Whose Hell Is It?

Why the turbulent teens are so tough on families.

By Virginia Rutter, published on January 1, 1995 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004

The image of teenagers as menacing and rebellious is a big fiction
that's boomeranging on kids. We've mythologized adolescence to conceal a
startling fact: It is indeed a difficult and turbulent time--for parents.
The trouble is, kids look like adults much sooner than ever before. Kids
wind up feeling abandoned--and angry at the loss of their safety net. If
we haven't got adolescence exactly figured out yet, there's some
consolation in the fact that it's a brand-new phenomenon in human
history.

I recently spent the weekend with a friend's 13-year-old son. In
contrast to the tiny tots most of my friends have, Matthew seemed much
more like an adult. The time spent with him wasn't so much like
baby-sitting; it was like having company. It was impressive to see how
self-sufficient he was. Simple matters struck me: he didn't need someone
to go to the bathroom with him at the movies; he could help himself to
ice cream; he was actually interested in following the O.J. Simpson
story, and we discussed it.

He was polite, thoughtful, and interesting. While the intensive
caretaking necessary for smaller children has its own rewards (I
suppose), Matthew's contrasting autonomy was pleasant to me. And so I
imagined it would be for parents of adolescents. But then, I am not a
parent. And most parents report not feeling pleasant about their
adolescents.

The weekend reminded me of how easy it is to think of these
youngsters as adults. Compared to an eight-year-old, an adolescent is a
lot like an adult. Can't reason like an adult, but doesn't think like a
child anymore, either. Some parents are tempted to cut 'em loose rather
than adjust to the new status of their teenager. Others fail to observe
their adolescent's new adult-like status, and continue monitoring them as
closely as a child. But it's obvious that adolescents aren't miniature
adults. They are individuals on their way to adulthood; their brains and
bodies--to say nothing of their sexuality--stretching uneasily toward
maturity.

Yet the sight of kids reaching for some form of adult status
commonly evokes contempt rather than curiosity. Negative feelings about
teenagers have a strong grip on American culture in general, and on
surprising numbers of parents in particular. It's not uncommon for
parents to anticipate their child's adolescence with fear and
trepidation--even before they've gotten out of diapers. They expect a war
at home.

"It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy that adolescence is seen as
this bizarre, otherworldly period of development, complete with a
battleground set for World War III," says Tina Wagers, Psy. D., a
psychologist who treats teens and their families at Kaiser Permanente
Medical Center in Denver.

We were all once 13, but it seems we can no longer imagine what
kind of parenting a 13-year-old needs. Perhaps it's gotten worse with all
the outside opportunities for trouble kids have--gangs, guns, drugs.
Families used to extend their turf into their children's schools,
friends, and athletic activities. But kids now inhabit unknown territory,
and it is scary for parents. "I think this fear and lack of understanding
makes some parents more likely to back off and neglect teenagers,"
reports Wagers. "There is an expectation that you can't influence them
anyhow."

This skeptical, sometimes hostile view of teens, however, was
countered by my experience with Matthew. I found him hardly a "teenager
from hell." Like most teens, Matthew prefers to be with his own friends
more than with family or other grown-ups. He's not good with time, and
music, basketball, and girls are more central to him than achievement,
responsibility, and family. (Despite his tastes, he does very well in
school.) At home there is more conflict than there has been in the past,
though not less love and commitment to his mom, with whom he lives in
eastern Washington.

The story of Matthew falls in line with new research on
adolescents, and it's causing psychologists to totally revise
conventional wisdom on the subject. According to psychologist Laurence
Steinberg, Ph.D., of Temple University, the majority of adolescents are
not contentious, unpleasant, heartless creatures. They do not hate their
parents--although they do fight with them (but not as much as you might
think). "In scrutinizing interviews with adolescents and their families,
I reaffirmed that adolescence is a relatively peaceful time in the
house." Kids report continued high levels of respect for their parents,
whether single, divorced, or together, and regardless of economic
background.

