Detachment and Diversity Parenting Your Adolescent

Some loss of attachment and similarity to parents comes with adolescence

Posted Apr 04, 2016

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Parenting an adolescent can feel unlike parenting a child. Why might this be so? A possible explanation follows.

With a child (up to about age 8 or 9) the adult focus is on Attachment Parenting to create a bond of dependency the little girl or boy can securely trust. “I can count on my parents being there.” Also with the child there is an adult focus on Similarity Parenting, creating an adult model the little girl or boy can positively relate to, follow, and even imitate, to enjoy commonality with these significant adults. “I like acting like my parents, and they like it too.”

So the child loves to be held and hugged by parents, and takes delight sharing in what parents like and acting like parents do. These forces of Attachment and Similarity between parent and child, fostered by parents and reciprocated by the child, create much early closeness in their relationship. Attachment and Similarity not only feel rewarding, they are rewarded.

With the onset of adolescence (around ages 9 – 13), however, these twin forces of childhood growth begin to give way to counter forces that drive adolescent growth -- for Detachment and Diversity.  Now the challenges of parenting begin to change as adults encounter increased independence of action and increased variety of interests in their adolescent. Suffering some loss of traditional influence on both counts, they must alter their parenting accordingly. Briefly, the parenting changes unfold like this.

Instead of wanting to be closely attached to parents in the old dependent way, the adolescent begins to detach for more independence. And so Detachment Parenting begins with parents gradually doing more letting go of a young person who is doing more letting go of them.

Instead of wanting to be similar to parents, the adolescent begins to differentiate from them to develop and claim more individuality. And so Diversity Parenting begins with parents gradually accepting growing variation in a young person who is striving to be distinct from them.

In both ways, adolescent growth is about a girl or boy learning to become their own person – both in terms of independent conduct and individual definition.

In both ways, parents can have a hard adjustment as dynamics of the relationship begin to change. They can miss the old attachment focus and companionable behaviors that went with it, and they can miss the old similarity focus and shared enjoyments that went with that. “Now my son is less welcoming of time together, and doesn’t share the same interests we once enjoyed.”  

So: take a closer look at the challenges that come with Detachment Parenting and Diversity Parenting.


As the adolescent starts pulling away from, pushing against, and getting around parental authority for freedom’s sake, increased separation creates more distance from parents. Now they face the challenge of staying connected to the young person while letting go so more responsible independence can grow.    

This can be scary time for parents who are used to having a child who was living in the Age of Command when the girl or boy still believed parents had the power to control what they could and couldn’t do, and so was generally compliant.  The detaching adolescent, however, has entered the Age of Consent, now knowing that parents can’t force compliance, but must depend upon the young person’s cooperation to get what they want. Thus the adolescent can become more actively and passively resistant than the child. “My parents can’t make me or stop me. What I decide to do or not do is up to me.”

Fortunately this awareness is not just liberating, it is also an anxiety producing for the young person because now the adolescent knows she or he has more freedom of choice than they can comfortably manage. This is one reason why they give parents all the consent they do. “I want to run my life, but not everything!” 

Now parents and detaching adolescent are more frequently at cross purposes as the healthy teenager pushes for more freedom to grow, while healthy parents restrain that push in the interests of safety and responsibility. The outcome is more conflict that occurs throughout the course of adolescence between a teenager who is impatient for more letting go and parents who still insist on some degree of holding on to create a family structure healthy limits and expectations to rattle around in.

The ultimate goal of adolescent detachment and detachment parenting are the same: the young person learning enough self-managements skills and responsibility to support a functional independence when the passage is done, usually a little after the college-age years.

To foster this education, parents can insist on honoring the choice/consequence connection. For every decision the young person make, she or he is held accountable for dealing with the outcome of that choice – taking credit when it turns out well, and learning the hard way when it does not. This is how responsible independence is learned.


Adolescence begins when the girl or boy is no longer satisfied with the old definition of being just a child and is tired of being treated that way. In words and actions they seem to say: “I am going to be different from how I was as a child, I am going to be different from how you are as parents, and sometimes I’m going to be different from how you want me to be.”

In response to these early attempts at redefinition, parents face the challenge of staying accepting of a young person who starts experimenting with her or his individuality, varying activities, expressions, associations, and interests in search of an older identity.  Puberty, for example, creates the challenge of how to manage a sexually maturing body and the gender expectations that come with this transformation. It takes a lot of testing differences to find what authentically fits.  

These emerging differences can be scary to parents when foreign to their experience, understanding, and tastes. New friends, social group memberships, musical preferences, entertainment interests, popular heroes, counter-cultural values, mode of dress, recreational enjoyments, and hair styles: endless are the variations that the adolescent must try on and off that parents must get used to.

What is usually helpful for them to remember, particularly with a startling alteration, is to make this discrimination: in most case the difference is of a trial and not terminal nature. And, when adolescence has run its experimental course, the young adult usually turns out to be more similar in founding family values than otherwise.

However, at the time, parents can feel their own family influence waning in the face of compelling societal influences over which they have no control like the Internet, entertainment media, consumer advertising, popular fashion, and peers. To criticize the adolescent’s current interest, association, allegiance, or belief is usually counterproductive because freedom for redefinition is at stake, and will usually be defended. Like the goal of independent functioning, the goal of individual identity may be delayed by parental opposition, but ultimately will not be denied.

The goal of adolescent diversity and diversity parenting are the same: the young person gaining enough self-understanding and acceptance to ultimately claim an authentically fitting and affirming individual identity. It is during the final stage of adolescence (18 – 23), for example, that many young gay people at last come out – accepting and announcing how they authentically sexually are.

To stay caringly connected to their teenager throughout the adolescent passage, parents are usually best served by approaching growing individuality with interest, communicating the desire to understand, asking to be taught so they can understand. In doing so, parents treat emerging differences not as barriers in the relationship but bridges for connecting as increased diversity causes them to grow distinctively apart.      

In significant ways, parenting a child and parenting an adolescent are not the same, with the second stage of parenting more challenging and complex. Parents need to allow more independence and embrace more individuality in their daughter or son, while still taking stands for safe and responsible growth. From what I’ve seen, those parents who are most inflexible when it comes to detachment and most intolerant when it comes to diversity tend to have the roughest passage during their child’s growing up.

It’s best for parents to accept and work with the twin forces of adolescent change. To grow up, a young person must separate and differentiate from childhood and parents. I believe there is no other way.

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

Next week’s entry: How the End of Adolescence (18 - 23) Can Feel Overwhelming