In the parent/adolescent relationship, there are two differences concerning time that can cause a lot of aggravation, and they both have to do with the issue of “later.” Start with “later” as delay and consider a couple of dialogues.
Parent: “Did you do what I asked?”
Teenager: “I will in a minute.”
Parent: “That’s what you said when I asked you two hours ago.”
Teenager: “Well, I will.”
Parent: “Then do it now. Why do I have to always keep after you?”
Teenager: “You don’t. I already said I’d do it, so why don’t you stop nagging me?”
Parent: “Because saying you’ll do it, is not the same as doing it.”
Teenager: “That’s right. But at least it’s a start.”
Parent: “It’s the start of my nagging because if I didn’t, you’d never get anything done.”
Teenager: “That’s not true. You’ve been after me all morning, and it’s not done yet.”
Parent: “That’s why I keep after you!”
Teenager: “Well, if you’d just back off, maybe I’d do it!
Teenager: “I already told you. In a minute.”
Here the frustrated parent thinks: ‘If clocks were measured in minutes like these, it would take a year just to get through a week. Teenage time takes forever!’
Now consider another dialogue.
Teenager: “Can I ask you something?”
Parent: “Not right now, I’m busy.”
Teenager: “You don’t look busy. You’re just sitting there watching the news.”
Parent: “I’m busy relaxing. It’s been a long day.”
Teenager: “What I have to ask will only take a minute.”
Parent: “Nothing you ask ever takes a minute.”
Teenager: “Well it would, if you’d just answer me one thing.”
Parent: “If I don’t answer one thing the way you want, there will be another thing you want to ask.”
Teenager: “So is the answer ‘Yes’?”
Parent: “The answer is ‘later.’ We can talk about whatever it is after I’ve had time for myself. Then I’ll have time for you.”
Teenager: “By then it will be too late.”
Parent: “If it can’t wait, then there’s no point in asking.”
Teenager: “You never want to talk to me.”
Parent: “What else have I just been doing?”
Teenager: “But you haven’t answered my question.”
Parent: “Because I haven’t heard it.”
Teenager: “So when can I ask it?”
Parent: “I already told you. Later.”
Here the frustrated adolescent thinks: ‘Try getting to talk with parents and you always get a busy signal. Or you’re put on hold forever.’
The problem’s partly based on a double standard about delay to which each party subscribes: “It is okay for me to delay giving you what you want when you want it, but it is not okay for you to delay with me.” Naturally protective of their discretionary freedom (away from the job or away from school) they both subscribe to the same self-interested belief: “My needs matters more to me than do yours.” It would ease a lot of aggravation between them if parent and teenager could resolve to respond to each other’s requests in a timely way.
Of course, come adolescence, “later” has two meanings. The first is delay from putting off until later; but the second is having later hours -- staying up later (bedtime), staying out later (curfew), and getting up later (sleeping in), all of which signify acting older. Adolescent growth keeps pushing against existing limits to break former boundaries so new freedom can occur. Claiming more active night time creates more room to grow.
Night time has a totally different feel than daytime for an adolescent. It is alluring in special ways. The darkness is mysterious, inviting, exciting, dangerous, adventurous, and secretive – an opportunity to act more freely under the cover of dark. Writer T.H. White described the allure of nighttime to his adolescent hero, the young King Arthur, this way: “The passion of nocturnal secrecy was in his blood.” That passion is alive and well today. At night it feels like different possibilities can open up and different rules for conduct can apply. Adolescents are still nocturnal creatures.
And now predictable value conflicts play out between adolescent and parent. Around bedtime, the teenager wants more staying up time for recreation, while parents want sufficient time for rest. Around curfew, the teenager wants extended socializing time with friends, while parents are concerned for social safety.The later out the greater night time risks, like more exposure to drunk driving, for example. Around sleeping in on weekends and holidays, the teenager wants time to recover from deficient sleep the night before, while parents fear the sin of sloth if they allow an adolescent to sleep away the day.
The result of these conflicts are a series of compromises in which parents tolerate more later hours than they ever thought they would, while the teenager grudgingly accepts less later time than she would ideally like. “Just like deciding when you do things, you can set your own hours when you’re living away from home,” declare the parents.” And when the adolescent does leave home that is exactly what young person does, as freedom for later rules to her cost.
For most last stage adolescents in trial independence (ages 18 – 23), living away from home means staying up late and going out late and sleeping in late. The result can be lifestyle fatigue and increased stress. Sleep deprivation wears them down and waking later results in missing morning commitments like classes and work. As for the habit of putting off the unwanted until later, this causes obligations to pile up and time to run out as delay runs its procrastinating and pressure–ridden course.
Interpersonal conflicts over “up later” and “do later” begin between parent and young teenager, but they end in the older adolescent’s personal struggle to manage themselves in a timely, constructive,and healthy way.
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: The Adolescent Only Child and Friendship