When an Adolescent Must Put Parents in their Place

As children grow, they idealize, criticize, then humanize their parents.

Posted Jul 15, 2013

A young adolescent is frequently in the business of discounting or dismissing parents by putting them in their place. “You wouldn’t understand!” ‘Oh, what do you know?” “You’re living in the past!”

One purpose of putting parents down like this is to claim superiority and put the adolescent up at a time when the need to justify independence is on the rise. More fundamentally, the adolescent is trying to undo a serious problem of his own making. It is this.

The parents, who the little child looked up to and even hero-worshiped, were placed on a pedestal from which the adolescent must take them down. Why? The answer is because when the child becomes an adolescent, parents become primary examples for being grown up and acting adult. At this point, iconic parents become an unreachable curse because no teenager can measure up to such ideals. This is why the critical adolescent needs to cut these formidable adults down to frail and faulty, even inferior human size. The adolescent needs real models for adulthood, not perfect ones.

When adolescence is done, however, unique individuality and sufficient independence having been claimed, the young adult has another need to put parents in their place. As she pauses to reflect on the person she has become, she assesses the mix of human characteristics with which she has to work as she forges ahead in life. Because the future feels daunting, her equipment can feel deficient.

In the course of this reflection, she usually looks back to identify important influences she believes partly shaped her this way. This is where an examination of these significant adults, her parents, comes into view. She wonders how the parenting she received contributed to the person she has turned out to be. And because of the struggles with young adulthood she is currently facing, she usually focuses on what they could have done better, or could not have done at all, that might have made her way easier now.

For example, because they were so protective, she feels ill prepared. Or, because they were so worried, she feels unduly cautious. Or because they were hard to please, she is constantly seeking approval. Or because they were so ambitious for her, she rebels against doing well. Or because of the divorce, she is shy of commitment. Or because they were so exacting, she can’t feel satisfied with herself. Whether or not these connections are actually true, they feel real to her.

In any case, the parenting she received is thrown open to her evaluation. What her questioning suggests can be hard to put together. What she finds is that her parents have given her two models for parenting, not one – for how to be and how not to be. What she weighs on both positive and negative sides of the ledger are acts of commission and omission – what was done and not done by parents, some of which was to her benefit, and some of which was not. What she finds is that parents, try as they might, made a mixed job of it – a mix of strength and frailty, wisdom and stupidity, sensitivity and insensitivity, sacrifice and selfishness, right decisions and wrong, because like herself they turned out to be human and not perfect and ideal.

Practically, what she finds is that before she can fully appreciate the up side of her parents and proceed with a loving adult relationship with them, she must come to terms with the down side, must put parents in their place in her personal history and the influence she believes they had. She needs to have what I call “a reckoning” to calculate the influence they have had.

The goal of the reckoning is to reach an acceptance point where she can honestly conclude this: “Even at their worst, my parents did the best they could dealing with themselves, with all that happened, and with me. And their worst was only part of what they did, which was mostly good, for which I am grateful. Partly because of and partly in spite of how they were, I came out mostly okay. And if I need more parenting to grow myself up, I will do it myself.”

From what little I have seen, most reckonings are accomplished through a process of solitary reflection, some done in individual counseling and upon rarer occasion conducted jointly with parents and a counselor to help work through the strain or estrangement between them. I have found these to be moving sessions as hurt is safely expressed so healing from understanding and appreciation can begin.

There are certain ground rules for these sessions. Most important, all parties are committed to creating an adult relationship they can value. The young adult child is given a full, empathetic hearing for the hard parts of her family history. She commits to recounting what it was like for her without attacking the parent who commits to listen without defensiveness, interruption, challenge, or correction.

The parent is there to hear what the hardships were like for the adult child for who this acceptance has reconciling power. She feels understood. Then comes the valuing of the good that was given, affirming much the young adult gratefully remembers that the parent often didn’t know. Finally, discussed is what they want to enjoy from their relationship in the years ahead.

Of course, a reckoning that reconciles and moves the adult child/parent relationship positively forward may not always be possible. Extreme harm experienced by the adult child when he was younger may forbid acceptance because forgiveness is not possible. However, I believe these are in the minority of family situations.

I first wrote about the young adult “reckoning” with parents back in 2007, in my book “The Connected Father.” The example I used then still rings true today, so I repeat it here.

“A father at a workshop explained it this way: ‘One rose at a time,’ he called it. ‘She was about 23, our daughter, when without explanation she cut off all communication with us. Stopped coming to see us. Rarely answered our phone calls, and when she did abruptly told us that she’d call us when she felt like talking, and to please not call her. At first we felt really hurt, then really angry. What had we done to deserve such treatment? Then my wife said something really important: ‘Suppose this isn’t something painful she’s doing against us; suppose it’s something painful she needs to be doing for her.’ So that’s what we decided it was. And to let her know we loved her and were thinking about her, every week I sent her a single red rose with a card that read: ‘We love you.’ And I did this for about seven months until one day she called, said she wanted to come over and see us, and she did, and we’ve been lovingly back together ever since. Of course, I asked her about the roses, curious to know what she did with them. ‘At first,’ she said, ‘I threw them away. Then I gave them away to friends. And finally I started keeping them, signs that you were keeping me in your heart, one rose at a time.’”

They held themselves in loving readiness until she had worked through her reckoning with them. After reflecting on the hurts from what her parents did and didn’t do, and accepting that a mixed job was the best they could do, she put them in their places in her personal history. This part painfully accomplished, now she felt able to move on to the better part, to gratefully acknowledge and appreciate all their contributions that were beneficial and good.

All this has partly to do with parental influence on children's growth. It also has partly to do with lack of parental influence over how their young adult independently evaluates them as mom and dad. Just as they cannot dictate their social reputation in the world, parents cannot dictate how they are rated by their grown children. Although it is often less to their liking than their own, parents have to let control of that judgment go. To do so, it can be helpful for parents to remember that they don't have to have done everything right to end up being well loved by their kids.

Part of finally growing up is putting parents in their place. In most cases this is relatively easy. In some cases it can be painfully hard.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Adolescence andLearning to Interact with Adults