One way to think about childhood (up to about 8 or 9 years old) is as a family time for mutual holding on. The purpose is to create attachment between parents and child so the little girl or boy develops a basic trust in dependence on them for fundamental caring and care. This provides a secure psychological foundation for future growth.
Adolescence (beginning around ages 9 – 13 and winding down by the early to mid-twenties) is a time of mutual letting go. Here the purpose is harder to accomplish as parent and teenager must gradually detach from their old dependence on each other so that the teenager can gather sufficient power of responsibility and basic trust in self-reliance to support a functional independence by the end of growing up.
This dismantling of childhood dependency between them is a long, wearing, wearisome business as both increasingly lose tolerance for being held captive to each other by various forms of family accountability. Parents lose tolerance for being responsible for the teenager, and the teenager loses tolerance of being responsible to the parents. More specifically, what do they get tired of? Consider a few common sources of complaint.
Parents grow tired of determining the teenager’s freedom and the teenager grows tired of being limited.
Parents get tired of evaluating the teenager’s conduct, and the teenager gets tired of being judged.
Parents get tired of telling the teenager what to do, and the teenager gets tired of being told.
Parents get tired of nagging, and the teenager gets tired of being nagged.
Parents get tired of having to ask, and the teenager gets tired of being questioned.
Parents get tired of worrying, and the teenager gets tired of being worried over.
Parents get tired of witnessing the teenager’s choices, and the teenager gets tired of being publically exposed.
Parents get tired of having to defend their decisions, and the teenager gets tired of having to take parents on.
Relief from this mutual fatigue is one incentive to detach and dismantle the old dependency between them. So for the adolescent, the growing allure of independence is living on their own private terms, being their own governing authority, and gaining freedom from parental evaluation, nagging, questions, worry, and oversight. As for the parents, they also get a measure of relief from a sense of liberation: they don’t have to know what’s best; they don’t have to know what’s happening; they don’t have to check and pursue; they don’t have to give or deny permission. The empty nest empties them of enormous responsibility.
In both cases, there is a price for the new freedom each gains and it is paid in the form of loss. As parents let go, they lose some degree of influence and relevance in the life of their adolescent who is now acting more independently. And as the adolescent lets go, she or he loses some parental support and security that was traditionally depended on. It is because of the price to be paid in both cases, that detachment is often accompanied by ambivalence in the form of double messages.
So the parents say: “We want you to let go of us and act more independently, but still hold on to how we want you to behave.” So the adolescent says: “I want you to let me go so I can have more freedom, but also be there for me if I have need.” Each sometimes wants attachment and detachment at the same time, and that is normal.
Of course both have times of suffering from detachment anxiety. Parents can feel anxious at the loss of traditional control, the adolescent can feel anxious at now having so much to control, both often feeling anxious from feeling out of control. Adolescence is more anxiety provoking both for teenager and parents.
Detachment is a devil of a process to manage for both parent and adolescent.
There is risk, relief, and reward. The risk is daring to let each other go and face whatever the outcome may be -- which can be hard for both parent and teenager to do. The relief is from reducing tensions associated with mutual holding on. The reward is from the adolescent assuming more self-managment responsibiity that both can trust.
The great act of loving at the outset of parenting is holding on to create a trustworthy bond on which the child can absolutely depend. The greater loving, when parenting an adolescent, is fostering independence by keeping caring constant while letting the loved one go.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: Parenting Adolescents and the Powers of Prohibitions