Adolescence and the Management of Parental Love

More important than ever, parental love can be harder to give to adolescents.

Posted May 21, 2012

The function of parental love is to secure the child. This is done in two ways. Committed caring is communicated to establish an attachment to be depended on and trusted: “We will always be there for you no matter what.” And unconditional positive regard is communicated to establish an absolute acceptance of individuality: “We will always value the person you are and who you become.” These are the twin pillars upon which secure parental love depends.

When the “teenage years” begin, both attachment and acceptance become harder for parents to provide. Adolescent separation and opposition for independence can strain attachment, particularly when in the form of teenage rebellion against parental rules. Differentiation and experimenting with individuality can discourage acceptance, particularly when lifestyles unfamiliar to parents are adopted.

To maintain attachment, the parent must keep reaching out so they can stay connected to the young person as adolescence necessarily grows them apart. To communicate acceptance, the parent must bridge developing differences between them with interest as the adolescent increasingly explores and expresses unique interests and identity. A good example of how hard it is to do this parenting well was sent in as a response to my 12/6/09 blog about Rebellion.

“Please do not do what my husband and I did with our daughter. We did not give her enough space in the early and mid-adolescence period and paid for our error big time. At 16 and 17 she was in full blow rebellion (smoking, rough crowd, stealing, drugs, promiscuous sex, repeated traumas from various actions, rough boyfriends, and stint of running away for 4 months to use drugs.) We were shattered and needed to learn the skills we wished we had sought a lot earlier. We changed our communication to be more validating and empathetic, were firm with boundaries that affected us and our other kids, let her know she had our support when she asked for it, and let her live her life rather than us trying to steer it. I am happy to say one year later she is back at school going through the last stages described in your article, is off drugs, not stealing or doing reckless behavior, is calm and happy where she is studying, shares her hopes and dreams with us and is supported.”

Managing to stay attached and accepting during this kind of adolescent passage was powerful for hard pressed parents to do. A young woman who rebelled against family rules and her own self-interests for freedom’s sake remained anchored by parental love. With that security in place, after “breaking out of the barn” for a run on the wild side, she found her way safely back home.

Parental love in adolescence must not be dependent on getting the young person you want, but in wanting the young person you get, most of all when you disagree with or dislike some of the changes in believing and behaving that start taking place. When parents fail in either expression of love, there are emotional costs for the adolescent to pay. When attachment is not maintained, the adolescent can feel abandoned and lonely. When acceptance is not maintained, the adolescent can feel rejected and estranged. In both cases, the outcome is likely to be more reliance on peers for attachment and acceptance that are not forthcoming at home, creating less mature companionship more likely to lead to young person astray.

Parental attachment and acceptance do need to be constant, but they also sometimes need to be qualified by parental objection. Attachment does not mean automatic approval. For example, the attached parent says: “I am always ready to listen to whatever you have to say, but the language you use needs to be free of swearing and cursing, both of which I find offensive and get in the way of my hearing what you have to say.” Acceptance does not mean automatic agreement. For example, the accepting parents says: “I understand your desire to dress the way your popular friend does, but I won’t allow your doing so because I believe it attracts sexual attention that would feel uncomfortable to you if it came your way.”

At these objection points, it may at first seem to the adolescent that parents are acting un-lovingly, when in fact they are providing thankless parenting – taking stands for the young person’s best interests against what she or he wants, and being criticized for their loyal efforts. Hanging in there with unappreciated acts of love is the toughest part of parenting adolescents who can act un-lovingly when they don’t get their way.

Love is perhaps the hardest emotion for parents to manage because under its influence, healthy limits with their increasingly self-centered adolescent become hard to set and maintain. Consider that specific and symbolic act that is most emblematic of parental love — giving.

At first it seems like a good bargain: parents love to give to their teenager as a way of expressing their love, and the teenager loves being given to. However, from being constantly given to, the teenage taker may not be inclined to do much giving back, while the giving parents may feel taken, or at least taken advantage of, and feel exploited. Therefore, best to insist on mutual giving. That way parents feel like they are receiving some loving benefit in the relationship too.

For parents, what and how much to give to their teenager, under what emotional conditions to give, whether or not to give in, when to let go and give up, and how much giving should be expected in exchange, can all be very complicated questions of love to answer.

Parents who self-sacrifice and give more than they can emotionally afford, parents who give with the expectation of a return from their adolescent that is not forthcoming, parents who give up under unrelenting adolescent pressure, parents who give in to avoid adolescent upset, parents who give to gain adolescent love, parents who are all give and no get with their adolescent, all put themselves at risk of their own resentment in the name of love. But who said parental love for their adolescents was meant to be easy?

Love, during their child’s adolescent passage is a challenge, one which parents must rise to the occasion to meet. Just because the adolescent takes most of what you give for granted and acts more un-lovingly toward you than did the child is no good reason for you to act more un-lovingly in response.

While calling the young person on any behaviors that are unmindfully or deliberately hurtful, so you do not accept mistreatment and he or she does not learn that mistreating a loved one is okay, parents must hold fast to their guarantee: “No matter how much you push against us or pull away, no matter how you change, our love for you is the same as it has always been and always will be.”

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

Next week’s entry: Adolescence, Apathy, and what Loss of Caring can Mean