When Parents Envy Their Adolescents

It's hard for parents to acknowledge envy of their adolescents.

Posted Jun 07, 2009

I wrote the book "Stop the Screaming" to describe many common conflicts that arise between parents and adolescents during the teenage years and how to resolve them. Most of these sources of conflict are obvious -- over disagreements about freedom or intolerance of differences for example.

One set of conflicts, however, is harder to identify because it is more difficult for parents to acknowledge and explain. The teenager knows he is on their wrong side in the conflict, but he doesn't know the cause. Their emotion is apparent, but their issue is hidden. Why? Because admitting envy of one's adolescent can be hard for parents to do.

"You've got to be kidding!" objected a teenage member of a youth group in which we were discussing relations with parents and the topic of envy in general. "There's nothing I have that my parents could envy. If anything, I'm the one who envies them - all they have, all they control, all they know, all they get to do." The notion was that if there is inequity to envy, it's all on the adolescent's side.

So we started talking about how parents sometimes envy the teenager's freedom from adult responsibility, the teenager's freedom from commitments, the teenager's freedom for care-free living, the teenager's freedom to depend on someone else's support. And the group could see how they had freedoms that most parents had to do without.

But there were other more sensitive issues about envy we didn't talk about that have come up in counseling with parents over the years. Consider four: envy of what is given, envy of greater opportunity, envy of adolescent powers, and envy from divisive attachments. Often the envy is along same sex lines.

ENVY OF WHAT IS GIVEN. Sometimes parents, who grew up in financially limited circumstances and have struggled to achieve a measure of affluence, will envy how the teenager has been given so much compared with how little they had growing up. Although grateful to be able to give more than they were given, parents can feel envious that their teenager is getting more than they received. The envy can come out as anger over lack of appreciation. "She doesn't value what we provide. She treats all we give as easy come easy go. She doesn't know what it's like when good things are hard to come by." But how is she to appreciate what they give when it's all she's ever known and so has learned to take it for granted? She has no benchmark of hard experience against which to measure what they provide. So the mother gets particularly angry with the daughter for not taking good care of her new clothes or the father gets particularly angry at his son for not keeping the car clean and well maintained.

ENVY OF GREATER OPPORTUNITY. Sometimes parents have regrets about the path in life they have chosen or the limitations they have had to accept. They wish for something different but feel trapped in the course they set which is now too late to change. So when they see their older teenager having a fresh start in life with possibilities that are closed to them, they envy that opportunity, particularly when they are financing it. But how is the young person to understand the mix of parental pleasure and pain that comes with giving what they never had? This envy can come out as discounting whatever path the teenager has chosen to pursue. So the mother downplays the daughter's professional ambitions or the father puts down the son's chosen career.

ENVY OF ADOLESCENT POWERS. Sometimes as parents grow older and they start to look and act that way, they can envy seeing their teenage daughter or son come into the full bloom of their youthful appearance and competence. Parents can contrast themselves to the young person and feel diminished by the comparison, feeling less physically attractive or capable, for example. But how are young people to know what it's like to feel diminished by growing older when they are feeling so empowered with the excitement of growing up? This envy can come out as criticism to diminish the worth of what parents wish they still had. So the mother criticizes the daughter's appearance or the father criticizes the son's athletic performance.

ENVY FROM DIVISIVE ATTACHMENTS. Sometimes parents get enamored with their adolescent. They do this not romantically, but in an infatuated way that can be threatening to the other parent who envies this rival for their partner's admiration. This envy can come out as hostility to teenager. "Why are you always attacking me?" the young person asks, truly bewildered. But the envious parent will usually not admit jealousy to a teenage son or daughter. Instead, resentment toward the spouse is more honestly revealing. "You never compliment my appearance, but you're always praising how good she looks!" complains the mother. "You always criticize what I do, but he can do no wrong in your eyes!" complains the father. So the mother resents the daughter for captivating the father or the father resents the son for representing the mother's ideal.

Rather than feeling ashamed when envying their adolescent, parents are better off accepting what envy truly is about - an expression of something they missed, something they regret, or something they have lost.

After all, this tension between age and youth is as old as time. Youth has always envied the prerogatives of age, and age has always envied the potentialities of youth.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Helping Adolescents Learn to Manage Stress.