When fighting does occur, it's in families with younger teenagers,
and it has to do at least in part with their burgeoning cognitive
abilities. Newly able to grasp abstract ideas, they can become absorbed
in pursuing hypocrisy or questioning authority. In time, they learn to
deploy relativistic and critical thinking more selectively.

NOT A DISEASE

If adolescents aren't the incorrigibles we think--then what to make
of the endless stream of news reports of teen sexism, harassment, drug
abuse, depression, delinquency, gangs, guns, and suicide?

Any way you measure it, teens today are in deep trouble. They face
increasing rates of depression (now at 20 percent), suicide (12 percent
have considered it, 5 percent attempted), substance abuse (20 percent of
high school seniors), delinquency (1.5 million juvenile arrests--about 1
percent of teens--in 1992), early sexual activity (29 percent have had
sexual relations by age 15), and even an increased rate of health
problems (20 percent have conditions that will hamper their health as
adults). And kids' problems appear to be getting worse.

How to reconcile the two parts of the story: adolescents aren't so
bad, but a growing number are jeopardizing their future through
destructive behavior? Though we look upon teenagers as time bombs set to
self-destruct at puberty, in fact the problems teens face are not encoded
in their genes. Their natural development, including a surge of hormonal
activity during the first few years of adolescence, may make them a
little more depressed or aggressive--but how we treat them has much more
to do with teenagers' lives today. From the look of it, we aren't
treating them very well.

A CRISIS OF ADULTS

If what goes on in adolescence happens largely in the kids, what
goes wrong with adolescence happens primarily in the parents. "It wasn't
until I turned to the parents' interviews that I really got a sense that
something unusual was going on," reports Steinberg of his ongoing studies
of over 200 adolescents and their families. As he details in his book
Crossing Paths: How Your Child's Adolescence Triggers Your Own Crisis
(Simon & Schuster), Steinberg finds that adolescence sets off a
crisis for parents.

Parents do not have positive feelings during the time their kids go
through adolescence, and it isn't simply because they expect their kids
to be bad (although that's part of it). Scientists have studied the
behavior and emotions of parents as well as their adolescent children,
and found that when children reach puberty, parents experience tremendous
changes in themselves. What's more, they shift their attitudes toward
their children. It isn't just the kids who are distressed. Parents are
too. Consider the following:

o Marital satisfaction, which typically declines over the course of
marriage, reaches its all-time low when the oldest child reaches
adolescence. Married parents of adolescents have an average of seven
minutes alone with each other every day. For the marriages that don't
pass the point of no return during their kids' teen years, there is
actually an increase in satisfaction after the kids complete
adolescence.

o Happily married parents have more positive interactions with
their kids than unhappy parents. In single-parent families, parental
happiness also influences their response to adolescence.

o In a surprising finding, the marital satisfaction of fathers is
directly affected by how actively their adolescents are dating.
Especially when sons are busy dating, fathers report a marked decline in
interest in their wives. Dads aren't lusting for the girls Johnny brings
home, they just miss what now seems like their own good old days.

o In family discussions, parents become increasingly negative
toward their adolescents--there's more criticism, whining, frustration,
anger, and defensiveness expressed verbally or in grimaces. While the
kids are always more negative than their parents (it comes with
increasing cognitive ability, in part), the parents are actually
increasing the amount of negativity toward their children at a higher
rate.

o Working mothers don't spend less time at home with their
teenagers than nonworking rooms do, but they do risk higher levels of
burnout, because they continue to cover the lioness's share of work at
home. On the other hand, a mother's employment makes her less vulnerable
to the ups and downs of parenting an adolescent. Maternal employment also
benefits kids, especially teen daughters, who report higher levels of
self-esteem.

o Despite their fulfillment, mothers' self-esteem is actually lower
while they are with their adolescents than when they are not. After all,
a mother's authority is constantly being challenged, and she is being
shunted to the margins of her child's universe.

o Teenagers turn increasingly to their friends, a distancing
maneuver that feels like an emotional divorce to parents. Since mothers
are generally more emotionally engaged with their children than are
fathers, the separation can feel most painful to them. In fact, mothers
typically report looking forward to the departure of their kids after
high school. After the kids leave, mothers' emotional state
improves.

o Fathers emotional states follow a different course. Fathers have
more difficulty launching their adolescents, mostly because they feel
regret about the time they didn't spend with them. Fathers have more
difficulty dealing with their kids growing into adolescence and
adulthood; they can't get used to the idea that they no longer have a
little playmate who is going to do what daddy wants to do.

