Both for young person and parent, adolescence is an honorably conflicted time. On the most basic level, the core conflict (endlessly varied) is between Constancy (holding on and living life the same) and Change (letting go and living life quite differently.)
In their relationship, resolution of Constancy/Change conflicts (“I want the old terms to hold!” vs. “I want new terms to start!”) is usually a matter of concession or compromise, both parent and adolescent giving in and working out more points of disagreement than either ever thought they would. “I never planned on giving my teenager so much freedom so early!” “I never figured I’d let my parents have their way so much!”
Although this opposition may sound simple, in fact it can be very complex and touch on growth issues of great importance. I’ll try to give this abstract conflict some specificity.
CONFLICTS BETWEEN CONSTANCY vs. CHANGE
Detaching and differentiating from childhood to get adolescent change started requires daring. At this point, an early adolescent can feel truly mixed because growing up requires giving up many childish ways. Now constancy of childhood contends with adolescent change, and what confuses parents is the honest ambivalence a young person can express at this conflicted age. This ambivalence can be conveyed by a host of double messages. “Pay me attention”/ “Leave me alone!” “Help me” / “I can do it myself!” “I want to talk” / “I’ve got nothing to say!” “I want a cuddle”/ “Don’t hug on me!” Which way does the young person want to be treated? For a transitional while, the answer can be “both ways,” preserving constancy and embracing change.
Then there are conflicted youthful feelings about the need to live within a family structure that is both resented and relied upon. Actually, it helps if the young person has a constant family structure of requirements and limits, values and expectations, and traditional membership demands to depend on, rattle around in, and to return to after being out adventuring with peers. Such a structure of familiar constancy secures the scary struggle for independent and individual change. “Compared to being out with friends, home feels like a simpler and safer place to be.”
Although the adolescent complains about and resists constancy demands of parents at the time, “I’m tired of the same old rules,” the young person also welcomes them on another level: “I know where my parents stand.” When such parental constancy is lacking, a teenager may turn outward for a guiding influence, often to one provided by a competing family of peers who are struggling to find their way too. Now life can become more chaotic.
Another common disorganizing loss of constancy is parental divorce, particularly disruptive during early and mid-adolescence, ages 9 – 15. Constancy feels lost when parents break their commitment to a unified family. Now the the young person no longer has that old, familiarity to count upon, and for a while unbridled change rules. “Everything feels up in the air!”
Of course, the adolescent is drawn to change, to more freedom of action and expression, exploration and experimentation that are dedicated to personal and social re-definition. Finally, after about ten to twelve years of trial and error learning, this developmental change enables the young person to attain the twin goals of adolescence -- a functional independence and a uniquely fitting identity.
The question for parents is: can they work with the young person who increasingly pushes for change by pulling away from their company, experimenting with different interests and images and associations, and more frequently tests and contests their rules and requirements? Can they stay constantly connected to their teenager at those times when the change goes against some aspect of familiar family continuity they want to preserve?
How parents handle conflicts over emerging independence and expression of individuality matters a lot.
From a position of constancy, how are they going to cope with adolescent change when some correction is required? I believe when it comes to addressing infractions, to stay connected parents need to use non-evaluative correction, never attacking the young person’s character, only addressing choices the young person has made. “We disagree with the choice you have made, this is why, this is what needs to happen now, and this is what we hope you may learn.” They need to assert constancy of family structure without inflicting harm.
From a position of constancy, how are they going to respond when the young person’s individual expression or interest is beyond their tolerance or comfort? Rather than criticize, discount, or ignore this diversity and risk rejecting the young person, parents can bridge this difference with interest. “Can you help me understand what you like about this, and can you instruct me in that appreciation?” Then they can explain whatever concerns they may have. When the parent becomes the student and the adolescent becomes the teacher, youthful self-esteem can grow and parental understanding can be increased. They need to engage with expressive changes with acceptance, not censure.
Parents are continually caught in constancy/change conflicts. “Should I stay constant, hold on, and hold fast, or should I change, let go, and give way?” Finding answers to this kind of questions can be very difficult. Consider a few examples.
“Should I allow a later curfew or still stick to the traditional one when other teenage friends are permitted to stay out later?”
“Should I continue to fund spending money or require my older adolescent to earn spending money on his own?”
“Should I hold fast to a forbidding stand against youthful sexual intercourse, or (since they are determined to have sex) should I be using my influence to encourage having it safely?”
“Should I insist with my adolescent that tattooing is still not allowed when, now that she is eighteen, I am told it’s her decision and no longer mine?”
At the end of the day, I believe parents need to be able to pledge this: “No matter how things alter between us, one fundamental factor remains the same. Please know that no matter how we may disagree over changes in your life, you can always count on the constancy of our love.”
Next week’s entry: Keeping Emotional Sobriety when Parenting an Adolescent