When parents express ongoing resentment toward their adolescent, I take it seriously because of what it often connotes—a lack of adequate returns from the teenager in their relationship at a time when he or she has become increasingly preoccupied with developing a more individual, grown up, and independent sense of Self.
“It’s all give and no get” is how the parental complaint commonly goes. “We do for him, but he does nothing for us! All he thinks about is what matters to him! What about what matters to us? He’s so selfish, that’s the problem!”
Except, what they are charging the adolescent with is not the problem, only a reflection of it. The problem is that parents have not been holding the teenager to adequate two-way account in the relationship and now they are paying the price for their neglect. They have elected to live on his more self-serving, one-way terms and now they’re angry at him for the bad bargain they have made. In their resentment, they conclude that the matter is with him, when in fact it resides with them.
Consider the situation this way. Parenting requires an enormous investment of caring, caretaking, responsibility, time, energy, thought, attention, and resources. It is not for the uncommitted or the faint of heart. It takes a lot of work and self-sacrifice, often setting their comforts and preferences aside to minister to the growing child whose needs and wants usually become more varied and urgent during adolescence.
What makes all this effort worthwhile with the child are the returns on the parental investment made: the love they give, the love they receive, actualizing the parental role, taking pleasure in the child’s growth, enjoying the child’s company, and the privilege of nurturing and raising a member of the next generation of human life.
During the childhood years, it’s relatively easy for parents to reap such returns because the child is so focused on pleasing these primary adults and staying closely connected with them. Beginning adolescence, however, with the separation from childhood and the push for independence, parents can find positive returns harder to come by.
For example, it can be harder to give love in the face of more adolescent resistance and opposition. It can be harder to elicit expressions of love from a more distant and self-preoccupied adolescent. It can be harder to find the parental role as satisfying now that the adoring child has become a more critical teenager. It can be harder to take pleasure in the adolescent’s growth during those times when parents feel the teenager may be growing wrong. It can be harder to find enjoyable ways to be together now that parents have fewer interests to enjoy in common with the adolescent than was true with the child. And it can be harder to appreciate the privilege of raising a future adult now that parents are more burdened by worries about how the teenager is going to turn out. Add all these alterations up and they explain how with adolescence the harder half of parenting begins.
At these times, I tell parents to treat their resentment seriously, to honor what it has to communicate, and to take remedial action to right the relationship. “Punish her, you mean?” asked a disgruntled dad with renewed interest. “No,” I answered. “I mean restore adequate mutuality in the relationship because that has been lost. Parental resentment often comes from feeling like you are living in a one-way relationship with a young person, you and she both focused on getting her needs met, and both of you ignoring yours. You haven’t been discharging a major parental responsibility – raising an adolescent who is nice to live with. You haven’t been holding her to two-way account.”
It’s not that parents should expect equity of investment from their adolescent. After all, simply as a function of their caretaking responsibility parents invest much more of themselves in their adolescent than the young person ever invests in them. However, parents can expect adequacy of return so that some of their basic needs in relationship are met on a regular basis.
What parents need to do when their resentment is infecting their relationship with the adolescent is to stop action, and before giving or giving into whatever the adolescent wants next, start insisting on adequate mutuality, specifying three kinds of needs that both they and the teenager share. Mutuality has to with reciprocity of effort, willingness to compromise, and sensitivity of treatment.
Reciprocity has to do with each party contributing some effort to the welfare of each other and the relationship. So, for example, parents want the teenager to do some chores and give some household help just as they provide so many services that support the young person at home.
Compromise is the willingness to move off personal self-interest in a dispute and meet the other person half way to craft an agreement both can live with, each party giving some to get along. So, for example, parent and teenager come up with a curfew that is not as late as the young person ideally wishes but is a little later than parents initially proposed.
Sensitivity is showing sufficient consideration for each other’s vulnerabilities so that neither party says or does anything that knowingly inflicts hurt. So, for example, knowing that the teenager is very sensitive to her weight, parents would never make a hurtful comment about that any more than the teenager would make hurtful comments about being unemployable to one of the parents who have just lost another job.
Relationships founder without adequate mutuality. Resentment builds as the injured party bridles at what feels inherently unfair. In the extreme, to do all the giving and get nothing positive in return, to operate entirely on the other person's terms, to be treated as if uncaring treatment doesn't matter, who enjoys living in a relationship like that?
Practicing mutuality with parents is important not just in the present family situation, but as healthy preparation for managing later relationships of any significant kind. After all, it doesn’t do the young person any service to send him out into the world believing that all important relationships should only work one way, his way. That way, roommates could be alienated, jobs could be terminated, and love interests could be lost. What’s at stake here is not simply their daily life with the adolescent.
So here’s the deal. Respect resentment toward your teenager. Treat it as a red warning flag. Adolescence is a very self-absorbing period of growth, and unless parents pay attention to the quality of their relationship with the young person, it’s easy to let it become too one-sided. At this juncture, parental resentment can be a wake-up call to restore healthy balance between them.
For the sake of your present relationship with the adolescent and for the sake of the adolescent’s important relationships later on, including a respectful relationship between you and your adult child, it helps if everybody practices the three skills of mutuality – reciprocity, compromise, and sensitivity -- that play such a powerful role in all healthy and loving relationships. The longer a young person waits to learn these skills, the more painful their acquisition out in the world is likely to be.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE, (Wiley, 2013). Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com.
I welcome questions and suggestions for future posts.
Next week’s entry: Supporting Older Adolescents in Hard Economic Times.