Adolescence and What Is Enough

Wrestling with issues of dissatisfaction is a problematic and painful process

Posted Feb 02, 2015

It’s a common complaint parents have about their adolescent. “Why are my teenagers always so dissatisfied? Why can’t they be content with what they have and how things are? Why is there never enough?”

Addressing the question of ‘enough’ opens up the issue of Discontent and how it factors into adolescent life.  Consider just a few of the ways: Developmental Dissatisfaction, Commercial Temptation, Physical Comparison, and Personal Performance.


I believe adolescents are developmentally dissatisfied, and that they need to be. After all, if the young person wasn’t discontent with the old childhood attachment to parents there would no grounds for detaching into adolescence to develop more individuality and independence.

In this process of pushing for more self-expression and social leeway, degree of choice becomes a source of conflict between parent and teenager. A healthy adolescent pushes for all the freedom she or he can get as soon as they can get it. Healthy parents restrain this push out of concerns for safety and responsibility. And this conflict of interests unfolds over the course of adolescence.

So, on the receiving end of this dissatisfaction for example, parents contend with an increased push for more running room in the form of older hours (later bed time and curfew, for example), older pastimes (watching R-rated entertainment and social networking, for example), and usage of older possessions (smart phone and access to a car, for example.)  

What is freedom is enough?


And now the marketplace, not wanting to miss out on a profitable thing, begins to exploit this adolescent dissatisfaction for financial gain.

Product advertising, for example, starts appealing to adolescent material discontent by vying for brand loyalty knowing how spending habits now can establish spending preferences for later. Whether it’s what to watch, play, hear, eat, wear, attend, drink, or otherwise experience or possess, most products designed for youthful tastes are temptingly sold based on how successfully they offer something that is new or more or different or faster or improved or in-style or latest in appealingly crafted pitches that are hard to resist.

Already developmentally dissatisfied, adolescents are now encouraged to be materially dissatisfied as well.  However, no matter the extent of what a young person has, there is always more they don’t. Not keeping up with product changes can feel socially costly.  There is the danger of falling behind, out of fashion, and not fitting in with one’s peers.

Why, wonder the parents, can adolescents, even who are given a lot of what is materially valued, still feel that what is provided is insufficient? The answer is because they feel “deprived.”  “Deprived!” exploded a dad. “I didn’t have half of what I’ve been able to give to my teenagers!”  But ‘deprived’ is always ‘relatively deprived’ compared with others the young person knows, or knows of, who have more.

How much stuff is enough?


In the process of redefining oneself within the increasingly important company of peers, and in light of the idealized youth images presented in the media with whom to identify, there is a lot of pressure to live up to popular perfection. Think about how insecurities about personal appearance can tyrannize adolescence, about how much longer it takes for an adolescent to get dressed for school or go with friends than it did as a child. Teenagers can take themselves to task in a host of physical ways – not being thin enough or big enough or endowed enough or pretty enough or flawless enough or handsome enough or fit enough, for example, and how to dress to mask or compensate for these felt inadequacies.

Once puberty begins, when bodily changes feel out of control and the outcome is physical uncertain, few young people escape feeling unattractive in some way, having some feature they dearly wish they could change so they could look like someone else they look up to. Now is when the beauty and fitness and fashion and diet industries begin selling young people all manners of approaches to physical self-improvement. Very few adolescents feel content with their appearance. For example, just think of how many of them diet to thin down, exercise to tone up, stylize their features, and strive to find the perfect outfit to show themselves to best advantage in the company of dressed-up peers at that exciting and agonizing event, senior prom?

What is attractive is enough?


What to do with one’s efforts, how well to do for oneself or for parents, are personal performance questions that can be very vexing for an adolescent. When parents say, “All we ask is that you try your hardest, live up to your potential, and do your best,” they create vague expectations that cannot be met. After all, no one knows precisely what their hardest, potential, or best really is. “No matter how well I do, I know I could always do better. My parents are never satisfied, and neither am I!”   

Calculating how much effort to make for themselves, adolescents push their performance on three fronts – with Goals for how high they want to strive in their lifetime, with Standards for how well they do all the time, and for Limits for how much they can undertake at any one time. So: what is enough ambition for goals, enough excellence for standards, and enough reasonable limits?  Answers to all these questions have to do with deciding on what level one wants to achieve, perform, and function.

Of course, the more demanding one’s goals and standards and limits become, the more demanding life is to lead. Now there is heightened risk that lifestyle stress from over demand can be created in a young person who pushes themselves too hard for their own good. “I just want to be the best at whatever I do, do everything perfectly with no mistakes, and never say ‘no’ when others want me to do for them.”   

How much is accomplishment enough?

Expressions of discontent, of  “not enough” when it comes to social freedom allowed, to material possessions desired, to physical comparisons made, and to personal performance achieved, all testify that in adolescence this motivation is painfully alive and well.

One job of parents is to help their teenager manage the complicated issue of ‘enough’ so that it does more good than harm. A lot of times this means helping their daughter or son accept that in much of life, ‘some’ simply has to be enough.

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

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and What can be Gotten Away With

Image: Used with permission