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Adolescence and parental authority

Adolescents contest parental authority, and they should,

What is parental authority and why is it important?

Parental authority rests on two foundations: the leadership power to direct a child to do what parents want, and the instructional power to educate the child about what they believe is wise.

In both cases parents are striving to affect choices the child makes. They want to have this influence in order to support the enormous responsibility they have assumed for a child's daily care and healthy growth.

Parental authority is easier to establish during their son or daughter's childhood (up to about 8 or 9) than it is to maintain during the young person's adolescence (beginning 9 - 13.)

At this time, in late elementary or early middle school, parents start hearing more statements of opposition like, "Why should I?" "I don't have to!" "You can't make me!" And there are more complaints like, "It's my life, not yours!" "All you do is order me around!" "You're not the boss of the world!"

In addition, there are the unending arguments: "Give me a good reason!" And there is the persistent play for delay: "I'll do it later!" So what happened to the cooperative child?

Adolescents contest adult rules and restraints because they want to establish more independence. Determined to operate more on their own terms, they protest the imposition of demands and limits on their freedom.

Where the child lived in the age of command ("I must do what my parents say because I have to"), adolescents have entered the age of consent ("My parents can't make me or stop me unless I agree.")
From here on, there is more active and passive opposition to parental authority.

Thus, offensive though it may feel, the resistant adolescent's words of advice to his parent have a ring of truth: "Get used to it!" Come the teenage years, compliance with parental authority is less automatic. This is why it's easier to parent the dependent-minded child than it is the independent-minded adolescent. The harder "half" of parenting comes last.

The formula for obedience to parental authority is simply this: command + consent = compliance. Parental authority is not automatic or absolute. It is not a matter of parents being able to control adolescent choices; it's a matter of controlling their own choices in ways that allow them assert influence. And this takes work, working for consent.

Consent can be secured by a variety of parental approaches - declaring your need for cooperation, making a serious and firm request, attaching consequences to compliance or noncompliance, repeated insistence to show you mean business, explaining reasons that are persuasive, negotiating a deal to get what you want.

Sometimes I will hear a parent complain about their adolescent's change of attitude.

"The problem is, my teenager no longer respects my authority!" The dad was angry.

"How can you tell?" I asked.

"Because she argues with anything I tell her to do!" was his reply.

"And after the argument?" I continued.

"Well then she finally does what I wanted, in her own good time. It's exhausting! See what I mean? No respect!"

But I disagreed. "If she paid attention to what you said by taking issue with it, then finally ended up doing what you asked, this means she still respects your authority. She just likes it less."

Come adolescence, obedience to authority often comes with a couple of unwelcome compromises. First, the father's daughter needs to have her say before the father to gets his way. And second, although he gets to state what he wants, when it is accomplished is up to her. After getting enough ‘say' and enough ‘when' she does what he asks. Both argument and delayed compliance with parental authority shows respect, just respect of a more grudging kind. It is ignoring and refusal that show disrespect.

Come adolescence, parents often won't get exactly what they want, exactly how they want it done, exactly when they want it done, and that's okay. The older the adolescent grows the more she pushes back against parental authority. And this opposition is functional.

After all, if the young person ended up adolescence in the early to mid twenties content to live life entirely on parental terms, then independence would never be taken. That's the downside of excessive parental authority. It can encourage dependency in two ways.

In each case of dependency, adolescent decisions "depend" on what parental authority dictates. There is the case of automatic submission, basing life choices on what parents want. "I do whatever my parents say because they know best, because I want to please them, because I don't want to get them upset with me."

And there is the case of automatic opposition, basing choices on what parents don't want. "I refuse to live how my parents tell me, they are not going to micromanage my life, I go against what my parents say because I won't let them tell me what to do." In counseling older adolescents, I have seen how extreme submission and opposition can be enemies of independence. In both cases, adult authority is allowed to rule how the adolescent lives.

In childhood, the benefit of parental authority is that it gives structure and direction to a child's life - parents declaring what to do, what not to do, what is right, what is wrong, what works, what doesn't work. It gives the child a reference for making decisions that they can internalize and follow without having to figure out how to believe and behave entirely on their own. The child needs this foundation for safe and healthy functioning.

Although adolescents still need the preparation and protection of parental authority, they also need more experience of becoming their own authority if they are ever to become functionally independent. Turning over increased amounts of responsibility to the teenager is how this education in becoming one's own authority is done.

"How am I going to control what I spend if you stop giving my expense allowance to me on a weekly basis and start giving it to me a month at a time?" asks the high school sophomore. "You are going to have to be your own boss about how to make your money last," reply the parents. "You are going to have to tell yourself what to do and then make yourself do it."

What the teenager discovers is that although he has fought their authority on many fronts, in many ways accepting their authority has made his life easier to manage. Giving up reliance on parental authority and establishing independent authority is not as easy as it looks, as many last stage adolescents (18 - 23) will testify.

"When I was in middle school I fought my parents all the time. ‘You can't make me!' I would say. But since I'm in college and they're not around to make me or stop me, my complaint is different. ‘I can't make me!' is the problem now. Getting myself to do what I know I should has become such a battle, one that I lose more often than I win."

That's right. The final battle for independence at the end of adolescence is not against parental authority, but against one's own. It's that confrontation cartoonist Walt Kelly described so many years ago: "We have met the enemy and he is us." Or as one young man sadly concluded in counseling: "The problem in my life really isn't other people; the problem is me."

Parents who seem to have the most difficulty when adolescent resistance begins are those who link their authority to self-esteem - they need to be right, unquestioned, and in charge. Any loss of authority can feel like a loss of face, and so is intolerable. This is when power struggles can ensue, a parent determined to go to any lengths, to employ any means to prevail, to prove who is the boss. Unhappily, winning at all costs is usually a losing proposition because significant damage to the relationship can be done.

In the long run, the outcome of the battle is already decided because when it comes to independence, parents never defeat their adolescent. The adolescent always ends up defeating their parents.

And yet, at last relieved of their role as authority and of all the responsibility that went with it, parents have actually won in their own way. They have finally worked themselves out of a job. Now for good and ill, their son or daughter is finally in charge.

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

Next week's entry: Managing your parents during adolescence.