Five Psychological "Engines" that Drive Adolescent Growth

Adolescent growth is impelled by multiple drives to independence

Posted Sep 13, 2011

I believe adolescent development is driven behavior, with five psychological "engines" fueling much of that drive, each one having the same objective: the achievement of grown up independence. These engines are separation, expansion, differentiation, opposition, and responsibility. Examine them one at a time.

The function of SEPARATION is to detach enough from the past to open up more freedom to grow in the present. Thus the early adolescent begins to separate from childhood by letting go childish things, and by socially and physically beginning to pull away from parents. This distancing is both painful and liberating at the same time. So the adolescent rejects being kissed and hugged and held like a little child anymore, but misses the old physical closeness none-the-less. On those occasions when the adolescent wants to separate, to be let go, and parents want to hold on, disagreement and conflict can result. For example, the teenager wants to be off with friends but parents insist on family time at home.

Common signs of separation that parents notice are: the teenager spending more time with peers, less joining in with family, less talkative and confiding with parents, more private and solitary at home, less companionable to be with, less accepting of physical affection from parents, more into electronic communication with friends (phone calling, texting, computer messaging, social networking), forsaking traditional enjoyments, interests, hobbies, and relationships once associated with childhood, more time spent laying around feeling at a loss for what to do, bored, and disconnected.

To ease tensions from separation, parents should not take separation as a sign that they no longer matter in the adolescent's life (they do more than ever.) They should stay accessible to talk (even when inconvenient), joining in with the teenager when asked. They should continually initiate ways to be together so that the adolescent has ongoing opportunities to connect with parents when he or she feels able to accept the invitation.

The function of EXPANSION is to increase the range of one's life experience beyond that of childhood and the bounds of family, and learn how to successfully operate more independently in the larger more impersonal world. In this sense, all adolescents are explorers and adventurers. They are naturally curious about what is older and unknown, willing to dare and risk finding out. So the adolescent wants to see R and PG-rated films and not just G-rated like he did as a child, and like some of his friends can watch now. On those occasions when the adolescent wants to increase worldly exposure and parents want to prevent it, disagreement and conflict can result. For example, the teenager wants to go to a midnight event with friends, but parents consider that too risky and say "no."

Common signs of expansion that parents notice are: larger size, taking up more physical space, a messier room, more widespread clutter to a mark larger territory at home, borrowing parental clothes to wear, wanting more money, wanting to learn to drive, wanting a later curfew, wanting fewer restrictions, wanting more social freedom, wanting more adventures, and exhibiting more distractibility and personal disorganization as the field of life becomes more varied and complex than it was in childhood.

To ease the tension from expansion, parents need to respect the adolescent's desire to enlarge his or her life experience. They need to understand how adolescent expansion can create confusion and disorder such that more inattentiveness, messiness, and forgetfulness will occur, and parents can provide some management support (like supervising and reminding) for keeping life on track. They can maintain sufficient family structure in place (rules, routines, demands, and limits) so that freedom from expansion does not become endangering or overwhelming.

The function of DIFFERENTIATION is to experiment with alternative interests, images, and associations to create an older and more individually fitting identity than the one by which one was known in childhood. This is a sensitive process of growth because not only is one's developing self-concept at stake, but one's social standing is as well. So the adolescent is extremely self-conscious and easily embarrassed about physical changes from puberty, taking a much longer time in the morning to get personal appearance ready for display at school. On those occasions when the adolescent wants a different look that parents won't tolerate, disagreement and conflict can result. For example, the teenager feels she must wear tightly fitting tops as some friends do, to which her parents object.

Common signs of differentiation that parents notice are: young womanly or manly sex role images that begin with puberty, self-consciousness about bodily changes, more primping time before going out, changes in room decoration, in dress, in hairstyle, in musical and other entertainment tastes, in Internet exploration, in diet, in friendships, in goals, in cultural identifications, in lifestyle preferences, in future goals, in personal identity statements that contrast with how one use to be as a child, with how parents are, with how parents wants one to be.

To ease tensions from differentiation parents need to create a tease-free home for the adolescent to safely live in. They need to provide adequate information about puberty so the teenager can normalize the hormonal and physical changes going on. They need to treat cultural and intergenerational differences with acceptance and interest to create more understanding of what is unfamiliar. They need to get to know their adolescent's new group of "different" friends to reduce parental ignorance (and anxiety) and to establish a relationship that allows them positive standing and influence with this new social group of peers. 

The function of OPPOSITION is to sufficiently contest parental authority and the family structure it supports for two purposes: in order to test the firmness of parental rules and demands, and to increasingly push to live more on one's own terms. So the adolescent argues for a later curfew to match the social freedom of her friends. On those occasions when the adolescent resists parental demands or parents resist the teenager's demands, disagreement and conflict can result. For example, the teenager wants total privacy of activity on the Internet but parents insist on some supervisory oversight.

Common signs of adolescent opposition that parents notice are: more questioning of rules, testing of limits, more active disagreement, more criticism of authority, more complaints about demands, more family conflict, more delayed compliance with requests, more putting off chores and homework, more "forgetting" what one was supposed to do, more not listening when talked to, more ignoring what one was told, more lying to get away with what's not allowed or to escape consequences for wrong doing.

To ease tension from opposition parents need to accept active resistance (argument) and passive resistance (delay) as normal adolescent pushing to live on independent terms, and not intensify this opposition with their anger. They need to provide a firm family structure the adolescent can push against. They need to take firm stands against adolescent opposition when necessary for the teenager's safety and wellbeing, treating conflict as an opportunity to open up communication about disagreement and establish better understanding.

The function of RESPONSIBILITY is to link choices made to consequences that follow. By understanding and owning this choice/consequence connection one learns how act can lead to outcome and how accountability for outcome at least partly belongs to the actor. Freedom of choice is never free because it always comes with a string attached - the consequence that follows. So the adolescent, excited by freedom and believing he can get away with anything is caught breaking a rule or law and in consequence now has some penalty to pay. On those occasions when the adolescent wants to be rescued from the consequences of unwise decisions, and when parents insist that responsibility must be assumed, disagreement and conflict can result. For example, caught cheating on a test, the high school student wants his parents to intervene with the teacher to prevent the setback of a failed class senior year, but they refuse.

Common signs of responsibility that parents notice are: more self-reliance, more self-regulation, more self-discipline, more focus on future goals, more planning ahead, more earning money, more saving money, more budgeting money, more managing schoolwork, more willingness to own up to mistakes, more working to recover from mistakes, more learning from mistakes, more capacity to delay gratification, more capacity to predict problems, more willingness to hold oneself accountable, more determination to take charge of one's life.

To ease tensions from responsibility, parents need to help the adolescent accept the choice/consequence connection that limits every freedom he or she has. They need to help the adolescent claim the consequences of good choices and cope with the consequences of bad choices. They need to support after-the-fact education that comes with learning from mistakes.

Separation, expansion, differentiation, opposition, and responsibility: it takes a huge amount of drive for the dependent child to develop into the independent young adult. The ten to twelve years of adolescence is when this transformation is accomplished, and the process is an expensive one. A lot of energy is required, a lot of problems are encountered, and a lot of conflicts arise. What is required is that both adolescent and parent pay their share of the psychological costs.

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

Next entry: Parental self-disclosure with their adolescent.