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Adolescence and Making Parents Proud

Statements of parental pride that the child valued can miscarry with a teen

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

"The more I read about you, the more I appreciate what I'm up against."

Feeling proud is feeling pleased to the extreme with something that appends upon oneself, like parents taking pride in their child’s growth or performance.

The parental statement, “I’m proud of you,” comes naturally and, by extension, easily translates into the adult feeling, “I'm proud of me.” In the process, the child learns how doing well can not only cause parents to feel positively about the child, but even causes these adults to feeling positively about themselves. Pretty powerful: “I made my parents proud!”

So parents are pleased to say “We are proud of you” to their child who is happily striving to please. It sounds like a win/win interaction, and it often is. However when, around ages 9 – 13, that child starts to detach from childhood, to separate and differentiate for adolescent independence, receiving this expression of parental pride can become more of a mixed blessing.

It’s not that adolescents don’t still want to shine in parental eyes; they do. However, the notion of working for the sake of earning parental pride can make pleasing parents an adolescent objective at a time when increasingly self-serving individual and independent goals start mattering more. “How I live is for me, not for my parents. I will lead my life to suit myself!”

Now is when statements of parental pride can miscarry or even be counterproductive. Consider a few common examples.

The adolescent can feel undue pressure to gratify parents. “I have to please my parents at all costs.”

The adolescent can be in fear of disappointing or being a disappointment to parents. “I can’t bear to let my parents down.”

The adolescent can feel responsible for keeping up parental image and self-esteem by maintaining high performance. “My doing well is the high point of my parents’ lives.”

The adolescent can pursue some activity not for personal enjoyment but for pleasing parents. “I would have given it up, except it matters so much to my parents.”

The adolescent can resent parents appropriating personal credit for her or his performance. “They treat my achievement as their own.”

The adolescent can rebelliously fall away from what causes parental pride in order to assert independence. “Whatever they enjoy me doing is what I’m not going to do.”

The adolescent can act on the belief that gratifying parental pride is selling out individuality. “I know I’m my own person when my parents don’t like how I look.”

Parental pride can have different roots. Consider three that make it easy for parental pride to grow: parental investment, social competition, and the parent/child equation.

When it comes to Investment, parents donate an enormous amount of time, energy, care, thought, emotion, and resources to their growing child. Parenting is a constant act of self-sacrifice this way as the adults frequently set their own interests aside for the child’s benefit. So it is no wonder that parents come to expect some return on so high an investment – not just in how the child positively responds to them but in how the young person measures up and turns out in the future, which they believe is partly an affirmation of the decisions and efforts they make.

No parenting is entirely free of some expectation for positive return from the child.

When it comes to Competition, there is that wonderful performance question that parents become accustomed to asking and receiving: “How is your child doing?” The parent questioned naturally wonders: “Compared to what? Compared to whom?” Do the parents with the child or adolescent who does best, win; and if so, win what? When parents get together and discuss their children, it can be hard for them not to compare notes by comparing their child to the children of others.

No parenting is entirely free of some need to compare one’s child with others.

When it comes to the Parent/Child Equation, there is a sense of shared identity. The identity equation is: parent = child. Subscribing to this linkage, parents can use it as a way to measure the success (or failure) of their efforts. Over-simply put, they can believe that when a child or teenager acts “badly,” that is a sign that the parenting is “bad.” And when the child or teenager acts “well,” that is a sign that the parenting is “good.” But estimating the value of their parenting based on the behavior of the child, particularly in adolescence, usually puts more pressure for pleasing on the teenager than is healthy. And when the teenager chooses unwisely, parents can take that misstep or misdeed personally as a poor reflection on them. To avoid falling prey to this equivalence, it can be helpful to remember that good parents have good children who will sometimes make bad choices in the normal trial and error process of growing up.

No parenting is entirely free of some sense of identification with the child.

So what are parents supposed to do with parental pride? Perhaps they can consider this. Suppose a child or adolescent is not born to make parents proud, but is a rather to be a gift for which to be grateful -- for the growing life entrusted to their care. Suppose, when the child or adolescent performs well, instead of bluring the lines of responsibility and saying “We are proud of you,” they say instead “Good for you!” “You’ve done really well for yourself!” “We are happy for you!”

Congratulating the adolescent without congratulating themselves, the credit and the focus stay where they belong.

Next week’s entry: The Emotional "Trials" of Trial Independence (ages 18-23)

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