Mid-adolescence begins a period of more frequent and intense conflict between parents and teenager. Why? The answer is, because now freedom matters to the young person more than ever before.
In early adolescence, protesting parental restrictions on his personal freedom was primarily about the young person questioning their right to do so. His ongoing arguments against this unfairness nourished a grievance that justified actively and passively resisting parental authority.
In mid-adolescence, however, the issue of freedom has become intensely practical. Now the young person really wants to be out in the world, exploring and adventuring in the company of his new family of friends, and his parents are often in the way. Distrustful of his brash push for more freedom, they may decide it is unwise. "It's not safe for you and your friends to wander the mall after the movie. We'll pick you up as soon as the show gets out. Be there."
But the mid-adolescent dismisses these parental concerns as unreasonable and exaggerated worries: "You're being overprotective!" His risk taking is downplayed by denial and his denial expressed as bravado: "Nothing bad is going to happen to me! Don't you trust me?" What they don't trust is how group pressure can override individual judgment and how temptations for trouble and dangerous exposures lurk in the larger world outside of family.
What parents are up against now is the MID-ADOLESCENT MINDSET that typically operates something like this. Feeling liberated from the shackles of childhood definition that early adolescent negativity, rebellion, and testing of limits have broken, the mid-adolescent has become urgently preoccupied with three freedoms: for the freedom to focus on SELF, for the freedom to have FUN, and for the freedom to gratify wants NOW.
It is not the parents' job to change the young person's priorities, but it is their job to insist he meet a more responsible set of their own. So parents let it be known where they stand. "It is fine to focus on your self, but we also expect you to show consideration for the welfare of others." "It is fine to have fun, but sometimes we expect you to work first to earn your fun." "It is fine to want things now, but we expect you to delay some gratification until later." Parents who don't take these stands are at risk of sending a young person out into the world who believes that self, fun, and now are all that matter in life. Soon reality will provide harsh lessons to the contrary that parents neglected to teach.
In service of his mid-adolescent mindset, what happens sooner or later is that the young person, focussed only on the three freedoms, will make a decision that violates a commitment to parents or a family rule. Now what he fears is that parents, in disciplinary response, will take away some of his precious freedom, at least for a while. So what should he do? Confess and give up what matters to him most, or see if he can somehow evade responsibility?
Mid-adolescents frequently make the second choice. And it is one where they have a variety of ESCAPE STRATEGIES at their disposal. So when confronted, the teenager may use DENIAL ("I don't know what you're talking about"), or EXCUSES ("I was tired and forgot"), or BLAME ("It was other people's fault"), or LIES ("You never said I couldn't, so I thought I could.")
Parents who don't encounter these evasions of responsibility can foster her belief that when the mid-adolescent gets into trouble, rather than own up to responsibility and accept the consequences, she should deny, excuse, blame, or lie her way out. Why would parents not encounter these escape strategies and hold her to responsible account?
The answer often is, because they are reluctant to provoke conflict with the intensely combative mid-adolescent. After all, at this age she passionately believes that freedom for self, fun, and now is absolutely worth fighting for. And if she is abusing substances at this time, her mindset will be only be more determined, and her use of these escape strategies will only be more practiced and effective.
For parents, mid adolescence is when the age of thankless parenting truly arrives as they take stands for the teenager's best interests against what she wants only to get rewarded with more conflict for their efforts. She wants freedom like she has never wanted it before. And their job is to keep a safe family structure in place around her as she grows.
FIVE PILLARS OF PARENTAL AUTHORITY support this structure. Each can hamper her freedom, so there will be times when she contests them all. There are DEMANDS that parents make: "This is what you must do." There are LIMITS that parents set: "This is what you must not do." There are QUESTIONS that parent ask: "This is what we need to know." There are CONFRONTATIONS to be made: "This is what we need to talk with you about." And there are CONSEQUENCES to allow and apply: "This is the outcome of choices you have made."
Come mid-adolescence, conflict is not all there is, but there is definitely much more than there was so parents must be willing to stand up to their son or daughter for safety and responsibility's sake. In the process they must model constructive conduct in conflict they want the teenager to imitate and learn. (See my book "STOP THE SCREAMING," if you need to know how.)
And be prepared for the teenager's use of protective belligerence at this prickly age when there is something important you want to discuss. There never seems to be a "good time" to approach her because she is either on the phone, on the computer, busy "doing something," in a bad mood, too tired, or on her way out the door. "Not now, later!" is her constant refrain. Best to accept that there is no good time. When it comes to raising hard issues for discussion with a mid adolescent, the best time parents are going to get is a bad time being given a hard time, so choose the time that works best for you.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENT" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week's entry: LATE ADOLESCENCE (15-18): Acting more grown up.