Sometimes, in frustration with their teenager yet one more time “forgetting” what she promised, once again neglecting to pick up after himself, still doing what she was told not to do, continuing his active interest in trying the forbidden, or falling away from what matters most to parents, these adults will despair: “The problem is, our adolescent just doesn’t care about what we expect or want anymore!”
Actually, from what I have seen, this is a false conclusion. Although youthful bravado can make it sound like their response is of no concern ("I don't care what you think!"), the little child’s desire to shine in parental eyes is still alive and well in the teenager. In truth, such statements of bravado really mean: "I care too much to to let you know how much I care."
This is why adolescence is often an act of courage. At times the young person must dare to displease parents – the most important adults in her or his world -- in the process of pursuing two major developmental goals of adolescence.
One goal is to differentiate from childhood and parents. Through expressive experimentation, the young person develops an individually fitting young adult identity: “I have tried out enough different images and experiences to become my own unique person now.” The other goal is to detach from childhood and parents. Through exercising increased latitude of choice, the young person can support a functional young adult independence: “I have learned enough responsibility for my actions to be self-reliant now.”
IDENTITY AND DISPLEASING PARENTS
As opposed to the child who strove to be similar to parents, the adolescent seeks contrast from differentiation. Becoming more experimental with youthful interests and images and ideas to which parents may be unfamiliar or find unwelcome (like kind of music, style of dress, or Internet entertainment), the young person tries on and off a variety of social identifiers to sort out what fits someone who no longer wants to be defined as a child. In most cases, these are trial, not terminal differences, that will pass and the young person grows older. Now this growing diversity can create more incompatibilities in the relationship.
Teenager: “My parents don’t appreciate what matters to me!”
Parents: “We never expected her to spend so much energy on such a waste of time!”
Best for the parent to express interest, acceptance, and tolerance if the adult wants to stay connected to the adolescent as these generational differences grow them further apart. And best for them to mind their responses. Now the teenager is vulnerable to parental criticism about failing to conform to parental tastes, interests, and values. Their child’s adolescence is a time when parents must encompass more human differences between them and their teenager.
It is when the adolescent diversity does not meet significant expectations to fit in and measure up to and follow what parents hold dear that parents can express disappointment in the young person who is now burdened by the sense she or he has let them down. “I have to change and be their kind of person if our relationship is to be okay.” Maintaining an authentic adolescent difference in the face of this displeasure can take a lot of courage. "I'm not a social joiner and leader like my parents, and I never will be!"
INDEPENDENCE AND DISPLEASING PARENTS
As opposed to the child who strove to be closely attached to parents, the adolescent seeks distance from detachment. Becoming more resistant to their direction, pushing against and pulling away and getting around their authority for more autonomy, the young person actively with argument and passively with delay tries to see what opposition to requests and requirements can be gotten away with.
These are tests of their authority to see if parents mean what they say or will change their minds. Not that the relationship has become some kind of war zone, but there are increasing disagreements that create more times of tension in the relationship.
Teenager: “I speak up to my parents when I don’t want to do what they say!”
Parents: “We live in a world where everything we want is subject to endless adolescent debate!”
Best for the parent to learn how to constructively dance with more disagreement and opposition in the adolescent relationship if the adult wants to stay connected as more conflicts arise between them. Now the teenager is vulnerable to parental correction for failing to comply with a rule or request. Adolescence is a time when parents must get used to more social abrasion with their teenager.
It is when significant disagreement and opposition does not meet the parental need for compliance with their requirements that parents can express disapproval of the young person who is now burdened by the sense that she or he has offended them. “My parents are really fed up with me.” Taking on one’s parents over an issue at difference in the face of such displeasure can take a lot of courage. "My parents don't understand that when I stand up to them, I'm standing up for myself!"
WHAT CAN FORESTALL ADOLESCENT GROWTH
When you have an adolescent who cannot bear letting parents down by disappointing their expectations, or when you have an adolescent who cannot bear their disapproval by resisting some of what they want, growth to full individuality and independence may be forestalled. By the same token, when you have parents who insist on absolute conformity to family lifestyle and goals, and parents who demand absolute compliance with their wishes, growth of individuality and independence may suffer too.
Now what can occasionally occur is an incomplete adolescence. At the appropriate growing up time, transformation and redefinition of individuality and independence was not adequately accomplished. The person grew up tyrannized by a desire for total parent acceptance and driven by a need to earn total parental approval to her or his developmental cost. "I never dared to oppose my parents, to question what they valued or contest what they wanted."
For the adolescent, claiming an individual identity and establishing a functional independence do not come cheap. Altering the old child definition and subordinate relationship with parents can feel scary to do, hence the bravery sometimes required. To some degree, attaining the twin objectives of adolescence costs disappointing parents and by not entirely conforming to their expectations, and facing some parental disapproval for not entirely complying with all their demands.
So, maybe in later or even in mid-life an older person finds themselves in the emotional throws of trying to complete the business of an unfinished adolescence. “Whether my parents understand me or not, at last I'm going live on my own terms and become who I never allowed myself be!”
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.)
Next week’s entry: When Older Adolescents want Happier Relationships