The question was: “What if parent and teenager are too different to get along?”
Consider dissimilarities between parent and adolescent of two kinds – PASSING and PERMANENT.
The passing kind can grow increasingly pronounced as the adolescent tries various ways to differentiate herself from the child she was, from how parents are, and from how they want her to be, all for the sake of asserting more individuality. For example, the young person may experiment with a dark cultural affiliation, dramatic style of dress, and loud musical taste that contrasts to parents. Or, contrast may be drawn by opposition to demonstrate rebellious independence as when the young person challenges the parental need for household order by littering around the home and cultivating a messy room. These differences are usually of the trial kind, passing as the young person grows more mature.
Then there are contrasts of a more permanent kinds, for example when parent and teenager differ psychologically – in terms of their inborn characteristics (high energy, for example), personalities (dominant, for example), temperaments (emotionally sensitive, for example), preferences (risk taking, for example), and functioning (sexual orientation, for example). These are the abiding differences that the relationship must find a way to constructively encompass.
Between any two human beings, even in the same family, human diversity is apparently meant to be. To say in words or actions, “You are different from me and should become like me” misses the mark of acceptance which says, “We are different from each other and must learn to appreciate and work with the human variation between us.” Intolerant parents can breed intolerant adolescents in response, mutual criticism and hurt feelings the result. "I'm not you, I don't want to be like you, and I never will!"
Consider a parent and adolescent relationship where the teenager is by nature slow going, quiet, deliberate, solitary, reserved, cautious, calm, serious, thoughtful, and inward, while the adult is by nature fast acting, loud talking, spontaneous, social, expressive, expansive, excitable, playful, emotional, and outgoing. You might anticipate certain complaints one could have about the other based on the intolerance each feels.
According to the mom, her son “lives in his own private world, loves time by himself, is too quiet for his own good or at least for mine, doesn’t come out to be with family or join family activities unless we ask, has friends but doesn’t make much effort to see them, doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, can be hard to get moving and even harder to start talking, and when he does speak talks at a crawl, taking his own good time to think before deciding what to say, taking a lot of patience to listen to.”
According to the son, his mom “loves to talk for the sake of talking, not just to family and friends but to strangers too, even when it’s embarrassing, likes to try and be funny and make jokes, tries to get people to laugh including me, is always on the go and in a hurry, wanting everyone else to be busy too, making family projects without asking permission, moving fast and talking fast and saying whatever she feels, always in the mood for company, wanting me to talk but rushing me whenever I do by getting irritated when I take my time.”
Describing this odd couple to a friend, she said it sounded partly like an introvert/ extravert match to her, and it could be challenging for them to get along unless they each learned to appreciate what the other had to offer. And that last piece of advice struck me as correct.
Everybody is a mix of what human nature has given and what human nurture has gained. Although not in control of what is innate, we have a lot of choice about what in our human nature we choose to nurture and develop, and how we do so. The challenge is to accept the hand we’re dealt and then to play it as best we can. I believe it is up to the parent to lead the way, to honor fundamental differences in the family and not try to change anyone to become like them. Here are some possible steps a parent might take when natural human diversity in their teenager threatens to disrupt the relationship.
First, understand that all psychological characteristics, in this case perhaps introversion/extraversion, are not a matter of either/or, as though having one means you cannot have the other. No, you have a mix of both, of each and its opposite, but one appears dominant. Understanding this, the parent can affirm the gifts of her teenager’s introverted side, appreciating the capacity for solitary self-entertainment for example. She can also encourage expression of his more social side, perhaps supporting time spent with friends with who he shares a common interest.
Second, the parent can welcome the human nature difference between herself and her son because more can be learned in relationships between opposites than between those who are very similar, from contrast than commonality. The parent can say: “from you I can learn to develop more of my inward side and maybe from me you can learn to develop more of your outgoing side. Because both sides are good to have, we have a lot to offer each other.”
Third, the parent can bridge the difference with interest by asking: “can you tell me more about how you enjoy having so much time alone, and what goes on in your head? You are better at using time alone than I am, and I would love to learn from you.”
Fourth, the one prohibition is that the parent never criticizes the introverted characteristic or tries to change it, but respectfully leaves it in place. She only takes issue with behaviors that the characteristic can dictate: “I know you would like to spend most of your weekend time alone, but visiting family would really enjoy your company, so let’s discuss what we can work out.”
It is best to use the human nature difference as a bridge to understanding and not allow it to become a barrier in the relationship. What I have seen that doesn’t work is when parents are unable or unwilling to accept their adolescent’s human nature, causing testimony that can sound like this. “My parents missed a large part of me. They were so focused on their kids’ academics, getting them to do well in their studies and working hard to get ahead, that my creative side, the side I loved, just passed them by. My older brother and sister both did great in school, but I was the foreign kid in the family who spent his time day dreaming, drawing ideas, tinkering, and inventing things, which all got in the way of making good grades. So my parents did their best to make me like them, which I was stubborn enough as a teenager not to let them do. What with all the struggle and conflict, I barely graduated high school, and by then we were hardly speaking. They treated me like some kind of a failure, and blamed themselves. So I struck out on my own, and it was hard at first. But in the world of high tech I met a lot of self-educated, family misfits like myself. By then, my parents had finally given up trying to change me, and things got a little better between us. But I’m still the one of the kids they don’t really understand.”
Yes, that stubborn stick-to-how-you-are can be impressive. It reminds me of my mother whose early schooling required she work with her left hand tied behind her back because in those educationally enlightened days right-handedness was considered correct, and left-handedness to be functionally wrong. And so, over those beginning grades, deprived of the use of her left hand in the classroom, she did learn to do many things with her right, like writing. Then came adolescence and, as she told me, one day she picked up a tennis racquet and hit a tennis ball against the side of the house. “That’s when it all made sense to me,” was how she described this awakening. A talent was recognized and a passion was ignited. Because her parents didn’t consider athletics that important for a girl, they let her play left-handed if she insisted, which she did to some effect, eventually competing at Wimbledon a couple of times, and nicknamed by a local sportswriter, “The Boston Port Sider.” So a lefty she began, and a lefty, at least partly, she remained.
It can be hard for parents to always follow Deepak Chopra’s advice (in “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind”) and avoid fixating on and trying to fix (read ‘change’) what is unlike them and is considered deficient or “wrong” in their eyes, and not recognizing and nourishing what is distinctive about and “right” for the child. I’ve always enjoyed Chopra’s prescription for supporting a child’s gifts: “If a child is weak in math, but is a natural artist, don’t get a math tutor. Get a canvas and some oil paints. Let the child be what he or she was born to be. You have no right to interfere with that.”
Maybe there’s some room for them to compromise here. Help the child, who seems so “different” from how they are and what they want, acquire basic skills, but don’t dwell on weaknesses. Instead, focus on nurturing the young person’s inherent strengths and encouraging their passions. It’s a tough challenge for parents to pull off, but it can be done.
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: Teaching Your Adolescent about Anger