"How can you say my approval matters to my teenager," asked the parent, "when he continually behaves in ways he knows I'll disapprove? Besides, when I do disapprove he just acts like he doesn't care. If you ask me, he wants my disapproval!"
"I'm right," I replied. "And so are you. Parental approval can be complicated and confusing."
"Tell me about it," the parent sighed. So I did.
First, it's important to understand what parental approval is and is not. Parental approval is a positive rating of the child's conduct, an evaluative response to how he or she is performing, to how he or she is doing. Disapproval is a negative rating.
Like all performance ratings, approval is not constant because it varies with what the parent values and is wanting (and so it is subjective) and how the child is acting which changes with choice and circumstance (and so it is inconsistent.)
The function of expressions of parental approval and disapproval is to provide a steady stream of data that informs the child whether or not he or she is growing in a healthy and constructive way, based on what parents believe "healthy" and "constructive" are.
What approval is NOT is the same as love. Approval varies based on parental perception and child conduct. Approval is awarded. Approval is earned. "Sometimes you do better or worse than at other times." Love, on the other hand, is constantly anchored in parental commitment. It never varies. It does not have to be earned. "I may not always like what you do, but I will always love who you are." Approval is conditional upon performance; love is unconditionally given.
Parents who make love conditional upon approval, awarding or withholding love based on the child's performance, are some of the harshest parents one can have. And just as performance should not be about earning love, love should not be seen as a guarantee for approval. Some of the most difficult and unappreciated expressions of parental love are telling an adolescent something about his or her behavior that is not OK. Giving disapproval does not earn parents popularity points with their teenager.
When it comes to love, teenagers know the importance of parents. As one young man told me, "friends are passing through, but parents are forever. Friends like you, but parents love you. They love you enough to put up with what they don't like." Parents, unless they choose to be otherwise, are the major source of love in an adolescent's life. In all these years of counseling troubled or conflicted family relationships, I have never heard an adolescent say: "I don't want my parents' love."
What makes the vital distinction between approval and love hard for the child to understand is that approval and disapproval have powerful emotional connections -- both for the giver and the receiver. Parents feel happy and pleased when they can approve their child's conduct. Their sense of pleasure conveys to the child who feels happy about pleasing them and being in their good graces. Conversely, parents can feel unhappy and displeased when they disapprove of their child's conduct. Their sense of displeasure conveys to the child who feels unhappy about displeasing them and having fallen out of favor. To keep disapproval from doing damage, it needs to be non-critical. So rather than attack the adolescent's behavior with hurtful words ("That was a STUPID thing to do!"), parents are better served taking issue with the choice of conduct ("We disagree with the choice you made and here is why.")
Parental approval is often expressed through appreciation, compliments, and even rewards; parental disapproval is often expressed through disappointment, criticism, and even punishment. So approval and disapproval can have significant emotional impact as one's momentary standing with parents is affected.
Now we come to the confusing contradiction of adolescence - how young people still want parental approval but start courting parental disapproval as well.
Start with what the parent quoted at beginning of this blog said about the teenager "acting" like he didn't care if the parent disapproved. The parent was right. It was an "act." The teenager was proudly pretending that he was too independent and grown up to care about his lowered performance rating with the parent. Why pretend? Because, at an age when one no longer wants to be seen behaving child-like, the teenager cares too much to show how much he cares. In reality, he cares what parents think of him just as much as he did as a child.
This is why, even more than in their son or daughter's childhood, parents must find continual ways to express approval for ways in which she is conducting life, and must refrain from expressing disapproval in demeaning or destructive way like sarcasm, ridicule, or statements of disappointment.
This last is a particularly potent expression of disapproval. Without hesitation there are two statements I would recommend that parents NEVER say to their adolescent: "You have really let us down," "You have really disappointed us." I have seen teenagers brought to tears from hearing these words from their parents, treating both statements as signifying an irrecoverable loss of love.
In addition, parents must counterbalance ongoing disapproval from a very critical source that is continually attacking the young person's self-esteem -- her disapproval of self. With so much growth change going on in adolescence, so many challenges to be met, and so many comparisons constantly made to peers who seems to be doing better in so many ways, most teenagers have a low self-approval and a high self-disapproval rating much of the time. What they need from parents is boosting up, not being run down.
Finally, there is another truth the parent quoted earlier was saying: "If you ask me, he wants my disapproval." In one important way, adolescents do court parental disapproval. Part of casting off the role and identity of "child" is contrasting new adolescent definition to the old one left behind. To this end, teenagers give themselves permission to become more abrasively independent to live with. More frequently they offend parents in the process, for example by engaging in more arguments and delay. The young person tends to treat more parental disapproval as part of the cost of doing adolescent business, showing that parents are not dealing with "just a child" any more.
The lesson is that come adolescence, both parental approval and disapproval become more important, with approval the most important to provide of the two. So consider three ways parents can express approval of their adolescent.
Disentangle parental disapproval from parental love. Give acceptance of the adolescent's individuality. Regularly express appreciation for all the good the adolescent has to offer.
And remember, no matter how adult your child finally grows,your approval always matters because it is always valued. The adolescent, and even the adult, still wants to shine in parental eyes.
Next week's entry: From managing to mentoring your adolescent.