Add it all up and you get a bona fide midlife crisis in some
parents, according to Steinberg. All along we've thought that a midlife
crisis happens to some adults around the age of 40. But it turns out that
midlife crisis has nothing to do with the age of the adult--and
everything to do with the age of the oldest child in a family. It is set
off by the entry of a family's first-born into adolescence.

Once the oldest child hits adolescence, parents are catapulted into
a process of life review. "Where have I been, where am I now, where am I
going?" These questions gnaw at parents who observe their children at the
brink of adulthood.

It hits hardest the parent who is the same sex as the adolescent.
Mothers and daughters actually have more difficulty than fathers and
sons. In either case, the children tend to serve as a mirror of their
younger lost selves, and bear the brunt of parents' regrets as parents
distance themselves.

Steinberg tracks the psychological unrest associated with midlife
crisis in parents:

o The onset of puberty is unavoidable evidence that their child is
growing up.

o Along with puberty comes a child's burgeoning sexuality. For
parents, this can raise doubts about their own attractiveness, their
current sex life, as well as regrets or nostalgia for their teenage
sexual experiences.

o The kids' new independence can make parents feel powerless. For
fathers in particular this can remind them of the powerlessness they feel
in the office if their careers have hit a plateau.

o Teens also become less concerned with their parents' approval.
Their peer group approval becomes more important. This hits mothers of
daughters quite hard, especially single mothers, whose relationship to
their daughters most resembles a friendship.

o Finally, de-idealization--kids' often blunt criticism of their
parents--is a strong predictor of decline in parental mental health.
Parents who used to be the ultimate expert to their kids are now reduced
to debating partner for kids who have developed a new cognitive skill
called relativism.

A clear picture begins to emerge: parents of a teenager feel
depressed about their own life or their own marriage; feel the loss of
their child; feel jealous, rejected, and confused about their child's new
sexually mature looks, bad moods, withdrawal into privacy at home, and
increasing involvement with friends. The kid is tied up in her (or his)
own problems and wonders what planet mom and dad are on.

EMOTIONAL DIVORCE

The sad consequence is that parents who experience a midlife crisis
begin avoiding their adolescent. Although a small proportion of parents
are holding on to their teens too closely--usually they come from
traditional families and have fundamentalist religious beliefs--more
parents are backing off. The catch is that these teenagers want their
parents' guidance. But more and more they just aren't getting it.

Some parents back away not out of their own inner confusion but
because they think it's hip to do so. Either way, letting go causes
confusion in the kids, not help in making their way into adulthood. Even
if they are irritating or irritable, or just more withdrawn than they
used to be, teens are seeking guidance.

"I have this image of a kid groping through adolescence, kind of by
himself," confides therapist Wagers, who sees a lot of parents out of
touch with their kids. "The parents swarm around him, but don't actually
talk to him, only to other people about him."

The mantra of therapists who work with adolescents and their
families is "balance." Parents have to hold on, but not too tightly. They
need to stay involved, even when their kids are ignoring them. Roland
Montemayor, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Ohio State, finds it is not
so different from learning how to deal with a two-year-old. You must stay
within earshot, and be available whenever they falter or get themselves
into trouble.

With a two-year-old, trouble means experimenting with mud pies or
bopping a playmate; with a 14-year-old, it means experimenting with your
car keys or sex. The task is the same--keep track of them and let them
know what the rules are. Parents unfortunately taken up with their own
midlife concerns may not embrace the task. God knows, it isn't easy. But
it is vital.

