"Is Adolescence Really Necessary?"

Surprised by early adolescence, parents wonder if their child's changes need be.

Posted Oct 05, 2015

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

“Is Adolescence Really Necessary?”

“Is adolescence really necessary?” I’ve had this disenchanted question posed a number of times over the years by parents who are feeling frustrated by changes in their daughter or son as the transformation to young adulthood gets underway.

Generally the question is asked in surprised response to early adolescent changes (around ages 9 – 13.)  What is happening to the child who was so simply delightful? Why must this more complex and abrasive time in their relationship begin?

What changes? In words and actions, the early adolescent seems to declare: “I am no longer content to be treated and defined as just a child anymore!” The disenchanting changes are legion. Good humored parental teasing is no longer acceptable: “That’s not funny!” Traditional physical affection is turned away: “Quit hugging on me!” Rules are resented: “That’s not fair!” Compliance is delayed: “I will in a minute.” Commitments are broken: “I just forgot.” Possessions are mislaid: “They got lost.” Personal disorder increases: “It doesn’t look messy to me.” Attention is harder to pay: “What did you say?” Argument is more frequent: “Just tell me why!” Information is less forthcoming: “I don’t know.” Truth is trickier to come by: “Since you didn’t ask, I didn’t think you needed to know.”

Witnessing these and other changes, a father shakes his head: “The wheels have come off the truck!” And a mother adds a question of her own: “Who stole our child?” Does this mean an adolescent is a child gone ‘bad?’ No. But it does mean that parents have been put on notice that as the girl or boy starts detaching from childhood by pushing against and pulling away and getting around their authority for room to grow, that the easier time of Attachment Parenting is over, and the harder task of Detachment Parenting must begin.

In this sense, adolescence is the enemy of attachment.

Detachment counters the mutual holding on that characterized childhood with more mutual letting go to allow freedom to achieve two major goals of growing up — the realization of Independence and Identity. Gathering sufficient power of responsible self-management is required to support a functional Independence. Developing enough individual experience and expression is required to create a uniquely fitting Identity.  

Adolescence is necessary because it is the re-defining process that transforms the dependent, attached child into an independent young adult. And it is a lengthy (10 to 12 year) process, usually starting by middle school and often not winding down until a little after the college age years.

Added to the necessity of detaching from childhood is driving toward independence and identity by depending on what I call five "psychological engines" of adolescent growth to get the job of growing up done.

Separation: to increase social distance and privacy from parents as the competing company of peers and confiding in friends now matters more. 

Challenge: to take risks and test capacities through braving new adventures so sense of competence and confidence can grow.

Curiosity: to rely on offline and online sources of information to satisfy an increased need to know about the larger world.    

Autonomy: to assert more opposition and self-determination to operate more on one’s own terms.

Maturity: to seek more responsibility for making personal life choices and for facing consequences, both good and ill. 

As a psychologist, I always wonder to what degree will this young person need to redefine themselves to accomplish the twin goals of adolescent growth?  

In general, I believe it’s important for parents to disregard the popular mythology of the “terrible teens.” That is mostly not so. They are neither destined nor obligated to go through agony throughout their redefining adolescent.

Very roughly, from what I have seen, about one third of young people find room to redefine well within the tolerances of parents, so the process proceeds without much family discomfort. These are what I call the “easy adolescents,” and if you get one of these, you are not likely to get a second, so enjoy, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Another third of young people seem to need more running room to redefine and so occasionally run afoul of parental wishes, protesting limits and expressing some discontent and countercultural beliefs, but in general mostly comply with the family structure parents set. These are what I call the “average adolescents,” with whom whatever encounters that do arise are usually amicably resolved.

Then there is a final third of young people who I call “challenging adolescents” who can push the parental envelope pretty hard as they redefine themselves — disobeying significant rules and limits, taking illicit freedoms, mounting stubborn opposition, and daring risky experimentation. But even here, most of these young people manage to survive themselves, as do their parents.     

So: is adolescence necessary? I believe for redefinition’s sake the answer is, generally “Yes,” particularly when you add this. As a society we sanction and support adolescence in multiple ways. We have compulsory K–12 Education, which is also the major source of childcare for working parents. We have child labor laws that keep children out of the adult workplace. And we make a distinction in our assignment of legal responsibility and standing, whether the individual is treated as a child, a juvenile, or an adult.

I think adolescence is here to stay.

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

Next week’s entry: When Your College Freshman Gets Homesick