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

Remember how entranced you were by your darling little child who was equally entranced with you?

Remember how you both couldn’t take your eyes off each other; how holding and cuddling with each other was pure delight; how there was no greater reward than earning each other’s smile and laugh?

The parent often felt treated like a celebrity to look up to, while the child could be a charm artist with beguiling power.

Come adolescence, how times have changed!

From being smitten with your favorite company to being challenged by your frustrating opponent, you have each lost some luster in the other’s eyes. Both now experience more times when it is harder to get along.

The onset of adolescent change is typically between the ages of 9 and 13. For growing up to begin the young person must detach from childhood for more freedom of independent operation and differentiate from childhood for more freedom of individual expression.  In the process of facing more conflicts and incompatibilities, parents find their authority increasingly contested and their tolerance strained.

It’s like the close couple of childhood becomes the odd couple of adolescence with more disagreements to resolve and more differences to encompass.

Thus adolescence begins with significant loss on both sides of the relationship. Neither can ever go back home again to the cherished bonding time of their beginning. Both have to mourn what each has to let go.

The best way to mourn is to celebrate what once upon a precious time was given – lasting memories that more abrasive living together cannot take away. For parents, gone is the adoring and adorable, sweet and cute, enchanting and irresistible little playmate. For the adolescent, gone is merry and magical, all knowing and all powerful, approving and entertaining big friendly giant.

Of course, loss of “in-love” means no necessary loss of enduring love, only that the founding period of early infatuation has passed. From here on, tensions on both sides will stress the relationship with more occasions of impatience and irritation and opposition between them.

Now the need for abiding parental love has arrived. Now mothers and fathers must maintain a structure of responsible family rules and expectations in which the young person can safely rattle around. Now they must strive to stay accepting and connected to their teenager as adolescence continues to grow them apart, as it is meant to do. 

What’s to love about parenting an adolescent? The best answer was given to me by a mom a number of years ago. In so many words, she said this: “I love watching my teenager grow up. I love seeing my daughter develop from girl into young woman, and my son develop from boy into young man. And I love being part of the process.”

This is not to say that the going is always easy. For both parent and adolescent, there are simply going to be times when adolescence tests their love. “We can’t believe what she did!” “I’ll never forgive them!” But after the upset, in most cases, enduring love wins out.

It’s those situations when a parent is not able or willing to maintain this love with their adolescent, or the young person has alienated feelings they are unwilling or unable to let go, that I find sad to see. In anger, the parent may emotionally disinherit their teenager. “You’re not our child anymore!” But in doing so parents sustain a deeper loss -- they cut themselves off from actively loving one who was (and on some level remains) still a beloved child.

Defiantly, the young person may declare: “I don’t care! I don’t need their love!” But this statement of bravado is a lie. A birthright has been lost and the young person knows this to her or his cost. To some degree, the loss of love from or for a parent can undermine the capacity to love oneself.

In general, however, falling out of love with their adolescent, who is also falling out of love with them, is functional. Now the teenager can dare parental disapproval for freedom’s sake, while parents can loyally commit to taking unpopular stands against the teenager’s wants, but for her or his best interests.

Such decisions the young person may not appreciate at the time: “You’re just letting me face the consequences because you don’t love me!” “Not true,” the parents reply. “It’s because we love you that we’re letting you learn a painful lesson from what you did. This is also painful for us to do.”

Perhaps, having fallen out of love with their teenager, they have reduced the risk of being charmed into making a popular decision for the adolescent’s immediate pleasure that would also be to her or his ultimate cost.

Perhaps the test of falling out of love with their adolescent is recommitted love, because a more abrasive adolescent can be harder to get along with than a more compliant and companionable child. 

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

Next week’s entry: Early Adolescence and the Fear of Change

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