Among parents who have gone through a real divorce, the emotional
divorce that occurs between adolescents and their parents can heighten
difficulty. It may reawaken feelings of sadness. Parents who don't have
many interests outside the family are also vulnerable. Their kids are
telling them to "Get a life!"--and that is exactly what they need to
do.

DROPOUT PARENTS

As an adolescent reaches age 13, the time she is spending with
parents is typically half that before age 10. "Teens come home and go
into their bedrooms. They start to feel more comfortable by themselves
than with siblings or parents around. They talk on the phone with
friends, and their biggest worry usually has to do with a romantic
interest," explains Reed Larson, Ph.D., who studies families and
adolescents at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Larson,
coauthor of the book Divergent Realities: The Emotional Lives of Mothers,
Fathers, and Adolescents, studied 55 families who recorded their feelings
and activities for one week, whenever prompted at random intervals by a
beeper. He surveyed another 483 adolescents with the beeper
method.

The families' reports revealed that a mutual withdrawal occurs.
"When kids withdraw, parents get the message. They even feel intimidated.
As a result they don't put in the extra effort to maintain contact with
their kids," observes Larson. The kids feel abandoned, even though
they're the ones retreating to their bedroom. The parents, in effect, cut
their kids loose, just when they dip their toes in the waters of
autonomy.

Separation is natural among humans as well as in the animal
kingdom, Larson notes. Yet humans also need special care during this life
transition--and suffer from reduced contact with parents and other
adults. They still need to be taught how to do things, how to think about
things, but above all they need to know that there is a safety net, a
sense that their parents are paying attention and are going to jump in
when things go wrong. The kids don't need the direct supervision they
received at age two or eight, but they benefit emotionally and
intellectually from positive contact with their parents.

Despite the tensions in family life, studies continue to confirm
that the family remains one of the most effective vehicles to promote
values, school success, even confidence in peer relationships. When it
works, family functions as what Larson calls a "comfort zone," a place or
a relationship that serves as a home base out of which to operate. Kids
feel more secure, calm, and confident than those without a comfort zone.
Similarly, Steinberg finds, the one common link among the many successful
adolescents in his studies is that they all have positive relationships
with their parents. Without positive relationships, the kids are subject
to depression and likely to do poorly in school.

Parental withdrawal is a prime characteristic of families where
adolescents get into trouble. It often catapults families into therapy.
Wagers tells the story of a single parent who wasn't simply withdrawn,
her head was in the sand: "I was seeing a mother and her 12-year-old son,
who had depression and behavior problems. The mother called me up one
time to say she had found all this marijuana paraphernalia in her son's
room, in his pocket. She said she wasn't sure what it means. When I said
'it means that he's smoking pot,' she was very reluctant to agree. She
didn't want to talk to her son about why he was getting into trouble or
smoking pot. She wanted me to fix him." (Eventually, in therapy, the
mother learned how to give her son a curfew and other rules, and to
enforce them. He's doing much better.)

Marital problems also enter into the distancing equation. Although
the marital decline among teens' parents is part of the normal course of
marriage, the adolescent can exacerbate the problem. "Here is a new
person challenging you in ways that might make you irritable or
insecure," explains Steinberg. "That can spill over into the marriage.
The standard scenario involves the adolescent and the mother who have
been home squabbling all afternoon. Well, the mom isn't exactly going to
be in a terrific mood to greet her husband. It resembles the marital
problems that occur when a couple first has a new baby." Trouble is, when
the parents' marriage declines, so does the quality of the parenting--at
a time when more parental energy is needed.

As if there are not enough psychological forces reducing contact
between parents and adolescents today, social trends add to the problem,
contends Roland Montemayor. Intensified work schedules, increased divorce
and single parenthood, and poverty--often a result of divorce and single
parenthood--decrease parent-child contact. A fourth of all teenagers live
with one parent, usually their mother. Families have fewer ties to the
community, so there are fewer other adults with whom teens have nurturing
ties. The negative images of teenagers as violent delinquents may even
intimidate parents.

