Parenting to Support the Twin Purposes of Adolescence

Detaching for independence and differentiating for identity drive growing up

Posted Oct 03, 2016

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

From my personal perspective, there are two main developmental goals that young people, over the course of adolescence, are striving to accomplish.

One is to learn sufficient self-management responsibility to sustain a functional Independence at the end. “I can take care of myself.”

A second is to acquire a sufficient self-defining individuality to claim a fitting Identity at the end. “I positively know who I am.”

Parents are in the business of supporting both avenues of growing up; but to do so, some modifications in their early parenting must take place to accommodate adolescent change.


In childhood, two very important interpersonal connections are necessary to anchor the girl or boy in the family foundation – Attachment to parents and Similarity to parents.

Attachment is developed through acts of closeness – care taking, comforting, communicating, for example – through which parents (or parent surrogates) help nurture in the child a basic trust in dependency on these loving adults.

Similarity is developed through engaging in imitation – copying, following, and sharing, for example – through which sense of commonality creates a unifying sense of belonging with these primary adults.

Tending for attachment and play for similarity have powerful, bonding consequences at this early age.


It is with the onset of adolescence, usually around ages 9 – 13, that both primal connections begin to be strained as the girl or boy starts separating from childhood, family, and parents, as the young person's journey of growing up gets underway.

This passage begins with mutual loss. The parents will never have their adoring and adorable little child again; and the young person will never have such perfectly wonderful and ideal parents again. That time is past.

Now begins the slow process of adolescent and parent each letting each other go and accepting increasing diversity between them. This growing apart and different generally unfolds over about 10 to 12 years, usually winding down around the early to mid-twenties.

Consider how the growth of independence and growth of identity might proceed.


To seek Independence, the young person begins Detaching from childhood and from parents as life beyond the family circle out in the larger world arouses growing interest and beckons. To gain the necessary room to grow, the young person starts pulling away from, pushing against, and getting around parental authority. As the adolescent becomes more insistent on freedom and more resistant to their demands and limits, parents must sometimes exercise unpopular influence: “You can’t” and “You must.”

Detachment for parents requires more letting go, which they slowly do based on assurance of safety, citizenship in the family, and evidence of responsible self-reliance. The teenager’s detachment can challenge their traditional sense of control because, unlike the child who believes parents have power to command, now the young person knows that parents can’t make him or stop him without his consent. “My cooperation is up to me.”


To seek Identity, the young person starts Differentiating from childhood and parents. In words and actions she seems to say: “I am different from how I was as a child, I am different from you my parents, and I am going to act different than how you want me to be.”  Now the young person experiments with forms of self-expression, cultural ideas, and social affiliations. These expressions are not only new to the adolescent; they are often foreign to the parents.

Such differences are amplified and supported by the influence of peers the young person hangs out with, who are all becoming different the same way she is. Asserting individuality while conforming to belong, the young person now has company who share these new beliefs, interests, and behaviors. In consequence, parents can feel outsider to their adolescent’s emerging tastes, values, and world of experience. Their teenager’s differentiation requires some getting used to, challenging their tolerance for the unfamiliar. “That's not music to our ears!”


How can parents stay caringly and constantly connected to their changing daughter or son while, through detachment and differentiation, adolescence starts growing parents and teenager apart, as it is meant to do? Consider just a couple suggestions.


While detaching and becoming more resistant to parental authority, the adolescent is more likely to run afoul of rules and expectations. At this time words of correction are often required to encourage the young person to behave within the family structure that parents provide. While it is easy for parents, feeling frustrated or offended by some misadventure or misbehavior, to criticize the young person at this juncture, this is not wise. Criticism attacks character, inflicts injury, and can alienate an already strained relationship. “What an irresponsible thing to do!”

Better to simply focus on choices made. Consider using the mantra of Non-evaluative Correction on these occasions: “We disagree with the choice you have made, this is why, this is what we need to have happen now, and this is what we hope you can learn from this experience.” A specific statement addressing choice without censoring character works best. Parental criticism mostly hurts youthful feelings.

In addition, while the attached child was taught a compass for “responsible” behavior by parents – what is safe and wise and right, for example -- they must expect the detaching adolescent, now more determined to function on his own, to assume “responsibility” for actions taken. This is done by holding the young person accountable for the choice/consequence connection. Such after-the-fact education is taught by owning, dealing with, and learning from outcomes, good and bad, that her decisions have created. When based on painful experience, this requires allowing natural consequences of present choices to inform future thinking to teach what behaviors need to change. "I'll never try that again!" Assuming responsibility can increase the capacity to effectively operate independently. 


While differentiating and experimenting with new images, interests, and relationships for the sake of trying on and off a variety of definitions for personal fit, the adolescent is likely take on some that are outside of the parents’ personal experience, and not to their comfort. At these times, they can feel distant, even estranged, from a young person who now seems very hard to understand and relate to.  “He lives in a different world!”

It is easy for them to dismiss or disapprove the style of dress, cultural identification, or popular taste that calls to the young person. “How can you waste time on such a worthless activity?” When parents criticize in this way, they risk further estranging the relationship. Criticize trial differences and a parent can deepen division between them. This decision can prove costly when the young person feels rejected. “My parents don’t want anything to do with what I like.”

Now they allow this passing difference to become a barrier to the relationship instead of one that can bring them together. How can a difference connect them? For differentiation to be unifying, parents have to Bridge Differences with Interest. “Your new enjoyment is really unfamiliar to me. Can you tell me what you appreciate about it so I can learn?” “Can you show me how to play your video game? I’ve never played one before.”

With this educational request, the parent encourages a very powerful role reversal that is esteem building for the adolescent. Now the adolescent becomes the teaching authority, and the parent becomes the student with a lot to learn.  


Issues about detachment and differentiation will cause disagreements between parent and young person over the course of adolescence. This is not a problem to avoid but a reality to accept. A healthy adolescent’s job is to push for room to grow and definition to try, while the job of healthy parents is to restrain this push in the interests of responsibility and safety. The role of conflict is to identify growing differences, bring them up for discussion, and resolve them by some combination of communication, change, compromise, or concession.

Best for a parent to treat these conflicts not acts of defiance or contests for dominance, but as a chance to better get to know each better around a significant point of difference. Best for parents to treat the adolescent not as an opponent, but as an informant, actually the best informant they have about what is happening and what is important in the young person’s world. Treat conflict as an opportunity for important communication.

Hence, rather than shut down adolescent argument, they need to value its informative value. “Can you tell us more?” “Can you help us better understand?” They need to listen to what the adolescent is willing to tell. And of course they have to attend to the quality of communication on both sides so that everyone feels safe.

In response to increasing conflicts arising from adolescent detachment and differentiation, parents need to be able to say and mean: “We will be firm when we have to, we will be flexible and accepting when we can, and we will always give a full hearing to whatever you have to say about any differences that arise between us, as some surely will.”

All the above is why the growing up years of their child's adolescence tend to be the harder half of parenting. Compared with raising a child, there is now going to be more detachment, differentiation, and disagreement to dance with. And this needs to be expected.

So when the frustrated adolescent declares, "I'm not a child anymore, so get used to it!" she is correct. And when weary parents declare, "We intend to keep taking stands for your welfare against what you sometimes want," they are acting responsibly. 

At times in their changing relationship, both adolescent and parent have a hard job to do.  

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

Next week's entry: Helping Older Adolescents Evaluate a Love Relationship