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Parental pride and adolescence.

Parental pride can put pressure on adolescent performance.

Most parents want to be proud of their children, and most children want to make their parents proud. In fact, to a young child, parents saying, "I'm so proud of you" can be the most powerful praise of all.

Not only are the parents feeling pleased about you, they are feeling pleased about themselves based on how well you have performed. They like to bask in the reflected glory of your accomplishment by thinking that they had something to do with your achievement. Or as one parent proudly put it, "This just shows that we did something right!"

Parents can feel proud when a child has made them look good in the eyes of the world that conclude a well performing child must have well performing parents. This is why saying "I'm proud of you" can be like congratulating yourself - complimenting the child for reflecting well on you. Pride in you = pride in me. Now parental pressure on the child can build: "I have to do well for my parents so they can feel good about themselves."

Come adolescence, I have found in counseling that expressing parental pride this way can become even more complex. Early in adolescence it can connote obeying and complying with parents, something the rebellious young person may not want to do. And later in adolescence it can connote growing up to follow the example and fit the agenda of parents, which the independent-minded young person may not want to do.

So the 13-year-old, to make it clear that she no longer wants to be defined and treated as a child, acts differently and older by passively and actively opposing more of what her parents ask. It's like the young person is resolved not to do what parents want, not to please her parents, and not to act like the good child she used to be. For her to accept the "I'm proud of you" statement as praise would be admitting that she was doing what parents wanted, was acting to please them, and was trying to make them look good, just as she did when she used to be a child. No way!

Or the 17-year-old, to make it clear that he is going to lead his adult life his own way and not follow the way of his parents, in high school starts planning out an individually different path. It's like the young person is resolved not to allow what parents approve of or want to dictate what he chooses to do with his adult life. For him to accept the "I'm proud of you" statement as praise would be admitting that he is living out their agenda, wants his future life to meet their expectations, and is content to follow their example. Give up his independence? No way!

So does this mean parents should not praise their adolescent? No. It means they must find a way to praise the young person that does not include the statement "I'm proud of you." The simplest alternative I have found, and the one most teenagers seem to readily accept, is very simple: "Good for you!" This puts all the choice on the teenager and removes parents from appropriating or sharing credit for the young person's performance.

Of course, parents need to beware expressing a loss of pride in the teenager, that loss most commonly expressed by the statement: "We are really disappointed in you!" There are few criticisms as devastating as this.

Almost always I have seen young people interpret this statement as meaning, "You have lost loving standing in our eyes." No adolescent wants to let his parents down. Despite all bravado to the contrary, and even though direct statements of parental pride can be compromising, she or he always wants to shine in parental eyes.

So the next time your teenager does something you approve of or admire, instead of saying "I'm proud of you," put the credit and benefit where it belongs. Say, "Good for you!" And never say, "You've disappointed me."

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

Next week's entry: Arrested development - when adolescents run from responsibility.