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A Detachment Theory of Parenting Adolescents

An adolescent is different from a child, so parenting becomes different too.

“What is adolescence for?” was the parent question. Without a pause, I replied: “Detachment.” Afterward, I took some time to reconsider my hasty response, and on further reflection, it rang true to me. Here, in a longer post than usual, is why.

The age of attachment parenting

Begin at the beginning. I believe that childhood (up to around 8 or 9) is the Age of Attachment Parenting. Here the goal is for parents to bond with their children so that a basic trust in dependence on them is established. Starting out in life, the girl or boy needs to be able to confidently rely on these primary adults, to be able to count on them. To establish this reliance, parents create Attachment by Holding On with unwavering caring, caretaking, and commitment to create this sense of security.

Parents also use the influence of this attachment to teach what they believe constitutes the fundamentals of Responsible Behavior. Components of what parents consider “responsible” can include what they believe is true and false, what is safe and what is dangerous, what is valued and what is disapproved, what is obligatory and what is not allowed, what is right and what is wrong. Implanted in the child’s thinking, this code of Responsible Behavior becomes an inner compass for constructive decision-making and self-management the child can depend on as she or he grows. Parents use examples, interaction, instruction, and correction to teach this basic code of conduct.

The age of detachment parenting

Adolescence (starting 9–13) is the Age of Detachment Parenting. Here the goal is for parents to foster a young person’s basic trust in independence and self-reliance, to be able to count upon one’s self. Parents encourage Detachment by Letting Go and allowing more freedom of decision-making and worldly experience, while still remaining loyally connected through constant caring and communication. Letting go in adolescence is harder for most parents to do than Holding On in childhood because now every increase in personal freedom puts the teenager at more personal risk in a larger playing field of life.

Thus among the most complicated decisions when parenting an adolescent is deciding, when to hold on or when to let go. For example, when should they attend or when ignore, when forbid or when allow, when let struggle or when help, when restrict or when release, when suspect or when trust? Now parents are less in the business of teaching responsible behavior than encouraging the assumption of more Responsibility. This means letting the young person make more choices, own those choices, and face the consequences of those choices. This last process can be painful for the teenager to experience and for parents to see when the young person must learn from the errors of one’s ways. However, in support of this mistake-based education, parents let choices leading to bad consequences teach good lessons, just as they let choices leading to good consequences build confidence.

To the degree that adolescence is different from childhood, parenting an adolescent is often different from parenting a child.

When to start detachment parenting

So how are parents to know when to start Detachment Parenting? The answer is that the child will tell you by words and attitude and actions when the time has arrived. The first thing parents will notice is Dissatisfaction with being treated and defined as “just a child” anymore. A common example is the Early Adolescent becoming more intolerant of a parent’s affection than she or he used to be. So a mom or dad’s cuddling, hugs, and kisses may be resisted or rejected: “Stop doing that!” Growing older means giving up some of what went with being younger. Another example is when traditional parental joking and teasing that was fun for the child becomes offensive to the adolescent. And of course, another is when being seen in the company of a parent is a point of pride at elementary school, but becomes a source of social embarrassment in middle school.

What drives adolescent detachment

Next, the five psychological engines that drive Adolescent Detachment begin to fire off. They do so in no particular order, although to parents, it can feel like they are all starting up at once as their daughter or son begins to detach from childhood, parents, and family.

First, there is separation for the sake of independence. Here the adolescent desire is for more social independence from parents as the young person begins to build a social family of their own. Now there are more conflicts with parents over time spent with peers and time spent with family. “No, you cannot spend the day with friends when your grandparents are here for a visit.”

Second, there is differentiation for the sake of individuality. Here the adolescent desire is to establish a new and unique Identity. Now there are more conflicts over which expressions of individuality are okay and which are not. “No, I don’t care what ‘everyone is wearing,’ you cannot go to school dressed that way.”

Third, there is expansion for the sake of growth. Here the adolescent desire is to explore new worldly experiences and assert a larger older presence in the family. Now there are more conflicts over what one is old enough or not old enough to do. “No, you cannot stay up as late as you want.”

Fourth, there is opposition for the sake of autonomy. Here the adolescent desire is to operate more on one’s own authority. Now there are increasing disagreements and conflicts over living on parental terms or living on adolescent terms. “No, you cannot elect to stop doing chores.”

Fifth, there is responsibility for the sake of maturity. Here the adolescent desire is to freely make decisions and take the consequences. Now there are more conflicts over what decisions one should be held accountable or not accountable for. “No, we will not give you an excuse for delaying and having to turn your project in late.”

Signs of parental detachment

So in the face of this multi-dimensional push for Detachment, now parents find themselves challenged to do more letting go. Five signs of parents letting go and beginning their own detachment, again in no particular order, are these.

  1. Parents detach by accepting that they will be less fully informed. “We must get by on less information from our adolescent than we would ideally like to know.”
  2. Parents detach by accepting that the relationship will become less compatible. “We do not share as much in common as we once did, and we have more differences to bridge between us.”
  3. Parents detach by accepting that they will be left more alone. “We are no longer our child’s favored company, now the company of peers socially matters more than being with us.”
  4. Parents detach by accepting that they are now less in charge. “We have less influence to get our way as our adolescent make more independent choices.”
  5. Parents detach by accepting that they will encounter more opposition. “We will have more disagreements now, and when we choose to contest those disagreements we will have more conflict.”

Consequences of detachment

Psychological consequences of detachment with social and emotional distance growing between them can be somewhat different for parents and adolescents. For example, parents can tend to Worry more (about risks from increased independence) while the adolescent can tend to be more frequently Bored (with having too much or too little freedom.) Parents can grow more easily Irritated (with argument and delay) while the adolescent can grow more easily Embarrassed (by public exposure of awkwardness or inadequacy). Parents can tend to Exaggerate and amplify problems in the teenager’s life (out of fear) while the adolescent can tend to Minimize and ignore them (out of denial.)

As for parental protection, that is no longer the sure thing it was supposed to be in childhood. When the detached adolescent says, “You no longer always know what’s best, you can’t make me or stop me, you can’t keep me safe,” parents must often reluctantly agree. Adolescence is a risky passage, so parents try to act as a drag on freedom's growth, to slow the young person down long enough to think responsibly before acting impulsively. At times, the adolescent believes parents are over-cautious and parents believe the adolescent is over-confident. In many cases, both are correct. What both share now, however, is more separation and strain in their relationship as adolescence increasingly grows them apart, as it is meant to do.

I believe what makes the adolescent passage so difficult to manage for all concerned is the process of detachment on which it depends. For parents and an only child, this can be particularly so. Here the need for letting go that detachment brings can be extremely rending because early attachment and holding on in childhood have often felt so secure, so intensely intimate, and so socially rewarding, which is why adolescence can be delayed for some only children. However, whether parenting an only child or multiple children, adolescence is not for the faint of heart.

For both parents and teenagers, adolescence brings more challenges and uncertain and scary times when detachment is often an act of courage, and perhaps this bravery is also meant to be.

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