is doing or not doing that the parent doesn’t want or otherwise finds offensive.

“She left that mess to irritate me!” “He didn’t let me know just so I would worry!” In both cases, the charges are probably not true. More inconsiderate adolescents can certainly be; but calculated, probably not. To be deliberately upsetting would require considering how adolescent actions affect parents, and the young person is usually too self-preoccupied with personal growth to have Mom or Dad's sensitivies primarily in mind. 

When parents take personally with their adolescent what is not meant or is not necessarily so, they can complicate their involvement with the teenager, usually making the matter more emotionally intense to deal with. To whatever the adolescent is doing or not doing they attach something of personal value for the parent, and thus double up the problem. “Taking it personally” is like the parent deciding, “This matter is no longer just about my teenager; it involves something important about me!”

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Now the interpersonal boundary between them becomes blurred or indistinct, separation is lost, and it becomes harder to sort out what is happening and who is responsible for what. Thus in counseling with such parents, before I can help them deal with whatever is problematic with their teenager, I have to help parents come to terms with themselves.

For example, the parent attaches a personally upsetting meaning to what the young person is doing or not doing. “Her arguing with me is an act of defiance!” declares the parent, and then feels upset at the power they have now attributed to their teenager. If the parent had labeled argument as “disagreement” and not “defiance,” he would have felt less threatened by the opposition. Attaching inflammatory descriptors to the adolescent’s actions is a common way for parents to take something personally (by adding something personal) and make it more upsetting than it has to be.

In general, when parents find themselves frequently taking their adolescent’s characteristics or actions personally, this usually means they have some Detachment Parenting to do — restoring adequate social or emotional separation to the relationship with their teenager. This dynamic between parent and adolescent is easier to illustrate than to explain, so what follows are a few examples of what I mean, with a possible parenting prescription at the end.

1) A parent who accepts adolescent complaints when not getting what they want as evidence of parental inadequacy can be taking it personally. For example: the at-home mother allows adolescent unhappiness at being denied to drive her self–evaluation down. “Since I can’t keep them happy all the time, I’m a bad mom!” To restore adequate detachment, the woman might say to herself: “Their criticism is not about anything necessarily wrong with me; it’s about them not getting all they want.”

2) A parent who assumes early adolescent disorganization (around ages 9 - 13) is a deliberate attempt to challenge parental authority can be taking it personally. For example: the father objects to the young person not keeping track of belongings or forgetting what he promised. “I’m his dad, I’m in charge, and I won’t put up with him disregarding what he’s been told!” To restore adequate detachment, the man might to say to himself: “His messiness is not about ignoring me on purpose; it’s about his difficulty managing loss of focus and more distractibility as he enters adolescence.”

3) A parent who takes responsibility for adolescent misbehavior by blaming himself as the cause can be taking it personally. For example: the alcoholic father, now in recovery, assumes blame for his daughter’s substance abuse. “Her drinking is my fault!” To restore adequate detachment, the man might say to say to himself: “Her excessive drinking is not about my history of drinking problems; it is about her choosing to use excessively and getting into trouble now.”

4) A parent who rates her personal performance on the adolescent’s achievement can be taking it personally. For example: the mother stakes personal pride or assumes personal blame for the teenager’s school record. “His rising or falling achievement shows how well or badly I have been doing!” To restore adequate detachment, she might say to herself: “His grades are not about my parenting success or failure; they are about his uneven efforts.”

5) A parent who sees himself sadly reflected in his adolescent can be taking it personally. For example: the father beholds in his adolescent the same shy and lonely person he was growing up. “I hate seeing my son without a circle of good friends in high school just like I was back trhen.” To restore adequate detachment, he might say to himself: “How he socializes is not about me and how I was or wish he was; it is about him and whatever friendships he chooses to make.”

6) A parent who sets her moods according to those of her adolescent can be taking it personally. For example: to be emotionally supportive, the mother matches the daughter’s ups and particularly the downs. “I really can’t be happy when she is not; I feel I ought to keep her company by sharing in her misery!” To restore adequate detachment, the parent might say to herself: “How my teenager feels is not about how I should feel the same; her feelings are about her, belong to her, and I can be there just to listen.”

7) A parent who competes with the adolescent for superiority can be taking it personally. For example: the parent strives to look better or play sports better than the teenager who feels like a younger rival. “I won’t be outshone or outdone by my teenager!” To stop taking their adolescent’s conduct or characteristics personally and adequately detach, the parent might say to themselves: “How my adolescent appears or performs is not about comparison to me or me to them; it is about their growth and their desire to excel.”

In general, it can be helpful if parents don’t take their adolescent’s behavior personally. Although sometimes directed at you or otherwise affecting you, it is NOT about you. It is about your teenager and the self-management decisions she or he is choosing. Maintain this separation of responsibility and your parenting decisions will be clearer and simpler to make.

At moments of confusing “me” with “you,” which most parents of adolescents sometimes have, it might be helpful to reflect on the following Statement of Parental Detachment, or better yet to write one of your own.

We are related,

We live in one family,

We are attached by love,

We share common history,

We depend upon each other,

We are affected by each other,

But we remain separate individuals,

Living together yet apart and independent,

You making your choices and I making mine,

Both of us honoring each other’s responsibility

For decisions only each other has the power to make,

Respecting how your decisions are about you and not about me.

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

Next week’s entry: Parental Adjustment to Early Adolescent Communication

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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