ALONE AND ANGRY

Whatever the source, parental distancing doesn't make for happy
kids. "The kids I work with at Ohio State are remarkably independent, yet
they are resentful of it," says Montemayor. "There is a sense of not
being connected somehow." Kids are angry about being left to themselves,
being given independence without the kind of mentoring from their parents
to learn how to use their independence.

Adult contact seems to be on teenagers' minds more than ever
before. Sociologist Dale Blythe, Ph.D., is an adolescence researcher who
directs Minneapolis' noted Search Institute, which specializes in studies
of youth policy issues. He has surveyed teens in 30 communities across
the country, and found that when you ask teens, they say that family is
not the most important thing in their lives--peers and social activities
are. Nevertheless a large proportion of them say that they want more time
with adults--they want their attention and leadership. They want more
respect from adults and more cues on how to make it in the adult world.
What a shift from 25 years ago, when the watchword was "never trust
anyone over 30"!

So it's up to parents to seek more contact with their kids--despite
the conflict they'll encounter. "The role of parents is to socialize
children, to help them become responsible adults, to teach them to do the
right thing. Conflict is an inexitable part of it," says Montemayor. He
notes that one of the biggest sources of conflict between parents and
teens is time management. Teens have trouble committing to plans in
advance. They want to keep their options wide open all the time. The only
sure-fire way to reduce conflict is to withdraw from teenagers--an
equally surefire way to harm them.

"In other countries parents don't shy away from conflict. In the
United States we have this idea that things are going to be hunky-dory
and that we are going to go bowling and have fun together. Most people in
the world would find that a pretty fanciful idea. There is an inevitable
tension between parents and adolescents, and there's nothing wrong with
that."

SILENCED SEX

Who can talk about teens without talking about sex? The topic of
teenage sexuality, however, heightens parents' sense of powerlessness.
Adults hesitate to acknowledge their own sexual experience in addressing
the issue. They resolve the matter by pretending sex doesn't
exist.

Sexuality was conspicuous by its absence in all the family
interviews Steinberg, Montemayor, or Larson observed. Calling sex a
hidden issue in adolescence verges on an oxymoron. Sprouting pubic hair
and expanding busts aren't particularly subtle phenomena. But adolescent
sexuality is only heightened by the silence.

A postpubescent child introduces a third sexually mature person
into the household, where once sex was a strictly private domain
restricted to the older generation. It's difficult for everyone to get
used to.

No matter how you slice it, sex can be an awkward topic. For
parents, there's not only the feeling of powerlessness, there's
discomfort. Most parents of adolescents aren't experiencing much sexual
activity--neither the mechanics of sex nor its poetry--in this stage of
the marriage (though this eventually improves).

The fact that fathers' marital satisfaction decreases when their
kids start to date suggests the power of kids' sexuality, no matter how
silenced, to distort parental behavior. Sex and marital therapist David
Schnarch, Ph.D., points out that families, and the mythology of the
culture, worship teen sexuality, mistakenly believing adolescence is the
peak of human sexuality. Boys have more hard-ons than their dads, while
the girls have less cellulite than their moms.

These kids may have the biological equipment, says Schnarch, but
they don't yet know how to make love. Sex isn't just about orgasms, it is
about intimacy. "All of our sex education is designed to raise kids to be
healthy, normal adults. But we are confused about what we believe is
sexually normal. Textbooks say that boys reach their sexual peak in late
adolescence; girls, five to 10 years later. The adolescent believes it,
parents believe it, schools believe it. In the hierarchy dictated by this
narrow biological model of sexuality, the person with the best sex is the
adolescent. On the one hand we are telling kids, 'we would like you to
delay sexual involvement.' But when we teach a biological model of
sexuality, we imply to the kids 'we know you can't delay. We think these
are the best years of your life.'"

Parents can help their children by letting them know that they
understand sex and have valuable experience about decisions related to
sex; that they know it isn't just a mechanical act; that they recognize
that teens are going to figure things out on their own with or without
guidance from their parents; and that they are willing to talk about it.
But often, the experience or meaning of sex gets lost.

