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Adolescence and Parental Influence

Parental influence with adolescents isn't as simple as it seems.

Among the painful parental losses that the onset of their child’s adolescence brings, in addition to never having their adorable and adoring little son or daughter that winning way again, is a loss of influence—of the capacity to get their way.

When, between the ages of 9 and 13, the young person separates from childhood and enters adolescence, parents discover that cooperation and compliance are now harder to secure. They find they have left the age of command (when the child believes “my parents can make me do what they say”) and have entered the age of consent (when the adolescent understands “my parents can’t make me or stop me unless I decide to go along.”)

Through active resistance (arguing and disobedience) and passive resistance (ignoring and delay), the young person asserts more independence. In the process, parental influence is contested and they lose some traditional power.

In addition, adolescence can make parental influence confusing because of the developmental transformation that often occurs. For example, parents who encouraged athletics and academics in a physically active and high-achieving child may find themselves confronted by an adolescent who asserts independence of their old influence by rebelling against it. When it comes to grades, he or she is now content to barely get by and sports are forsaken as pointless effort.

Parental wishes that yield cooperation in the child frequently provoke opposition in the adolescent. Now it takes the influence of steadfast and reasoned insistence to wear adolescent resistance down. "You need to know that, for the sake of your future, I will stay after you to get your homework done and to keep your school performance up.”

Just because parents have less influence with the adolescent than with the child doesn’t mean they have none. In fact, even though they don’t directly control them, parents have many ways to affect choices the adolescent makes. Consider just a few.

  • Parents lead by example: by beliefs they follow and behaviors they model, they encourage imitation.
  • Parents teach by instruction: by knowledge and skills they impart, they instill learning.
  • Parents inform by self-disclosure: by personal history they share, they give lessons from their own life experience.
  • Parents convince by persuasion: by explanations they offer, they give reasons that can convince.
  • Parents inspire by motivation: by giving encouragement, they coach effort that is made.
  • Parents connect with empathy: by expressing concern for feelings, they demonstrate how they care.
  • Parents insist with supervision: by repeatedly keeping after what they want done, they wear stubborn resistance down.
  • Parents provide discipline: by applying positive and negative consequences, they affect choices that are made.
  • Parents convince with commitment: by unconditionally affirming unwavering faith and love, they gain credibility.

These are some of the intentional ways parents can influence adolescent behavior. Less obvious, but often more powerful for being unexpected and contradictory, are those that are unintentional.

The parental model, for example, can cut in opposing ways depending on whether the adolescent identifies with it or adjusts to it. Thus the parent who is always thinking of other people’s well-being and putting them first has one adolescent who identifies with this altruistic orientation and imitates that parent’s giving ways. A second adolescent, however, adjusts to the parental model by becoming accustomed to receiving, becoming more of a taker than a giver, more self-centered on that account. This is like the parent whose constant help giving raises one adolescent to be more of a helper and another to be more helpless.

Of course, a parent doesn’t just give the adolescent one example to follow; each parent gives two—a positive and a negative model, how to be and how not to be. “I want to be just like my dad, he was a great listener; but I don’t want to be a non-talker like him. He got to know other people, but nobody got to know him.”

Then there are revisionist parents (wanting to parent differently than they were raised and break that influence connection) who, to their disappointment, sometimes end up parenting the same. So you have a mom brought up by strictly repressive parents who wants to give her adolescents freedom she never had. However, by becoming too permissive, her teenagers careen out of safe control until, only by imposing severe measures, can she curb their wild ways. Now she becomes even stricter than her parents were with her, recreating the influence she swore she would never impose on children of her own.

Or you have the dad who wants to create a family in which loud and unpredictable outbursts of anger like those of his father do not occasion fear in children of his own. To reach this objective, he resolves to never express anger, suppressing irritations and ignoring aggravations, building up frustrations that intermittently result in explosions of temper which frighten the family and torment him with regret: “When I grew up, I swore I'd never be like my father, and now I wake up and look in the mirror and see him every morning!"

Or consider the senior in high school, determined to overthrow her parents’ influence, who tells me how she will never fight with other people she cares about in the mean ways her parents name-call her and she does back at them. But I explain how escaping parental influence takes more than a simple resolution. “Conflict creates resemblance. How you fight with your parents trains you in how to fight with significant others later on. So to liberate yourself for then, start conducting conflict with your parents differently now.”

Parental influence can be a tricky business because it can miscarry in so many ways. Here are a few common examples.

  • When you give help to support adolescent independence, you protract dependence.
  • When you want your adolescents to learn responsibility from mistakes but then rescue them from harsh consequences of poor choices, you discourage this accountable education.
  • When you yell to stop your adolescent from yelling, you encourage yelling.
  • When you argue with your adolescent to stop arguing, you support arguing.
  • When you criticize or punish to improve your adolescent’s bad attitude, you increase that negativity.
  • When you get into a power struggle with your adolescent to show who is the boss, even if you win this time, you have trained a more determined and stronger adversary next time round.

Parental influence, particularly during adolescence, is not always as simple and straightforward as one would like. It can be confusing. So the mother complains about how her teenage son, suddenly grown larger and more aggressive with puberty, uses his new size to intimidating effect, crowding her and getting in her face and talking loudly to assert dominance. “How does he predict you will behave when he acts this way?” I ask. She replies, “that I will lower my gaze, look scared, plead with him to stop, and back away.”

Then I suggest that to gain influence in these encounters, she could try violating his prediction. “Next time he does this, look him in the eye, smile, move closer to him, place your hands on his shoulders, give him a hug and a kiss, and say ‘I love you when you act like this.’” As it turned out, this was not the response the young man was after, so he decided not to physically crowd her again.

The lesson when it comes to parental influence is sometimes this: to change your adolescent’s behavior, first consider different ways that you could change your own.

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Next week’s entry: Adolescence and chores.

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