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How Parental Authority Can Diminish During Adolescence

While parents may lose some traditional influence, many kinds remain.

Key points

  • Compared with parenting a readily compliant child, parents have less command authority with an adolescent.
  • Parents must accept many aspects of their adolescent's life which they don't control like companions, cultural influences, chance, and choice.
  • Having lost some authority with their adolescent, parents still have many sources of influence, such as provisional and affirmative influences.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Come the onset of the child’s adolescence (usually around ages 9 to 13), parenting gets more complex. Some traditional command authority is challenged as the young person starts separating from childhood and growing in two powerful ways.

The child starts detaching for more independence and differentiating for more individuality. In both cases, self-determination is asserted as more freedom calls.

In response, now parents must manage a changing mix of holding on and letting go. While they continue to maintain family membership requirements for the young person to depend upon, they also start allowing more freedom of action and choice of definition. Now the 10 to 12 year coming of age passage is underway.

Gradually repositioning in response to this developmental change, the task for parents is to gradually work themselves out of a their traditional structural, supervisory, and support job which they do when the young person becomes older and experienced enough to assume ultimate self-management responsibility.

Loss of influence

It’s challenging: As the young person’s world of experience becomes larger and more compelling, parents find they have a less dominant role to play than with their changing child. At this stage, parents can feel less central and influential than before.

It can feel humbling for them to reflect upon: Now they appreciate how many formative influences on the daughter’s or son’s growth that parents don’t control. Consider a few examples of what I mean.

There are characteristics, the innate human nature with which the child is born. Parents don’t control this.

There is chance, the ongoing play of luck that favors or disfavors opportunity. Parents don’t control this.

There is life change, the force that keeps upsetting and resetting terms of existence. Parents don’t control this.

There is choice that personally decides what the child will or will not do. Parents don’t control this.

There are companions whose peer influence is beyond the reach of parents. Parents don’t control this.

There is culture, the power of popular media to dictate growing fashion and ideals. Parents don’t control this.

It’s not that parents don’t have an ongoing impact on their developing adolescent; but it’s more complicated now that she or he is no longer just a family-centered little child. As more worldly attractions compete with interest in family, as self-determination increases, as generational differences become more apparent, as social experience becomes more compelling; parental sway can be harder to assert.

And yet, parents still have many sources of influence that fundamentally matter. Consider 12 for parents to remain mindful of.

Parental influences

  • Provisional influence: “We will provide support for basic needs you can depend upon.”
  • Affirmative influence: “We will be constant and unconditional in our lasting love for you.”
  • Communicative influence: “We will hear what you say and say what you need to hear.”
  • Permissive influence: “We allow more freedom when we believe you are ready to assume it.”
  • Structural influence: “We will provide a family system of healthy limits and demands to depend on.”
  • Oversight influence: “We will supervise your behavior to keep watch over your safety as you grow.”
  • Modeling influence: “We will provide an example to follow by how we interact with you.”
  • Educational influence: “We will provide instruction and training for what you need to learn.”
  • Accountable influence: "We will let you learn from the consequences of your choices."
  • Sensitive influence: “We will empathize with your experience when hard times happen.”
  • Helping influence: “We will be there to call on with our assistance should your need arise.”
  • Predictive influence: “We will use worry to think ahead to anticipate challenges and dangers.”

Although in less direct control over the adolescent’s world of experience, and in less command, parents have many ways to exercise significant influence with their more liberated teenager who still needs their loyal and steadfast care.