Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

The young child was openly confiding in parents because being constantly and deeply known contributed to a sense of secure attachment. However, that degree of transparency becomes less welcome to the detaching and differentiating adolescent who grows more inclined to withhold information for privacy and freedom’s sake.

In addition, while dependent child may have felt obliged to tell all to parents, the adolescent feels more allegiance to their own emerging independence and individuality, so the young person now starts choosing how much “in the know” she or he wants parents to be.

Thus the child who prized closeness to parents becomes the adolescent who wants to preserve more distance. This is why to some degree all adolescents lead a double life. There is the public life that is apparent and disclosed to parents, and there is the private life which is not.  

Being the parents’ prime informant about what is happening in her inner (“How are you feeling?”) and outer (“What have you been doing/”) worlds of experience confers a lot of power on the young person: “How much I tell is up to me!” And now there is temptation to disclose selectively, even deceptively, and so lying can become more frequent. “My parents believe whatever I say.” But this distance comes at a price: “My parents and I aren’t as close as we used to be.”

What can give development of the double life away are often protective non-answers to common questions parents ask. “How was your day?”  Answer: “Fine.” “How are you feeling?” Answer: “Okay.” “What did you do with your friends?” Answer: “Hung around.” “Where did you go on the Internet?” Answer: “Nowhere in particular.” An adolescent can become an expert at the minimal reply.

So, what kinds of double lives might an adolescent lead, and how can they lead a young person into trouble? Here are a couple of examples.

IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, a seventh grader, in the full throws of puberty, is physically altering in ways that attract painful attention from other girls. They attack her ungainly growth spurt and awkwardness with teasing. "Don't trip over yourself, TooTall!"  She's a welcome target to absorb torment about bodily change they do not want coming their way.

So why is this part of her life kept from parents? The answer is because she wants to be socially independent which means taking care of her peer relationships by herself. The answer is that according to the code of the schoolyard, you do not snitch on peers. The answer is because in her heart of hearts she is starting to believe that teasing her appearance is deserved and so feels obliged to keep it secret as a source of shame.

It is only when she repeatedly feigns sickness to avoid going to school that parents catch on to some other suffering going on, press her to talk about it, give her empathetic support, and start coaching her about how to not take this mistreatment personally: “Their teasing is not about anything the matter with you; it’s about something wrong with them—wanting to act mean. Their teasing only shows what they fear being teased about themselves. Let us help you try out a different game plan each day until you find something that works.” Now the young person can welcome the support that comes with bringing parents back in the know.

IN HIGH SCHOOL, a ninth grader who feels bored with his childhood friends from elementary and middle school starts running with a faster crowd. At first he is excited by this new companionship, but soon becomes anxious at the older activities he is expected to try, feeling over his head and out of control.

So why is this part of his life kept from parents? The answer is because he knows they would disapprove. The answer is because he knows they would try to bring this influential companionship to a halt. The answer is because he has deliberately falsified information about what is going on in his life with lies and knows this will upset his parents most of all.

However, in certain cases there is also this. Sometimes when an adolescent feels socially in over his head—under pressure or in trouble—but doesn’t have the willpower to get himself out, he will throw a lifeline to parents in hopes they will catch it and pull him safely back in. He will allow himself to slip up, make an uncharacteristically stupid mistake, and get caught. Feeling unable to do anything different, he relies on parents to taking responsibility to help rescue him from his double life. 

So the family comes in for counseling to pick up the pieces and restore honest communication in their relationship. And instead of feeling angry at parents, a large part of the young person feels relieved to be well connected to them again.  

It’s when the privacy of the adolescent’s second life assumes a need for secrecy to keep it hidden, guarding it with lies, that a double life can lead a young person into serious difficulty.

So I believe parents should talk about what needs to be communicated about on the non-disclosed side of adolescent life, about when and what it is important that they be told.

“Please tell us: when you are suffering, when you are in trouble, when you are in danger, when you are sick or hurt, when you don’t know what to do, when you feel in over your head, when you need help, when you need support, when you want company, when we don’t understand, or when we’re acting in ways that make us hard to talk to.”

The compromise parents need to strike with their adolescent about leading a double life is this: “We don’t need to know about everything going on in your life and do not expect you to tell us all—just enough so we can stay honestly connected and readily available should need arise. A trouble sign to look out for can be when your desire for privacy becomes a need for secrecy—when you feel you have something to hide, conceal it with lies, and fear being found out. That’s when it’s hardest to keep us adequately and accurately informed.  When your double life is doing you harm, we hope you can be brave enough to let us know so we can be there to help. Remember, just because you’re more independent now doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone.”

The power of the double life in adolescence is how it can create freedom from parental oversight. The problem with the double life in adolescence is how it can put parents out of touch and their assistance out of reach. 

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE, (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Telling the Start of Adolescence by How Parents Can Change 

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