Parenting Adolescents and the Psychology of Similarity

When parent and adolescent are very unlike, acceptance can be harder to give

Posted Dec 31, 2012

In their children, parents see reflections of themselves. In their parents, children see models for themselves. To the degree that children appear to be like their parents, and parents appear how children want to be, a kind of harmony based on similarity can rule.

“We want our child to share our interests, goals, and values,” explain the parents, “and we let him know how it pleases us when he does.” “I want to do the same as my parents,” explains the young child, “because we love it when I’m acting just like them.” In human relationships, when it comes to attraction and compatibility, perceived similarity can count for a lot. We tend to feel closer to others who seem like us. We tend to like those who believe and behave like us. We tend to assume other kinds of positive commonality from apparent similarities. We even tend to treat strangers better who appear similar to us. And we are often drawn to those people who we wish to be like.

Thus the psychology of similarity plays out between parents and child, a kind of matching game that can a matter a lot, particularly when a match cannot be made or is unmade – when sense of difference creates a sense of being unlike, when sense of being unlike creates a sense of being less liked, when feeling less alike and liked reduces the desire to associate and take pleasure from that connection.

Sometimes a match cannot be made. For example, the second child (unlike the first who got first crack at being similar to parents) is differently inclined or constituted than parents -- perhaps he is not physically active like them, perhaps not emotionally upbeat like them, perhaps not socially outgoing like them, perhaps not academically interested like them, perhaps not achievement motivated like them. Sensing something “wrong” with these differences, parents may try to change the child to fit their model and in doing so send a message of intolerance: “you are not acceptable the way you are; you need to become more like us to be okay.” Instead, they must ask for help understanding what is unfamiliar and learn to value this family diversity in order to stay lovingly connected as their relationship grows.

If the child cannot or will not bend to parental wishes and comply with their desire for similarity, parental disapproval and disappointment may follow, the child sadly or madly concluding: “I could never measure up to be the way my parents wanted!” Hopefully, she will be able to make a healthy distinction at this point for her own sake: “the fault wasn’t me for failing to meet their expectations; it was their failure for not building expectations that understood and were accepting of me.”

Parents should beware: it’s easy to expect similarity to them from their children; it’s easy to favor similarity to them among their children; it’s easy for their desire for similarity to suppress the expression or growth of authentic individuality in their children; it’s easy to encourage, even insist on, a child’s similarity to them where there is no natural basis there. It’s important that parents don’t allow their need for similarity to get in the way of their child’s need for acceptance. They must learn to bridge human differences with interest to communicate acceptance the adolescent needs.

This brings to mind the “Gestalt Prayer” by Fritz Perls (“Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,” 1969):

“I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.”

When a similarity match is unmade, as to some degree often happens with the onset of adolescence, everybody suffers a loss: the parents no longer having a child who wants to imitate them for closeness sake, and the child no longer having parents as the model they want to imitate. Adolescence itself is the common culprit here as the child separates and asserts differentness from how she was a child, from how parents are, and from how they want her to be, all as part of the process of asserting his own individual and independent way.

For example, finding similarity to her mom offensive, the 14-year-old daughter defiantly turns on the woman and declares: “I’m not you, I’m not like you, I don’t want to be you, and I’m not going to become how you want me to be! I’m going to be me!” The similarity that kept them so close in childhood, best friends of a kind, to some degree ruptures as adolescence starts growing them apart, creating a necessary loss for both. Now the mom has to endure more friction and hang in there with her daughter so the adolescent does not feel that loss of similarity has resulted in any loss of love.

The psychology of similarity is complicated because not only can similarity confer a sense of familiarity, commonality, comfort, and closeness, it can also create clashes and cause conflicts. For example, consider what happens when, in the dad’s words: “My high school daughter and I are too alike.” What does he mean? “We’re both high strung, easily stressed, on edge a lot, too sensitive for our own good, and too quick off the trigger when we get upset, sometimes popping off and saying what we wish we hadn’t but can’t take back now. My wife is great with our daughter because she’s low key and calm and can listen when our daughter is blowing up a storm. Not like me. Unless I catch myself, I immediately start storming back, and we go at each other gale force!”

This is when I talk to the dad about exploiting the similarity connection with his daughter to positive effect. “Since you both seem to share a lot of human nature, you can use that similarity to instructional effect. Tell her how you’ve learned to manage high sensitivity and emotional reactivity over the years, the strategies for self-restraint that you’ve developed, and then for the sake of your present and her future practice not popping off with her when she’s intense. From your emotionally sober example maybe she can learn to moderate herself.”

One family example that illustrates how extreme psychological similarity can create extreme intimacy is the case of adolescent identical twins. Sharing the same genes, they often develop a closeness with each other that is not only greater than with anyone else in the family, but to a degree can emotionally exclude others in the family as well. They have a special knowing of each other and need for each other to complete each other, to some degree sharing the same personality, even communicating in a kind of shorthand or special language that other family members do not understand. And, should they eventually marry, their partners are going to have to accept and value the deep bonding that the twins will always have with each other from the extreme psychological similarity they share.

Finally, a reader of my earlier blog about Parental Favorism testified to how destructive the psychology of similarity can become. (Google up: pickhardt parental favoritism.) "My own experience has taught me that the favoured child is generally the one most akin to the parent responsible for the favouring. The two will share personality traits, likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests. They may also demonstrate a similarity in behaviour and mannerisms, or in physical appearance and dress sense. Sometimes, the simple fact of their being the same gender will be enough to secure favouritism.

"The parent responsible for such favouritism may act consciously or unconsciously. However, what seems to lead to the favouritism is that they identified in the favourite child traits or interests that they themselves possess. Clearly, they will view such things as desirable attributes, and thus will encourage, and bond with the child who displays them.

"Less favoured children will often be ones who do not 'gel' with the parent in this way. They will have traits, personalities or attributes that are unlike those of the parent; these will be viewed in a negative light, as less desirable and not to be encouraged. The parents may see a child who is dissimilar to them as a challenge, or even a threat. They may view such individuality as unexpected, or inexplicable. They may even label it as deliberate, rebellious, or as an affront to their authority.

"It is my personal opinion that much favouritism occurs in families where the parent who is responsible for this behaviour is essentially a NARCISSIST. The narcissistic parent wants a child who is little more than an extension of their self - a "mini me". They cannot recognise as good, or tolerate, individuality. The narcissist sees themself as all-important. The needs and wants of the narcissist come before everything, and everyone, else. Therefore it is always easier for them to deal with somebody who is akin to them - who is subordinate and compliant - somebody who simply reflects their own qualities. Anyone who is different is a threat."

So beware that the psychology of similarity with your adolescent does not lead to the harm that favoritism can do.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) More information at:

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Safe Dating