Parental Put Downs and Power Struggles with Adolescents

Testing and contesting parental power grows adolescents up

Posted Feb 06, 2012

All parents fall from grace.

The child looks up to parents and their wonderful powers and idealizes who they are. The adolescent looks down on parents and their unfair authority and criticizes who they are. The young adult looks at the hit-and-miss child raising job parents have done and humanizes them as well-intended but imperfect people.

In the child's eyes, parents can do little wrong. In the adolescent's eyes, they can do little right. In the eyes of the young adult, they have done a mix of right and wrong.

Without parents falling from grace, the adolescent would never feel justified in challenging them for control and in beginning his rise to independent power. The ultimate goal of this rise is not to achieve dominion over them, but to establish adult equity with them. Thus by the end of adolescence, there is mutual agreement that the young adult is just as much entitled to run his life as parents are to run theirs.

Along the way, in service of meeting this goal of equitizing the relationship, the positional difference between parent and adolescent is contested in three common ways – though parental put downs, power tests, and power struggles.

Start with PUT DOWNS. Why would the adolescent need to put parents down? The answer is, when a child enters early adolescence (around ages 9 - 13) she discovers that she is in a growth trap of her own making. Having idealized them to a heroic height, how can she ever measure up to such elevated adult beings? She can't, unless in some way she can cut them down to human size as she grows up.

This is where put downs come in. She becomes more critical of them in all kinds of ways – what they don't know, what they can't do, where they are wrong, how they don't understand, the unfairness of their decisions, how they look, how they act, what they think, how embarrassing they are, and on and on.

"Why does our middle school daughter feel the need to criticize everything we do?" asked the mother, wearying of this negative assault. That's when I tried to explain to her why growing up in adolescence entails putting parents down. "She's not criticizing you," I explained, "she's pulling down the ideal she made of you. And that is actually painful for her to do because she will never have you as perfect parent again. That's why some of her put downs can be so angry. She is blaming you for her loss."

"Well, she wouldn't like it if I treated her that way! Maybe I'll give her an object lesson to show her how it feels!" But I oppose to an object lesson being given. "Put her down, and you can do her emotional damage. The lesson she will learn is how unsafe you are. It is because you are so powerful in her eyes that your put downs (criticism, teasing or ridicule from you of any kind) can hurt so much. However, there is one kind of put down you can do that will help – put yourself down. Sometimes make an unfavorable comparison to her, in a humorous and self-deprecating way, commenting on how she knows more than you about a lot of things, or how she can do a lot of things that you can't, or is simply more capable than you in a lot of ways. When you downsize yourself in her eyes and make yourself less perfect, then attaining your grown up standing becomes more reachable for her."

Then there are other ways for parents to downsize themselves. For example, in the process of paternal downsizing, a father can help by admitting mistakes, apologizing for wrong doing, and declaring his limitations and ignorance. He can also upsize his adolescent by complimenting the young person, for example by recognizing his son's expertise by asking for help from the young man's special strengths and skills. "Since you built your own bike, maybe you can help me fix mine."

Then there are POWER TESTS. When competition is played out through friendly contests, a girl testing her skill and knowledge against the more experienced and competent woman, for example, the outcome can be beneficial to the relationship between daughter and mother. Coaching tennis strokes while they play, the mother recognizes and praises the young woman's growing skills, and takes pleasure when the daughter honestly prevails. "When you win, we both win!"

Two criteria for healthy power tests are that the teenager gains competence and self-esteem, and the parent/adolescent relationship is strengthened from competition that never becomes so serious it ruins the fun of play. And they compete at what they each are better at. So, for example, the man may challenge the son to a game of chess, and the son may challenge the dad to a computer game. The dad becomes a worthy adversary for the son who, win or lose, gains power of competence from the competitive encounter. In either case, fathers particularly must beware of turning a power test into a power struggle over supremacy.

POWER STRUGGLES are best avoided. When the issue becomes one of control over the adolescent's life, over choices like friends or school achievement or future direction, the parents may pit their way against the teenager's way. Now what matters most to the dad, for example, is asserting his authority, proving that he is in charge, that he knows best, dominating at all costs, and getting his way. At this point, harsh tactics like intimidation, humiliation, and even punishing through physical force can be employed to show a son that the dad is still the boss.

When this contest turns into a battle of wills, anchored in the male performance ethic, each man refuses to back down. If the father is committed to win at all costs, when he wins, he risks losing on three counts. He may lose love in the relationship that alienation or injury from unbridled conflict has caused. He may lose power through creating an isometric encounter with his son, the young man becoming stronger after each conflict by pushing full strength against his father's resistance, molding the son's determination to become equally stubborn and overbearing to match the man. And the dad may actually engineer his own physical defeat at the hands of his son who has grown bigger and stronger over the years and refuses to take his dad's domination any more.

The most serious father/adolescent son conflicts I see in counseling are when the father pushes his agenda of resemblance ("My path in life is the right one for you to follow!") so hard that the teenage son feels duty bound to resist ("My life is up to me!"). Now the adolescent son will even rebel against self-interest to oppose his father, failing in high school and hurting his future to spite the educational agenda of his father.

Of course the ultimate outcome is always the same. Through active and passive resistance the son ultimately prevails in the end. When it comes to adolescent independence, parents never defeat the teenager. The teenager always defeats the parent. For all concerned, power struggles are a losing battle.

Realizing this, a mother of a strong-willed adolescent stepped back from the line of combat and said something like this to her determined teenager. "You're correct. It's not my job to make you do what you refuse to do. You manage your own decisions. I respect your right to that and I am interested in hearing everything you have to say about it. However, although my job is not to control your decisions, it is my job to inform them. This means I have a parenting responsibility to let you know when and why I think the decision may not be in your best interests, and what a better one might be. And of course I have my own choices about responding to whatever decision you are free to make."

In summary: adolescent put downs of parents are necessary, parental put downs of adolescents can be harmful, parental putdowns of themselves can be helpful. Safely conducted, competitive power tests between parent and adolescent can be strengthening. Power struggles between the two, however, can make a hard relationship worse.

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

Next week's entry: Parents, Adolescents, and the Internet