I asked a woman whose parents had handed her birth control pills at
age 15 how she felt about it now, at age 30. "I wish sex had been a
little more taboo than it was. I got into a lot more sexual acting out
before I was 20, and that didn't go very well for me. Even though my
parents talked about the health consequences of sex, they did not mention
other consequences. Like what it does to your self-esteem when you get
involved in a series of one-night stands. So I guess I wish they had been
more holistic in their approach to sex. Not just to tell me about the
pill when I was 15, but to understand the different issues I was
struggling with. In every other aspect of my life, they were my best
resource. But it turns out sex is a lot more complicated than I thought
it was when I was 15. At 30, sex is a lot better than it was when I was a
teenager."

The distortions parents create about teen sexuality lead directly
to events like the "Spur Posse," the gang of teenage football stars in
Southern California who systematically harassed and raped girls,
terrorizing the community in the late 80s. The boys' fathers actually
appeared on talk shows--to brag about their sons' conquests. "The fathers
were reinforcing the boys' behavior. It was as if it were a reflection on
their own sexuality," observes Schnarch.

By closing their eyes to teen sexual behavior, parents don't just
disengage from their kids. They leave them high and dry about
understanding anything more than the cold mechanics of sex. Kids raised
this way report feeling very alone when it gets down to making intimate
decisions for the first time. They feel like they haven't been given any
help in what turns out to be the bigger part of sex--the relationship
part of it.

Returning to the authoritarian, insular family of Ward, June,
Wally, and the Beaver is not the solution for teenagers any more than it
is for their parents. But teenagers do need parents and other responsible
adults actively involved in their lives, just as younger children do.
Only when it comes to teenagers, the grown-ups have to tolerate a lot
more ambiguity--about authority, safety, responsibility, and
closeness--to sustain the connection. If they can learn to do that, a lot
of young people will be able to avoid a whole lot of trouble.

"Doing the right thing and being good at what you're doing is
important to me.

"As teenagers we have a lot of things on our back, a lot of people
are looking for us to do many great things. We also take in a lot of
things and we know a lot of things. I care about the environment because
it's a place that we all have to live in, not just us but our families
and children. Even though I'm 15, I still have to keep those things in
mind because it's serious. As for my own future, I've had a good
upbringing and I see all open doors."

--Semu, 15, New York City

"I don't feel any pressure about sex. It's a frequent topic of
conversation, but we talk about other things, too--when I'm going to get
my history paper done, movies, music. I listen to classical music a lot.
I think about my maturity a lot, because I have recently had losses in my
immediate family and it feels like I am maturing so fast. But then
sometimes I feel so young compared to everything out there. I think
adults have always felt that teens were more reckless."

--Amanda, 16, New York City

"Teenagers, like adults, are all different. One has a job that is
hard, another has more money and more education, and one just gets by. It
is unfair to look at all teens the same way. You have maturity in you,
but you just don't want to show it because it's no fun. We've got
problems, but not really big ones like my uncle who came over from China
when he was 16, or going to war when you're 18. If teenagers make it
through this era, adults will just bash the next generation of
teenagers."

--Mike, 14, Brooklyn, New York

"I think Al Gore is a super environmentalist. With no ozone layer,
the world is just going to melt. It's hard not to worry. The environment
is really messed up and with no environment there will be no economy, no
education, nothing. I hate it when people throw six-pack rings in the
lake. We need to think about the environment because we need to get on
with the rest of our lives. I don't think adults generally look to kids
for opinions."

--Sam, 13, New York City

"Many times teenagers are thought of as a problem that no one
really wants to deal with. People are sometimes intimidated and become
hostile because teenagers are willing to challenge their authority. It is
looked at as being disrespectful. Teenagers are, many times, not treated
like an asset and as innovative thinkers who will be the leaders of
tomorrow. Adults have the power to teach the younger generation about the
world and allow them to feel they have a voice in it."

--Zula, 16, Brooklyn, NY