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Adolescence and the Loss of Childhood

When adolescence begins, parents lose the idea of the endearing "child."

Whenever I think about a child's entry into early adolescence (around ages 9-13), I am reminded of the extraordinary title of Thomas Wolf's novel, You Can't Go Home Again.

For me, these words capture the irredeemable loss that young people must endure and the daunting challenge that they must brave as they depart from childhood and face the great unknowns of growing up.

They can never "go home" to childhood again. They can never return to that simpler, sheltered, and supportive time. Growing up requires giving up because necessary losses must occur if necessary gains are to be made.

Now early adolescent apathy causes the separation from childhood to begin as young people start caring less about what used to matter most. Now they are set adrift in a sea of disaffection.

  • They care less about what they loved to do as children.
  • They care less about spending time with parents.
  • They care less about life in the family circle.
  • They care less about school performance.
  • They care less about social obedience.
  • They care less about pleasing parents.

They know what they care less about, but they don't yet have any good alternatives for investing their caring elsewhere.

No longer wanting to defined and treated as a child, they can throw childhood interests, activities, and enjoyments away to show how they have changed. Unhappily, this decision can leave them riding on empty. Boredom is the name for all the loss they feel: "There's nothing to do!"

As described in an earlier post (8/2/09), boredom is really a state of loneliness. The young person is at loose ends. He or she can't find a satisfying way to connect to themselves, other people, or the world. Restless, frustrated, and discontent is how the early adolescent often feels.

Of course, the passing of childhood is not just painful for the young person; Parents have their share of loss to bear as well. They will never have their son or daughter as a little child again. That golden period in their relationship that may have been so rich in closeness, communication, and companionship is passed.

The child who loved nothing better than to spend time with them, to play with them, to be proud of their company, to confide in them, and to please them has been supplanted. No more cuddling and roughhousing.

Now they have a more aloof early adolescent who is more reluctant to be touched, who would rather spend time with friends, who feels too old to play with parents, who is embarrassed by their public company, who is more private and less forthcoming, and who seems to court their disapproval through deliberate resistance and opposition. In the words of one parent: "It feels like someone has stolen my child!"

As the loss of the old relationship creates more distance and abrasion between them, the break with childhood is made. But now, early adolescent and parent can resort to blame to cope with pain.

Pulling away from parents to create more separation, the adolescent can blame parents for abandonment. Provoking more conflict with resistance, he or she can blame parents for becoming harder to live with. Communicating with parents less to create more privacy of operation, he or she can blame parents for becoming less understanding.

As for parents, the painful truth is that they feel lonely too. They miss the old sweet times with the child they had together, the glad company they kept, and the precious history they shared. Gone is the "little buddy" who wanted to tag along everywhere with them and the "constant companion" who would tell them everything. Suddenly (it seems to parents) their little darling has been replaced by a more adversarial adolescent who doesn't act like he or she misses them the way they miss the child.

This apparent difference may even seem to them unfair. Doesn't the adolescent regret giving up the old way they used to be together? Yes, but the young person is growing on with life, more inclined to looking forward to the future than to looking back at the past. The older, grown-up world that beckons is filled with exciting possibilities. After all, the other side of loss is freedom—freedom from and freedom for. Now the young person anticipates more freedom from parental restraint and more freedom for new experience.

While the adolescent eagerly anticipates the new, parents can feel bereft of the old. It's hard for them to appreciate their son or daughter's growth when the cost of this progress for them is a very painful letting go.

And if they turn pain to anger, they can criticize the change. "You used to be such a great kid, what's happened to you?" Now parenting takes more effort and yields less positive returns when the early adolescent starts to complain about treatment, contest limits, resist demands, and pull away for social independence.

At this transition into adolescence, the young person can feel in danger of having nothing stable to hold onto, caught between the trapeze of childhood that has been let go and the trapeze of growing up not yet within his or her grasp.

Now parents must be a safety net at a time when the young person feels naturally anxious and insecure. What is needed is not only their unwavering love and openness to communication, but their willingness to impose an unpopular structure of limits and demands he or she can protest and push against, but also to depend upon, to structure safe passage through these more risky years.

If you are being accused of being "overprotective" at this time, you are probably doing the job that needs to be done—acting as a drag against all the freedom the young person is now pushing for. When you slow permitted freedom, you moderate exposure to risk. Your restraint, however, will not be appreciated. You have become an object of complaint. The age of thankless parenting has arrived.

Instead of regretting or resenting the unwelcome changes of early adolescence, those parents who find themselves mourning the passing of their son or daughter's childhood need to celebrate that loss with gratitude. It signifies that they and their adolescent were given a precious period of compatibility, closeness, and companionship during those early years.

Parents should treasure the memories that this history has left behind, and then they should move on. When their child enters adolescence, the time has come for parents to grow up too.

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

Next week's entry: Parental pride and adolescence.

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