The Changing Reputation of Parents With Their Adolescent

After being idolized by the child, adolescent criticism can be a come down.

Posted Aug 22, 2016

For young people, there is a harsh awakening about reputation in mid-adolescence (ages 13 – 15) when social belonging and status in one’s newfound family of friends becomes vitally important for personal well-being.

It is now that the young person quickly and sometimes cruelly is made to understand how it’s far easier to affect other people’s reputation than it is to govern their own.

“Even acting my best, my good name is only as good or bad as other people decide for it to be.” Reputation has to do with how one is socially evaluated and esteemed by others; and no one controls their own. 

In like manner, parents can find that with the beginning of their child’s adolescent passage their reputation can suffer some unpopular changes in these youthful eyes. These are changes they do not control that are often associated with dynamics of adolescent growth. Now, for example, the parent who the child thought could do little wrong becomes, in early adolescent eyes, the adult who does less right.  Reputation is founded in the eye of the beholder.

Consider what some of these reputation changes might be and why they might occur through four stages of adolescent growth, and into young adulthood, starting with childhood, saving the best for first.

Childhood: “My parents are perfectly wonderful.” Parents are idealized.

In the wondering eyes of the child, parents are giants with powers and perfections she or he looks up to and longs to possess. Not only does the child want to be closely attached to parents, the child wants to be similar to parents too. The mutual admiration and affection relationship that bonds parent and child is a magical one, deeply valued and hard to let go. Each loves to shine in the other’s eyes. Thus the onset of adolescence gives both a lot to lose.  

Beginning to detach and differentiate from childhood for room to grow, the girl or boy now starts becoming more discontent with being defined and treated as just a child, while life within the familiar family circle feels more confining than before. Enter mutual loss. The girl or boy can’t grow into adolescence without giving up and letting go much in childhood that will be missed, among which is the exalted standing of parents in their eyes.

Henceforth, as more distance and differences come between them, the young person will never have such perfectly wonderful and closely congenial companions again, while parents forever lose their adoring and adorable little child. As adolescence proceeds, parental reputation can undergo a predictable variety of changes.

Early Adolescence (9 - 13) and the Separation from Childhood: “My parents can do little right.” Parents are criticized.

All through adolescence, parents provide adult modeling power for their daughter or son. Adolescence is about wanting to grow up, and parents are usually the most immediate and powerful models of acting grown up that the young person has.

The immediate problem an early adolescent has, however, is how to alter the idealized image of parents learned in childhood. No young adolescent can afford to have a perfect parent because who can measure up to that?

Somehow, the young person has to down-size the adult’s reputation to a regular person like her or himself. So the young adolescent picks out and points out failings and frailties and flaws and faults that the girl or boy can identify with and relate to as she or he enters the trial and error process of growing up. “I may not do everything right, but neither do you!” And now, through more criticism, the young person manages to cut parents down to acceptable and relatable human size.

In addition, for the young person, early adolescence is partly about letting the “bad” child out.  This doesn’t mean morally or legally “bad,” but more abrasive to get along with—more disorganized, more disorderly, more negative, more resistant, more testing of traditional family limits. To be able to let the “bad child” out, it helps to have “bad parents” to justify such a turn for the worse. This way, responsibility for the more contested relationship doesn’t feel all one-sided. “You’re not so easy to get along with either!”     

Mid-Adolescence (13 – 15) and Belonging with Friends: “My parents are best kept away.” Parents are ostracized.

As the adolescent pushes for personal freedom, and affiliation with peers grows more intense, parents can feel pushed out and kept out of the way. The permanently closed door on their room seems to signify that the area has become posted: “Keep out, no parents allowed!” Now the young person becomes increasingly focused on self, being left alone, immediate gratification, having fun, and time with friends. While parents understand the normalcy of these preoccupations at this more self-centered age, they also take stands and make demands for adequate balance to maintain healthy family membership at home.

