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Parenting Adolescents and How Much to Control

A hard parental conflict is weighing when to hold on to the teenager or let go.

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

It is a core conflict of parenting adolescents: whether to hold on or to let go.

As the coming of age journey now begins, the young person is seriously pushing for increased freedom to grow up—detaching for more independence and differentiating for more individuality. In response, parents are constantly weighing whether to hold on to how things are or to let go for things to change.

This recurring conflict takes many forms. For example, wonders the parent: “Should I forbid or allow?” “Should I encounter or ignore?” “Should I speak up or shut up?” "Should I protect or permit?" “Should I question or trust?” “Should I insist or relent?”

What degree of controlling and influence does a parent want to have? To exercise too little can be neglectful, to exercise too much can be oppressive.

What the adolescent needs from parents is a changing mix of both holding on and letting go, and no parent gets all these calls “right” all the time. "If only I'd let her try!" "I should have stuck with saying no!"

So the teenager grows up partly in spite of and partly because of whatever parents decided to control and not to control, and that mix is usually good enough for the young person to graduate their care as a more functionally independent and fully individual young adult.

And of course, the parent can be criticized by their teenager for erring in each direction. Accusing the parent of holding on too much, the young person may complain: "You're overprotective!" Accusing the parent of letting go too much, the young person may complain: "You never help me!"

Blessed be the parent because they can be blamed on both counts.

The Importance of Holding On

Responsible parents hold on by maintaining a family structure of healthy rules and expectations to live within, to safely rattle around in, against which the teenager will sometimes push to grow. They must provide constant guidance, structure, and supervision.

And there is more tension to contend with, occasions when parents need to say and mean: “Parenting is not a popularity contest because sometimes when we take a stand for your best interests against what you want, you will not like us for our decision. However, we promise to be firm where we have to be, to be flexible where we can, and to always give a full hearing to whatever you have to say. This last one is important, because our job is to help us stay communicatively and caringly connected to you as adolescence grows us gradually apart, as it is meant to do.”

The Importance of Letting Go

Parents let go by giving more independent decision-making responsibility. They do mindfully by specifying what they first need from the teenager before being willing to put that eager young person at risk of more personal freedom. Years ago I suggested a “freedom contract” parents might want to specify. The seven articles of the contract read like this:

· BELIEVABILITY – giving adequate and accurate information to parents;

· PREDICTABILITY – keeping promises and agreements with parents;

· ACCOUNTABILITY – owning the consequences of choices to parents;

· RESPONSIBILITY – taking care of business at home, at school, and out in the world;

· MUTUALITY – living in two-way terms, giving and receiving with parents;

· AVAILABILITY – being willing to discuss parental concerns when they arise;

· CIVILITY – communicating to parents with courteous and respectful words.

The more the young person holds on to the terms of this contract, the more inclined to let go and grant more freedom parents are likely to be. At the other extreme, if the teenager lies, breaks commitments, blames others, acts non-responsibly, is unavailable to talk, and uses hurtful language, the more holding on (and holding back) parents are likely to do.

Lest one believe that the holding on/letting go conflicts only reside in parents, consider the early adolescent (9–13.) No longer content to be defined as a little child anymore and wanting to let go of that old definition, the young person can at the same time feel truly torn and ambivalent. She or he wants to stop acting as a child but still wants to hold on to beloved childhood activities, interests, and things that are sad to give up. Or, empathize with the last stage adolescent (18–23) who wants to let go of family restraints and operate independently. However, she or he is also torn and ambivalent, still wants to hold on to parental support and still misses some comfortable conveniences that came with living at home.

Of course, it's good to remember that becoming preoccupied with whether to hold on or let go of adolescent choices can cause parents to ignore a more important question of influence. How can they, in the interests of promoting growing self-management capacity in their teenager, continually inform adolescent choices with their best understanding and advice? While parental control certainly matters; parental communication matters more.

Finally, it is important for parents to beware asserting control at all costs because the effort may not be worth the expense on several counts.

  • By insisting on absolute control, parents can foster an unhealthy dependency in the growing teenager: "I learned to do whatever I am forcibly told."
  • By parents losing their own emotional control to get control, the adolescent can end up in control: "I know how to use resistance to get my parents really upset."
  • By pitting their will against the teenager's will and winning a power struggle, they may create an isometric encounter. The teenager thinks: "I may have lost this time, but from pushing back so hard against them I'll be stronger next time out!"

Next week’s blog post: Talking to Your Adolescent About Substance Use