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Adolescence and Individuality

How the adolescent turns out to be as an adult can take adjustment for parents.

Parenting an adolescent is like the shortsighted leading the blind. The adolescent is “blind” because she or he has never grown this way before, and parents are “shortsighted” because most of what they believe is important is rooted in their own personal experience growing up.

For example, it’s natural for parents to wish: “We want our teenager to embrace our values, share our goals, have better chances, and avoid our mistakes.” To a significant degree, they use themselves and their past lives as a primary reference in raising their child, and they generally do so in good faith.

What sometimes can disappoint these “good” intentions is when, at last entering young adulthood, the adolescent displays a “bad” case of individuality, not fitting into cherished parental expectations for how they thought their daughter or son was supposed to "turn out."

Adolescent growth toward young adulthood proceeds along two major psychological paths: establishing independence and developing individuality. Although most parents understand there will be some adolescent push for more independence, they can be less tolerant of the increased push for individuality. However, I believe both are necessary.

Through some degree of active opposition (argument) and passive opposition (delay) to parents, increasing independence ultimately leads to becoming one’s own governing and responsible authority. Through some degree of experimentation with image, interests, and associations, increasing individuality ultimately leads to developing one’s own unique and fitting personal identity. These are the twin objectives of adolescence.

Now consider individuality. During childhood (up to about ages 8-9) the girl or boy often imitates parents in order to feel closely attached to them, a resemblance that parents usually reward with approval because “we love it when our child joins us in what we love to do.” At this time, the girl or boy defines a lot of her or his individuality based on shared similarities with the parents.

During adolescence, (starting around ages 9 -13) the young person wants to redefine who they are by detaching from how they were as a child, from how parents are, and from how parents want them to be. This growing dissimilarity and incompatibility can create more estrangement in their relationship reflected in parents increasingly feeling “it’s harder to enjoy each other’s company, it’s harder to understand the person our teenager is becoming, and it’s harder to find what we can share in common.” At this time, the young person defines a lot of her or his individuality based on separating from parents, belonging with peers, and experimenting with more diversity.

So how are parents to deal with this growth of individuality in their adolescents? Trying to fit their “round” adolescent into the “square” parental hole, pressing the socially fun-loving teenager to become like the studiously serious parents for example, rarely works even when it works. Forced fits send a rejection message: “You are not acceptable to us just the way you are.” And, should they succeed in getting the teenager to act mostly like them, the adolescent is at risk of denying part of her or his human nature for the sake of maintaining parental approval, like an older only child who doesn’t dare pursue a secret potentiality, fearing their displeasure.

A lot of individuality issues that parents can have with a teenager come down to their treatment of individual differences. I believe their best option for remaining connected as more diversity develops between them and their teenager is to bridge the experimental and emerging differences with interest. Treat the teenager as a teacher. If you don’t like her music, ask, “Can you help me learn to appreciate the bands you love to hear? I will give it my best listen.” Or if you’re not a fan of video or computer games, you might ask, “Can you teach me to understand and to play one of your games? I would like to try and learn.”

Remember, that come their child’s adolescence, a reversal of interests typically takes place. While to stay connected, the child wanted to be interested in parental interests; with an adolescent, to stay connected, parents must start taking an interest in the emergent interests of their daughter or son.

Lastly, where the development of individuality is expressed in a young adult identity different than what parents expected or are willing to accept, the parent/adult child relationship can be strained or, in worst cases, even severed. In answer to the question “What difference does this human difference between you and your grown child make?” parents can draw a rejection line. When they believe that line has been crossed, they can deliver an ultimatum: “Give up your chosen definition, and we will welcome you back into family; continue as you are, and you go your own way without us or our blessing.”

In some instances, parents can refuse to come around and embrace how their grown child turns out to be, to believe, to behave. They cannot find in themselves the capacity to encompass with acceptance what in their judgment seems foreign, unnatural, threatening, unjust, or wrong. So they cut off. Ask these parents what kind of difference or issue merits such a disowning response and you may hear answers such as these.

“We never thought she’d marry like this;” or “We cannot accept him converting to a different faith”; or “We believe such relationships are wrong”; or “We will not tolerate him questioning how we live”; or “Unless she gives up the beliefs she expressed, our relationship is ended”; or “After all the acting out, we cannot forgive what we cannot forget”; or “We didn’t invest so much in him to have him live the lifestyle he has chosen.” These cases are very sad because severance creates ongoing hurt on both sides of the relationship.

Reconciliation is what is needed. Sometimes counseling to that end can help both parties appreciate where each other is coming from and can help them craft a way forward together. From such sessions, what I have come to believe is this:

A young person’s individuality is not a matter of parental comfort, preference, agreement, or approval. It is a birthright and responsibility that the adolescent must courageously struggle to seek, define, and honestly claim. As for parents, their challenging job is to keep growing in their love, understanding, and acceptance as their son or daughter grows up into the person he or she feels is authentically fitting and meant to be. As with the infant child so with the adult child, parenting is not about getting the daughter or son you want, but about wanting the person you get.

In some family situations, this adjustment is easier said than done, and when it’s not accomplished, claiming individuality for the young woman or young man can come with a heavy price to pay, the parents paying a heavy price too.