In any relationship, one party changing means the other party must adjust—accommodating to or resisting the alteration that has occurred.
So when a traditionally silent and submissive partner learns to become more outspoken and assertive, the other partner may have more influence to lose and more friction to get used to. Growth in one can be threatening or abrasive to the other.
Usually, it's easier to be in the changer role and risk being misunderstood than in the adjuster role and wonder what is going on. At least the changer feels in charge, while the adjuster has to dance to the changer's tune, often feeling like the party with the most to lose and the least to gain.
What brought this role distinction recently to mind was how a parent characterized what it was like getting used to her daughter's unwelcome transformation in early middle school from child to adolescent.
It was the metaphor the parent used that caught my attention. Describing how hard it was when her warmly affectionate child started acting like a more coolly distant adolescent, she was trying to get me to understand.
"How would you like it," she asked, "if your cuddly dog started acting like your standoffish cat? That's the kind of change I mean. What happened to my beloved dog is what I want to know? I miss my cuddly dog!"
After the counseling session was over, I started playing with the metaphor she used, and was surprised where the comparison she suggested led me.
For openers, the dog can be demonstrative, friendly, empathetic, compliant, social, close, playful, predictable, communicative, and constant. The cat can be aloof, moody, apathetic, detached, solitary, distant, watchful, unpredictable, inscrutable, and changeable. Then I tried to amplify the differences.
The dog welcomes attention most of the time. The cat wants to be left alone a lot of the time.
The dog comes when called. The cat comes when it wants.
The dog walks on a leash. The cat walks by itself.
The dog is more even-tempered. The cat is more temperamental.
The dog is easier to read. The cat is more inscrutable.
The dog likes to do what you like to do. The cat likes you doing what it likes to do.
The dog seems more under your control. The cat seems more committed to its own agenda.
The dog wants to please and works not to displease. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if the cat really cares.
The dog is always glad to see you at the end of the day. The cat may or may not be interested.
This ‘child to adolescent/ dog to cat' comparison was only an analogy, but the parental adjustment the mother suggested was real enough.
Could she still love her teenager as ‘cat' the way she did her child as ‘dog'? Yes, but the relationship had become more challenging than it was before. And not just for her. The challenge was on both sides.
For example, you can tell this adjustment from child to adolescent, from "dog" to "cat," is not just hard for the parent; it is hard for the teenager as well. Consider the conflicted, mixed messages a parent can be given. Sometimes the adolescent acts like she wants to be treated like a dependent "dog," and sometimes like a more independent "cat."
"Help me"/ "I can do it myself!"
"Talk to me"/ "Don't talk to me!"
"Show me how"/ "I can figure it out!"
"Pay me attention"/ "Leave me alone!"
"Give me a hug"/ "I don't like being held!"
"Tell me what to do"/ "Don't tell me what to do!"
"Take me along"/ "Why do I have to go with you?"
Which way does the adolescent want it? Both ways: the child ("dog-like") part of her wants to stay the same, but the adolescent ("cat-like") part of her wants to become different.
And as she struggles with the change, her old pet's eye-view of parents alters as well. Sometimes the kind masters act like mean rulers. Sometimes the favored companions become a social embarrassment. Sometimes the approving adults become disapproving critics. Sometimes the interested confidents become unwelcome inquisitors. Sometimes the authorities who were mostly right are often wrong. Sometimes parents who used to understand you so well now act like they haven't a clue.
No wonder the teenager feels conflicted—wanting to be adolescent and act more grown up, but regretting the loss of all that went with being a child, including how wonderful parents once were.
So what I told the parent quoted at the outset was this. "It's all right to miss the familiar ways of your child as ‘dog,' but don't let that loss get in the way of appreciating the more mysterious ways of your teenager as ‘cat.'
"And don't forget, when your child starts changing into an adolescent, you start changing in response, which takes some getting used to for your teenager."
Next week's entry: Parents, adolescents, and the subject of sex