The desire for parents and child to please and take delight in each others company simply seems built in from the outset of childhood. However, with the arrival of adolescence pleasing becomes increasingly complex as the mutual appreciation society that began their relationship at times becomes the mutual irritation society of the teenage years. What’s going on?
At the beginning, the little child seems as eager to please the parents as they seem eager to please the child, the signature expression of having given pleasure and of being pleased being the smile. How hard everyone works for each others smiles, and how good pleasing feels for everyone!
With the separation from childhood and the onset of adolescence (around ages 9 – 13) comes a change. Now the young person wants to be defined and treated differently than as a child. To that end, she increasingly actively (with argument) and passively (with delay) resists parental authority, contesting old limits for room to grow, and preferring the company of peers. In addition, because disatisfaction drives much adolesent growth, the teenager becomes harder for parents to please because getting more, freedom for example, is never enough, at least not for long. And they can get tired of the unrelenting demand, becoming more negative. "I'm tired of your constant asking, being so ungrateful for all I give!"
In response, statements at this age of “I don’t care what you think of me!” are attempts at declaring emotional independence, but they are a hollow boasts since the adolescent’s child desire to shine in parental eyes, although denied, is very much alive (something parents must remember.) Thus, provoking more complaints in the process proves to be a mixed blessing for the newly minted adolescent.
On the negative side, asserting more needs and wants can result in experiencing more expressions of parental irritation, impatience, displeasure, and even occasional sanctions that limit freedom. Also, traditional reputation in the family tends to suffer as one is becoming harder for parents to get along with than before.
On the positive side, displeasing parents shows the courage to take on the family powers that be, to speak up and stand up for ones self, to demonstrate more independence, and to declare that one is not just a “little pleaser of a child” anymore.
Courting parental disapproval can feel bad and good, painful and proud for the teenager. As for parents, they find that Attachment Parenting a child was more mutually pleasing than is Detachment Parenting an adolescent.
For most adolescents, I think, the mixed results of more frequently displeasing parents and feeling displeased with them is soon accepted as business as usual. Usually, no love lost on either side, just passing through a bumpier period in their relationship for a while. However, for some adolescents the mix can be truly confounding. “I want to be my own person and still stay how my parents want me to be. But I can’t do one without missing the other!”
For the young person who has no tolerance for displeasing parents, who doesn’t want to lose their prized only child standing for example, less of their liking can feel like a loss of love. This can be one contributing factor in why such a beloved only child may delay entering adolescence, even until the high school years. The old “child relationship” feels so good and comes with so many advantages it can be hard to give up, and displeasing parents can feel scary to do.
And when parents have no tolerance for normal adolescent changes, missing their adoring and adorable child buddy for example, growth can become very costly for the young person. “You used to be such a great kid! What happened to you?” In response, the young person can sadly conclude: “My parents don’t love me like they used to.”
In general, I think it’s helpful to explain to young people that the teenage years will bring more sources of mutual displeasure into their relationship. In this sense, adolescence is about letting “the bad child out” and letting the “bad parent out” in response. For the young person, “bad” doesn’t mean acting evil, immoral, or unlawful. It simply means that it is now harder to fit into family the old child way, while finding a new way is going to take some experimentation, alteration, and adjustment for everyone, creating a more abrasive time in their relationship. Struggling to contain and channel this surge of unpredictable growth, parents can become more critical and strict, “bad” in adolescent eyes to a degree they were not before.
For parents, it’s important to avoid the common parental trap of becoming fixated on adolescent problems and getting to into reductionist thinking: “You are nothing but a problem!” When person is defined by problem, positive perspective is lost, and displeasure is now what parents mostly communicate. Counter-intuitively, at a naturally more displeasing time, they need to increasingly express how the teenager is constructively self-managing much of life. “A problem is just a small part of a large person, and in this larger picture you are doing very well for yourself.” And they take the time to itemize some of the ways the teenager’s conduct is constructive. When they focus on the whole, the adolescent can feel that she or he is not some kind of “lost cause,” but is generally appreciated for much that is going well.
Then they can also explain about the nature of “pleasing” itself, perhaps making a distinction similar to this. “Less pleasing each other doesn’t mean less loving of each other. It just means that during your adolescence we will sometimes act in ways harder for each other to like. Don’t confuse pleasing with loving. Pleasing is just about approval. Love is about much more. Approval is conditional on liking or not liking how each other acts in the moment and so is passing; but love is committed, unconditional, and here to stay, ever grateful to have each other in our lives.”
The issue of pleasing parents not only has a confounding role to play in adolescence, but an extreme history of never pleasing parents or of pleasing them at all costs can have unhappy formative effects later on. To illustrate, consider a couple of extreme, fictional adult accounts.
NEVER PLEASING PARENTS
“If you want to know what unhappiness is like, grow up with parents who were never satisfied, where your best was never good enough. Where no matter how hard you worked, you failed to please!” The entry concern in counseling might be the man’s inability to ever feel pleased with his efforts. “I tell myself, I could always have done better. I’m never satisfied with myself!” How the man was treated when younger had become how he learned to treat himself when older, and how he is starting to treat children of his own, to his wife’s concern. “They think they can’t please Dad no matter how they try!”
It’s an example of how unhappy patterns of parenting can repeat themselves. Parents who were discontent with him led him to becoming discontent with himself and now, unaware of the connections, he is acting out the same costly discontent with his kids. However, with awareness, a lot can change. Having grown up unable to please, his recovery might be creating a more appreciative relationship to himself and a more nurturing relationship with his children.
Or consider another possible account.
ALWAYS PLEASING PARENTS
“I grew up as a parent pleaser because my older brother was so much the opposite -- causing my parents no end of problems and heartbreak. I was the “good” child and he was the “bad.” He was really hard for them to love, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. They were so thankful to have a perfectly wonderful daughter to make up for their continually troublesome son. But he acted like he didn’t care what they thought or felt. That was then. Now all that grief and fighting is behind them and they have a great relationship, in some ways very close for having gone through really painful times together and come out the other side. That leaves me, married with kids, still stuck in my old pleasing ways – the “good” person, the good “partner,” the “good” parent. With my parents, with my husband, and even with my children I can’t stand making anyone unhappy. I can’t stand up for myself for what I want when it’s not what they want. I can’t say ‘no.’ I can’t put my needs first. I’d rather make them happy even if it makes me miserable. I wish I wasn’t such a pleaser! But I’m scared not to be!”
Having grown up under a tyranny of pleasing, recovery here might be gathering the courage to practice speaking up and standing up for one’s welfare, accepting that in consequence of pleasing oneself sometimes significant others may be disappointed, and that’s okay.
Like so much in life, perhaps following the middle path is wisest -- pleasing and displeasing parents in moderation the best way to grow.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, ‘SURVIVING YOUR CHLD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: Adolescent Questions about Parental Divorce