An Adolescent is NOT a Child

Get used to it: Your adolescent is not a child anymore.

Posted Jan 29, 2009

An adolescent is a young person who, around the ages of 9 to 13, begins to push for more separation (time with peers), more opposition (argument and delay), more differentiation (alternative interests), and more experimentation (testing limits) in order to start becoming more individual, independent, and grown up. By these changes she is letting you know she is no longer content to be traditionally defined and treated like the child she was. For you, she is harder to get along with, and for her, you have become the same. The relative harmony and endearment of childhood is over. More conflict is the order of the day. Now the hard "half" of parenting has begun.

In response to these changes, I believe parents have some attitude adjustments to make.

Don't take your child's adolescence personally. Your son or daughter is not "doing adolescence" to get you or to get you upset. She is doing it FOR herself, for her own growth, unmindful of you. She is too self-centered to think about the effects of her changes on you.
Don't treat adolescence as a punishable offense. It is a process of growth. Accept the process, but hold the young person accountable for the choices she makes as the process unfolds. The mess she increasingly creates is part of the disorganization she feels. Accept increased disorganization, but demand that she pick up after herself.

Understand that adolescence wears the magic out of parenting. Entranced by the one year old who is entranced with them, parents are more frequently offended by the eleven year old who is more frequently offended by them, this mutual disenchantment wearing down the delight and compatibility between them so separation can grow.

Accept that teenagers are naturally offensive. A healthy adolescent pushes for all the freedom she can get as soon as she can get it; and healthy parents restrain that push within the interests of safety and responsibility. This is the conflict of interests that unfolds over the course of adolescence, only ending when the young person assumes full responsibility for her independence, becoming the authority directing her own life, usually around her mid-twenties.

So parents need to not overreact in surprise to their child's adolescence; they need to know what to expect. "Expect" does not mean accept. Expect means knowing enough about adolescence so they are not blind-sided by a change they could have predicted, but did not, thus making a hard situation worse. Hopefully, this blog will provide some needed understanding and perspective. Parents need to keep the full 10 to 12 year process of adolescence in mind so they can anticipate normal tensions, conflicts, and problems that will predictably unfold.

Am I suggesting that you surrender to the adolescent transformation and simply let this growth unfold? No way! Adolescence is a process through which the young person puts herself at risk of more freedom every impulsive and daring step of the way. It is the job of parents to do what they can, through the guidance they give, the supervision they provide, the exchanges they demand, and the structure they impose, to help create a safe passage to adulthood. They must continually hold the young person to responsible account, inform her choices the best they can, keep the channels of communication between them open, and ensure that their love and acceptance are continually expressed.

The ultimate parental challenge during adolescence is this: how can parents stay meaningfully connected with their teenager as adolescence is growing them apart.

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