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Adolescence and Ambivalence Growing Up

The conflicted state of ambivalence has much to teach a growing adolescent

Car Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Car Pickhardt Ph.D.

Ambivalence is the motivational inconsistency between simultaneously desiring and not desiring to make a given choice, or the perceptual inconsistency between seeing some idea or life experience in both favorable and unfavorable terms. Ambivalence can feel conflicting and confusing.

Honestly spoken, ambivalence can sound like this: “In some ways I really don’t want what I want. In some ways I favor what’s going on, but in other ways I don’t.”


Ambivalence can be a very complicated psychological mindset to manage because within an individual it demands entertaining mixed evaluations or desires or perspectives.

People who only think in “either/or” terms can have a low tolerance for ambivalence. For example, in rival generational or political camps, people on each side of a divide can see the issue only as a matter of “we are right and they are wrong.” It’s simpler to take one side than to see both. There is no ambivalent middle ground, no sense that “both points of view have something to offer.” It takes effort to entertain contrasting of opposing points of view.

On the other hand, sometimes ambivalence can be disabling: “I just can’t make up my mind!” For example, longing for the clarity of the old romantic infatuation, a last stage adolescent (18 - 23) is in an honorable conflict. “Our relationship was so simple when we were just in-love in high school. Being together was unquestionably what we wanted. Since graduating, we still love each other, but we know each other better now. We know the easy and the hard parts of our relationship. This mix makes staying together more difficult to decide.” In this case, indecision bred of ambivalence can be the enemy of commitment.


Growing up, sometimes ambivalence can be a stumbling block. For example, in Late Adolescence (ages 15 – 18) in high school when it becomes college application time for some students, a young person can get stuck in the ambivalence of wanting and not wanting to move on. They feel mixed, caught between contending desires to hold onto the security of what’s familiar and continuing to live at home, and wanting to take the next step of letting family go and moving out to operate more independently.

In consequence, the college application process can be stalled by indecision much to the impatience and perplexity of parents who may apply supervision to get the task accomplished. “To help get you off center, we will stay on your case this weekend until you get the application filled out and the essay written! Monday it needs to be in the mail!” And the older teenager partly appreciates and partly resents their “help.”

In Early Adolescence (ages 9 – 13) youthful ambivalence can make it easy to send confusing mixed messages to parents about what is wanted.

“I don’t need to be told again!” / “You never remind me!”

“You’re always on my case! / “You never direct me!”

“Let me alone!”/ “You never include me!”

“I can do it!” / “You never help me!”

Wonder parents: which way does the young person want it? The answer is, both ways for a while because growing up requires giving up some childhood dependencies and so can be a source of painful loss. Now life experience feels like it is becoming more mixed, because it is.

Growing ambivalence is part of what makes adolescence a more complicated passage to manage. “It’s like everything has become more of a trade-off the older I get! For more independence, I have to take more responsibility! To get something done, I have to make myself do it! It was simpler being a child!” Yes, it was.


In general, there is more ambivalence between teenager and parent than between child and parent. Now the adolescent drives of detachment for independence (freedom of action) and of differentiation for individuality (freedom of expression) are increasingly straining their old relationship. In the process, parent and teenager don’t always get on as comfortably as they did during the childhood years. For example, they can find themselves more frequently in more opposition and contrast than they used to be.

Where the parent/child relationship was more idealized (“You’re perfectly wonderful!”); the parent/adolescent relationship becomes more mixed (“You’re harder to get along with.”) Commonality and compatibility can be harder to find. Thus, it helps if parent and adolescent can develop more tolerance for ambivalence toward each other. Remember: this is not a loss of love.

It helps when parents can bridge increasing differences with interest: “Can you help me better understand how you are changing?” At worst can be parents with a low tolerance for ambivalence who act critical of the loss: “You used to be such a great kid! What happened to you?” No.


As for the young person, growing ambivalence, which is part of adolescent growth, can have unsettling consequences in many ways. Consider a few.

  • Ambivalence can cloud one’s view of life. “It’s harder to be clear.”
  • ·Ambivalence can cause indecision. “I don’t know which way to choose.”
  • ·Ambivalence can demand thinking. “I need to weigh both sides.”
  • ·Ambivalence can be confusing. “It’s a difficult to figure out.”
  • ·Ambivalence can be disheartening. “Either way has problems.”
  • Ambivalence can feel disorganizing. “I keep changing my mind.”
  • ·Ambivalence can resist commitment. “I must be absolutely sure.”
  • ·Ambivalence can create imperfection. “Everything feels like a compromise.”
  • ·Ambivalence can be challenging. “There are no easy answers.”
  • ·Ambivalence can provoke anxiety. “I worry about bad possibilities.”

I believe the older through adolescence a young person grows, the greater cause for ambivalence they will have. This is partly the result of finding independent life experience increasingly mixed. With rewards come risks, with benefits come costs, with gains comes losses, with certainties come uncertainties, with choices come consequences, with advantages come disadvantages, and with good opportunities come bad possibilities.

Adolescent ambivalence is not to be discouraged or stopped; it is to be accepted and utilized. It allows a young person to consider life’s complexity, using this recognition in more grown-up decisions they must increasingly make.

Next week’s entry: Parenting Adolescents and the Choice/Consequence Connection

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