Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and the Positional Power of Parents

The superior standing of parent over teenager is hard on them both

Another way to think about the adolescent goal of reaching independence is reducing the positional power difference between teenager and parent until equity of personal standing in the relationship is established.

Although not an exact comparison, I believe that coping with the positional power difference between Parents and Teenager at home is somewhat similar to the Boss and Employee relationship in the workplace. In both cases, inequality of position partly rules each relationship. Governing authority is vested in the Superior position (Parent or Boss), and the obligation to be governed is vested in the Subordinate position (Employee or Adolescent.) Of course, the comparison ends when you factor in the tie of family love which workplace relationships lack, plus the Boss can fire an unruly employee from the job, while a parent is not likely to exit a rebellious adolescent from the home.

At work and at home, however, Superior Position is expected to create and enforce rules and procedures, direct conduct, limit choices, evaluate behavior, and reward or punish performance. Subordinate Position is expected to follow rules, meet demands, accept living terms, and behave according to the Superior’s expectations. Superior social position authorizes parents to get their way, and subordinate social position obliges the adolescent to go their way.

The positional difference usually creates more tension between parent and adolescent than it did between parent and child. Adult power to direct and control the little girl or boy that was accepted as a given during childhood is more frequently questioned and contested by more resistance during adolescence. “You can make me do what you want” has been replaced by “You can’t force me or stop me unless I agree.” The Age of Command has given way to the Age of Consent.

This is why there is more disagreement and argument during the age of Detachment Parenting and mutual letting go than during childhood and the age of Attachment Parenting and mutual holding on. Now their positional difference becomes a source of more mutual opposition -- the adolescent questioning and contesting it, the parent asserting and defending it.

Sometimes you can hear Early Adolescent Outrage expressed at this unequal scheme of things. “You’re not the boss of my world!” complains the middle school student, now knowing that freedom for provision (what one can have) and for permission (what one can do) is indeed up to parents. “That’s not fair!” Of course, the adolescent is correct. Inequity can feel unfair. As a child, the positional superiority of parents was mostly okay; but as an adolescent it is increasingly not.

Of course, positional power differences not only constrain the adolescent’s freedom of choice, but they also entrap the parents with expectations of responsibility. True, the burden of the Subordinate teenager is being answerable to the authority of parents. However, there is the burden on the Superior parent from being partially accountable for the teenager’s conduct. When the young person chooses to get into significant trouble, parents can have a serious problem on their hands. So hardships from the positional power difference can weigh on them both.

Another example of this burden from the positional difference has to do with how it can endanger communication. The major source of parental knowledge about the teenager is from the teenager, so adequate and accurate information is very important for the adults to be told. To keep a clear channel of expression open, both need to trust that the power difference between them doesn’t get in the way. Just as parents in the superior position always have the potential for acting coercively with threats and force, so the adolescent in the subordinate position always has the potential for acting manipulatively with evasion and dishonesty.

In both ways, positional inequality can interfere with adequate and accurate communication between them. To prevent this possibility, the adolescent needs to have no fear that parents will abuse their authority through mistreatment; and the parents need to have no fear the adolescent will exploit their ignorance with lies.

One way to think about adolescence during the age of Detachment Parenting is about the teenager’s struggle to close the positional difference gap between herself and her parents. Although he wasn’t talking about it, I believe the famous words of Frederick Douglass do apply to adolescent growth: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Thus if the adolescent wants to gather power of independence to reduce the positional power difference with parents and ultimately equitize personal standing with these adults, she or he has to keep initiating the demand for more freedom of choice when growing through the teenage years.

The young person can make this demand in several ways – by showing Responsibility and earning more freedom, by Reasonably asking and making a good case for more freedom, and by Rebelling against authority and taking more freedom. I believe most adolescents make their demand in all three ways. In general, the readiness to reduce the positional power difference with parents and ultimately become one’s own governing authority is up to the adolescent to initiate and then up to parents how to respond.

So an implicit growth contract is created between them. On the subordinate side, a healthy adolescent pushes for all the freedom he or she can get as soon as they can get it. On the superior side, healthy parents both restrain and encourage this push within the interests of safety and self-management responsibility. This transfer of power unfolds over the course of adolescence, eventually wearing down the positional difference between them when young adult independence is finally assumed.

Now parents have lost all higher standing with their grown daughter or son, right? Wrong, on at least two counts! First because this conclusion ignores the ongoing role of parents as Mentors; and second because it ignores the ongoing role of parents as Cheerleaders.

The mentoring superiority of parents is based on greater practical life experience which they now, only on an asked-for basis, can make available to a grown child who has some pressing need to know. What parents have learned, sometimes the hard way, can often help an adult child find her or his way.

The cheerleading superiority is rooted in the reality that children don’t outgrow the desire for parental approval. “Watch me!” “Let me tell you my exciting news!” “Look at what I can do!” “Listen to what I just did!” Don’t underestimate the audience power of admiring parents. Adult children rarely outgrow pleasure from parental praise.

So, just because parents must sacrifice positional authority as their grown child independently assumes self-governing responsibility, this in no way says that all traditional standing of parents has been lost.

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

Next week’s entry: When Parents Conflict over Their Adolescent

 

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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