Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

Child From Heaven, Teenager From Hell

Helping parents bear their disillusionment

We know perfectly well that, as part of growing up, young people will go though a period of disillusionment when the world no longer seems so happy or straightforward or worth living. And we know that, more often than not, this disillusionment will be focused on the young person’s parents, “It’s your fault! You’ve got no idea! You’ve ruined everything!” We know that this period of disillusionment is a developmental necessity as the simplicities of childhood are replaced by a young person’s awareness of the complexities of life. Stoically, holding their breath, parents remind themselves that they’re not as bad or stupid or uncaring as they’re accused of being.

We know all this but what’s often neglected (or denied) is the flip side of the process: the fact that parents themselves go through an experience of disillusionment which is just as bitter and angry, just as full of recriminations and hatred. Their disillusionment is with their own children.

After all, these were the children of whom so much was hoped, who began life so innocently, needing their parents so straightforwardly and gratifyingly. These were the children who were going to get top grades and achieve all manner of humanitarian, sporting and academic success: the same children who are now disagreeing with everything, making their own choices, departing from the script.

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Parents have their own developmental process to go through as they mourn the loss of the innocent, dependent child and get used to the independent, free-thinking, risk-taking individual that he or she has become.

“You’ve changed!”

“Of course I’ve changed!” thinks the young person. “It’s my job to change! I don’t have a choice! But inside I’m still the same person. Can’t you see that?”

Some parents refuse to let go of the illusion. Mr. Mowles comes into school because his son has been involved in yet another fight, picking on and splitting open a smaller boy’s lip. But Mr. Mowles can’t believe it. “My son wouldn’t do anything like that,” he insists. “He’s not that sort of boy!”

“I think he may not be telling you the whole truth,” says his son’s teacher, as kindly as possible.

“Well he’s not like this at home!” says Mr. Mowles, disingenuously, still trying to avoid the truth.

Getting used to the fact that our growing children are capable of cruelties as well as kindnesses is difficult. Getting used to their growing sexual curiosity is also difficult. Lydia’s father refused to let her out of the house when he saw what she was wearing. “He called me a whore!” she says. “He said I used to be his princess when I was young but now I disgust him!” She cries, knowing that she can’t go back to being a child again but that becoming an adult seems to mean losing her father’s love.

It’s hard for parents not to experience a son or daughter’s growing up as some kind of betrayal. “Does it mean that we’ve failed?” they ask themselves. “What happened to that sweet child? Doesn’t she love us any more? Did we do something wrong?”

It’s hard for parents but also hard for young people, trying to be stoical, holding their breath, reminding themselves that they – in turn - are not as bad or stupid or uncaring as they’re accused of being.

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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