“It’s okay to focus on yourself, but you also have to consider others.” “It’s okay to be left alone, but you also have to be social at home.” “It’s okay to want your needs and wants met now, but you also have to delay satisfaction and even do without.” “It’s okay to want to have fun, but you also have to work, sometimes before or instead of having fun.” “It’s okay to have time with friends, but you also need to spend time with family.”   

It’s when parents take stands for balance that the adolescent sees them as standing in the way of freedom to do and to have and to go. Now complaints can be made about parents being in the way. Then there may sometimes be occasions when significant misconduct occurs and some consequence must be paid. Since the most dreaded consequence of all at this age is some temporary loss of existing or possible freedom, the young person is tempted to cover up wrong-doing by denial, excuses, blame, or lying.

However, parents cannot allow a pattern of preserving freedom by escaping responsibility, so once more they stand in the way of an errant teenager who may not appreciate being held to honest account. “You never believe anything I say!” To which parents reply: “We do when you tell us the truth.”   

Late Adolescence (15 – 18) and Acting More Grown Up: “My parents are out of touch.” Parents are marginalized.

It’s during the high school years, when a young person has increased social interest in trying activities that are more socially liberating and “grown-up,” that parents find their advice about older risk-taking devalued and discounted. “I know all about it!” “It won’t happen to me!” "You don't understand!" Thinks the parent: “You don’t,” and “It might,” and “We do.” Why are their advice and warnings so firmly dismissed?

This is one of the harder parts of parenting adolescents at this “acting older” age. On one level the adolescent knows that acting more grown up, like peers are doing and reporting, requires risk-taking that exposes oneself to many dangers. Significant risk taking is scary—be it driving a car, going to parties, falling in love, trying substance use, becoming sexually active, even just hanging out, for example. Although frustrating to parents, the power of denial is that it defends against fear, enabling risk-taking that would otherwise be refused. 

What is very important for parents at this juncture, when they often feel sidelined in their adolescent’s life, is to keep calling out the risks as they see them, as the young person appears to deny what they have to say. Forthright advice about safe driving, safe substance use, safe sex, for example, if the teenager is determined to engage in these activities, is essential for parents to provide, even as they are told they are too removed from teenage reality and so can’t relate.

From all that I have ever seen, although parents don’t always listen to their adolescent, adolescents mostly listen to what their parents have to say. This is an age for parents to speak up, and not shut up about older risk-taking, even while bearing the reputation that they are “out of touch.”

Trial Independence (18 – 23) and Operating More on One’s Own: “My parents know more than I thought.” Parents are utilized.

It is during the final phase of adolescence, when the young person is stepping off into more functional independence than they have experienced before, that parental reputation with their daughter or son begins to take a positive turn.

What usually happens is that the young person finds all this freedom more than they can entirely manage responsibly and so out of ignorance or misjudgment get into some life difficulty. Now they need knowledgeable advice they can rely on about how to choose their way out of the problem they have chosen their way into. They need to resort to their parental brain-trust of longer life experience.

They can only take advantage of this reliance if parents have made the change from a managing role (for the first three stages of adolescence) to a mentoring role (for the final stage.)

Essentially this change involves parents moving from a vertical (superior) to a horizontal (peer) relationship in which parents are no longer in the business of telling their daughter or son what to do, but rather available on request to share what they have learned during their longer life about the dealing with the issue of concern. They can even self-disclose what their hard experience has taught. “You need to know that we went through our own mistake-based education and had to learn some tough life lessons the hard way."

Hence the implicit contract at this age: parents respect the adolescent’s right and responsibility to make her own decisions, while the adolescent respects the wisdom of life experience parents have accumulated that is there for the asking. And the asking is safe to do because the parents do not express worry, disappointment, disapproval, criticism, frustration, impatience, anger, or despair, only a willingness to share out of what they have learned along life’s way, often the hard way, for what use that may be.

It is during this last stage of growing up that parental reputation with their adolescent can be positively restored.   

Now Mark Twain’s observation about parental reputation can be worth remembering. “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Sometimes I think the best psychologists are not “psychologists” at all.