- Adolescents become more assertive than children in two key ways.
- Adolescents become more insistent about what is wanted and more resistant to what is not wanted.
- Although insistence and resistance can sometimes be aggravating to parents, they are valuable powers to have when no longer under parental care.
At the outset of adolescence, usually in late elementary or early middle school, parents can notice a telling change as the girl or boy starts becoming increasingly assertive on their own behalf.
Parents encounter growing assertiveness in their daughter or son in two ways.
- They experience more resistance (“I won’t!” “Why must I?”)
- They experience more insistence (“I want!” “Why can’t I?”)
In each case, assertive resistance and assertive insistence serve the need for growing freedom.
Both these changes put pressure on parents when they are standing by rules and requirements and when they are deliberating provisions and permission. More self-determined than a child, the adolescent usually becomes more strong-willed.
Now a healthy young person feels impelled to push for more freedom to grow, while healthy parents feel obliged to restrain that push within the interests of safety and responsibility. And this healthy conflict of interests unfolds over the course of adolescence.
Resistance is about freedom to oppose. One formula for discord in human relationships is a cooperative one: resistance + resistance = conflict. It takes both parties agreeing to disagree over some issue for a conflict between them to be created. Thus, by contesting some difference in wants by mutually opposing it and attacking each other’s position, both parties can create a quarrel.
For resolution, they have to decide whether to stick to their guns to maybe win the encounter by battling it out, whether to concede and accept the other’s way, or whether to dialogue and negotiate to find common ground that both can support.
Enter resistance in the form of argument.
For some parents, an argument from a teenager is treated as disrespectful of their authority: “Don’t you talk back to me; just do what you’re told!” However, such parents are mistaken. Resistant argument is respectful because it engages with the parent by questioning their directive, expressing objection, and wanting to talk about it.
True disrespect is when the teenager simply tunes out whatever parental authority has to say, leaving parents none the wiser about what the young person is experiencing and thinking. "We don’t know what is going on in his life!”
So: value the informative function of argument. And value how the teenager is speaking up about thoughts and feelings that support the opposition. This skill will serve them well in other relationships in life to come.
Now parents can model and talk about the healthy conduct of disagreement: “I don’t call you names in anger, and I don’t want you doing that to me. Using hurtful words with me or my doing so with you doesn’t help us work out disagreement and learn to get along.”
More outspoken and stubborn about it, more self-dedicated, more determined to explore and experiment with life, more influenced by what friends are doing or want to do, more willing to face parental disapproval, insistence asserts on these counts and others. Just as resistance was about the freedom to oppose, insistence is about the freedom to experience.
Insistence is often an investment. For example, what the teenager wants can be tied to ambitions or because of commitments made. “I have to have that outfit to look OK!” “If you don’t let me go, they will think that I backed out!”
Adolescent insistence is often about something that feels important, so parental denial can create a significant loss. Insistence is often tied to something that really personally matters. Now parental listening can really count. Denial of insistence can even be made more tolerable when the young person has been given empathetic attention to what was at issue: “At least they heard all I had to say.”
In praise of assertion
Developmentally, the twin powers of adolescent assertion, resistance and insistence, begin the process of exercising more influence over one’s life, finally maturing into assuming full young adult agency 10 to 12 years later when growing up is done: “How I am and what I do is now up to me.”
In their aggravation when adolescent powers of assertion contest their authority, parents need to be sure that they don’t crush these expressions of opposition and determination. Better that they remember how increasing resistance and insistence are not youthful problems but are strengths.
One parent summed up his admiration of adolescent assertion this way. “Based on how she was in the family, watch out, world. That’s all I can say. As her dad, I can testify: Nobody’s going to shut her up, push her around, or stand in her way!”