Developmental Dislike of Parents During Early Adolescence

Come adolescence, there is more to dislike about parents.

Posted Apr 20, 2015

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

"If there's two of us and only one of him, how come we feel outnumbered all the time?"

The question amounted to this. “Our 13-year-old either wants nothing to do with me, or treats me as an object of increasing dislike? We used to be so close. What’s going on?”

What I call Developmental Dislike can be directed at parents during their child’s early stages of adolescence, usually after the separation from childhood has begun, around ages 9-13. If parents can understand this negative behavior as part of the process of adolescence without and taking it hurtfully, equating loss of liking with loss of love, which it is not, they can usually maintain perspective. They can treat the unwelcome change as a passing and not permanent fixture in the changing relationship with their teenager.

Think of it this way. The transition from attachment parenting the adoring and adorable child to detachment parenting the more resistant and distant adolescent can be a hard adjustment for parents who loved the easygoing childhood years and are reluctant to give up that close and companionable time.

In the process of detachment from childhood and from parents for more freedom to grow, increased adolescent dislike in general, and of parents in particular, can have a number of functional roles to play. Consider what a few of these might be.

1. It is dislike of being defined and treated any longer as “just a child” that motivates the separation from childhood and the entry into adolescence. Part of this dislike is directed at parents and what they are used to doing. “Stop treating me like I’m still a little kid!” “That old joking with me isn’t funny anymore!” “Stop hugging and kissing me!” Growing up requires giving up. That is why adolescence begins with loss. Treatment the child used to like from parents becomes conduct and contact unbecoming for the adolescent for whom a different, “older” definition is being sought.

2. It is dislike of bearing the identity of “child” that causes the young adolescent to reject cherished childish parts of themselves (interests, playthings, traditional activities), including younger ways of being with parents, so a more mature self can grow. From this loss, there is usually a self-esteem drop at this point that diminishes as a new “older” identity is grown. For example, while sixth graders in middle school often struggle to feel positive about themselves; by eighth grade, young people have usually redefined a sense of self that feels more fitting and good. Until then, the young person can be riddled with more free-floating self-dislike than she or he knows what to do with. Expressing the overflow of self-dislike at parents is what the adolescent sometimes does. “You never do anything right!” As mentioned at the outset, this dislike does not lessen ongoing love of parents except that statements of this love may be harder for the girl or boy to express for a while.

3. It is dislike of parents that cuts them down to human size. Children idealize their parents who become the primary models for acting grown up with which the adolescent identifies. But how can the young adolescent measure up to such child ideals? She or he can’t. This is why the young person needs to find flaws to criticize in these adults, to bring them down — how they are over-demanding, over-critical, over-protective, for example.  “I’m not perfect, and neither are you!” the young person needs to believe. And as adolescent criticism knocks parents off the exalted pedestal they occupied in the child’s eyes, the young person sees them as having shortcomings. In this humanizing process of adult downsizing, the adolescent also grows more accepting of failings and frailties in themselves. Having "bad" parents gives the adolescent permission to let her or his "bad" side out. I don't mean legally or morally "bad," but more abrasive to live with, this ongoing abrasion part of what wears the tie of dependence between them down. 

4. It is dislike of parents, and growing incompatibility with parents as the adolescent differentiates from being a child, that makes them less fitting social company and motivates creating a separate social family of peers. For example: “All my friends are skaters,” or "All my friends are goth." Most young people know that adolescence is no journey to take alone. They need the companionship of friends who are all becoming different the same way they are. So now in public, parents become a social embarrassment because their characteristics can socially reflect on the adolescent in awkward ways while being in their public company interferes with the image of independence that is prized. For example, while a 1st grader is thrilled by the surprise visit of their parent to class, a seventh-grader is decidedly not. The desire at this age is to be identified with peers, not parents.

5. It is dislike of parents and their power to control resources, make demands, and limit freedom that can frequently cast them as enemies of teenage self-interest. One essential opposition in adolescence is the healthy teenager pushing maximum freedom to grow, and parents resisting that push by taking stands for safety and responsibility. In most cases, the adolescent is not grateful to parents for imposing restraints that deny what the teenager wants to do. "Thanks a lot for not letting me go!" Parents are the rule makers, and sometimes adolescents are the rule-breakers. Parents create the cage of family structure in adolescents' consent to function until independence when, for good and ill, the young person becomes their own authority, operating on their own self-management terms. 

Of course, there does need to be this final word. It is very important that parents do not relinquish positive initiatives with the young teenager, or worse, reciprocate with expressions of dislike. “You used to be such a great kid, what happened to you?” No. Although the adolescent will say they don’t care what parents think, that is a lie. At a time of struggle and transformation and insecurity and loneliness, they care very much.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence.