Adolescence and parental support.

Parents must support adolescents and start reducing support.

Posted Jan 10, 2011

Part of the parental commitment to their children and adolescents is to be a source of support to depend upon, at least until young people have the age and experience and determination to fully depend upon them selves.

In counseling, one often sees the casualties of parental support gone amiss - when it is either inadequate (abandonment, for example) or excessive (smothering, for example.) In cases of abandonment, young people can wrestle with such issues as anxiety, insecurity, basic distrust, fear of commitment, low self-esteem, or high need for control. "My parents were so caught up in divorcing each other and remarrying other people they just weren't there for me," is how one young person put it. "So I've had to count on myself."

In cases of smothering, young people can wrestle with such issues as dependency, lack of confidence, low self-reliance, immaturity, or irresponsibility from constant rescuing. "My parents probably took too much care of me for my own good," confessed another young person. "Any time life got hard or I got into trouble, they jumped in to help me out, and they still do."

So parental support can be tricky to give. One way to clarify decisions about giving it can be to make a rough distinction between two levels of parental support - primary and secondary.

Primary support should never fall into disuse because children of any age need its constancy. For example, some components are:
Loving ............................................. "Accept me."
Companioning ................................."Be with me."
Touching .......................................... "Hold me."
Informing ......................................."Tell me."
Listening .........................................."Hear me."
Encouraging ...................................."Believe in me."
Approving ......................................."Value me."
Empathizing ...................................."Feel for me."
Primary support provides the bedrock of the parent/child relationship because it is emotionally sustaining, contributing much to the strength of attachment by which the child feels secured. It never loses importance no matter how old the child grows.

Secondary support should be given more selectively depending on the age and special needs of the child. For example, some components are:
Instructing .........................................."Teach me"
Managing .........................................."Direct me."
Supervising ......................................."Remind me."
Evaluating .........................................."Judge me."
Helping ............................................."Fix me."
Servicing .........................................."Do for me."
Controlling .........................................."Decide for me."
Protecting .........................................."Look out for me."
Maintaining .........................................."Provide for me."
Secondary support is fundamentally important when creating a secure dependency that an infant and child can rely on, but starts diminishing come adolescence as parents progressively turn over those responsibilities so the young person can function more independently.

Support of both kinds can be expensive to give. For example, tending a sick child, helping each night with homework, nagging to get chores accomplished, paying for medical care and other needs, listening to a heartbroken teenager, worrying about what freedoms to allow the adolescent, all take a lot of parental time, resources, and energy.

Committed parenting is not cheap to do. Realizing this, many young adult couples today decide not to burden their marriage with children because adding parenthood to partnership creates too many demands and requires too much self-sacrifice. Hence the rise in childless marriages.

Not only is support expensive to give; it can also be expensive not to give. For example, in adolescence perhaps the hardest support to give the young person is the denial of secondary support - partly because the parent must resist their heart's desire to keep giving, and partly because the young person does not always like the message. "It's time for you to earn the money to buy things like that," parents say. To this the teenager angrily objects. "That's not fair, I shouldn't have to pay for me!"

But the time has come when dependence on secondary parental support must start being withdrawn so the young person can rise to the challenge of functioning more independently. To that end, as the last stage of adolescence approaches, parents find themselves urging more self-reliance by saying such things as:
"See if you can figure this out for yourself."
"Now is the time to pay more of your way."
"Face the consequences of your choices."
"Be your own reminder."
"Help yourself."

All the while parents are weaning the adolescent off secondary support in these and other ways, however, they must continue the love, the listening, the encouraging, and the other acts of primary support that maintain an enduring emotional attachment.

Finally, it would be remiss not to put support between parents and adolescent into a larger life context. As people grow up they become more independent and self-supporting; as they grow old, they become more dependent on the support of others. Just as it's hard for the adolescent to grow from dependence to independence - meeting the challenge of becoming more self-reliant; it's also hard for the aged to grow from independence to dependence - meeting the challenge of doing less for one's self and relying more on others.

Just as the child depended on the secondary support of parents, aging parents increasingly call on grown children for more secondary support themselves - for maintenance and management, for advice and help. Hopefully, the primary emotional support parents gave when their children were young, grown children are now committed to give back to them.

However, when parents, out of frustration or anger or disappointment, have withdrawn primary support from the adolescent, this loss can not only be to the young person's immediate hurt, but to the parents' later regret. As they grow into old age, their adult son or daughter may be less likely to give primary and secondary support back to them.

So this is the story of the generations often (but not always) told: first the old support their young, then the young support their old.

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

Next week's entry: Teaching adolescents about helping.