When Parents Resent a Child for Turning Into an Adolescent
Grief at losing their adorable child can become a grievance at the change.
Posted Jul 08, 2019
You can appreciate this doting parent’s complaint about adolescent change: “From the start, my magical child and I fell in love with each other; but now it feels like he’s fallen out of love with me!”
What a loss! And for some parents, what a betrayal! “It’s like I’ve been rejected and I feel so hurt and angry! We were so close and now he’s pushing me away. It’s not right that he’s doing this to me!” And thus is parental resentment at un-childlike behavior born.
Of course, the parent is correct about rejection; but she is taking personally what is not personally meant. Adolescence does begin with rejection, in words and actions the girl or boy stating: “I’m no longer content to be defined and treated like just a little child anymore!”
Rejection of childhood, while it can refuse some old parent behavior like public hugging and holding hands and so much social time spent together, does not express any lessening of love for the parent. Now comes a time for the parent to find different ways to demonstrate that love – for example, through providing interest and empathy, structure and support, and being willing to listen at a moment’s notice, no matter how inconvenient.
When I suggested to one rejected/resentful parent that to some degree living with an adolescent is often different from living with a child and that some unwelcome changes might be expected, she corrected me with a powerful image. “Well, how would you like it if one day your devoted and affectionate dog began acting like a distant and disinterested cat?”
Her image had a piece of the truth because in some cases the adolescent transformation can be quite dramatic, or the parent can be largely unprepared for normal developmental changes from childhood that often occur as the young person begins detaching for more independence and differentiating for more individuality. Adolescence starts growing them apart. This is what it is meant to do.
None of what follows is to say that parents are destined to go through some kind of agony when their daughter or son starts growing the adolescent transformation. They are not. However, the young person is going to undergo some changes with which parents must contend, learn to live with, and need to expect.
For example, the young person may sometimes become:
Less sensitive and more self-centered,
Less agreeable and more argumentative,
Less affectionate and more standoffish,
Less appreciative and more ungrateful,
Less compliant and more resistant,
Less cheerful and moodier,
Less conforming and more rebellious,
Less admiring and more critical,
Less companionable and more separate,
Less communicative and more private,
Less helpful and more uncooperative,
Less prompt and more delayed,
Less orderly and more disorganized,
Less focused and more distracted,
Less into family and more into friends.
All these changes and many others can add up to losing a lot of beloved characteristics for parents who, feeling injured, may turn their grief into grievance against the young person: “You used to be such a great kid; what happened to you?”
Now parental resentment criticizes and blames the adolescent for normal alterations that come with growing up, changes for which the adolescent is responsible for managing, but is not at fault for creating. And now, a young person, who to some degree is already destabilized by adolescent growth, often more distant and disorganized and distracted on this account, can feel deprived of parental acceptance and support at a very vulnerable time. “Well, you used to be such a great parent; what happened to you?”
It works better if parents can adjust their expectations to fit a changing developmental reality and then continue to lovingly provide a firm family structure of responsible rules and norms for their adolescent to rattle around in, and caring communication the young person can rely on.
Resentment and Communication
One risk of parental resentment is to communication. Resentment may drive them into using inflammatory language like “lazy,” “disrespectful,” or “irresponsible” that can trigger an emotional response: “All you ever do is criticize me!” Resentful parents can be prone to blameful name-calling that only intensifies the interaction by using general terms that are unfit for specific problem-solving.
It’s best for these frustrated parents to avoid abstracts, generalizations, and labels about how the teenager is being, and stick to operational terms that describe the acts, behaviors, and events that she or he is doing. Thus, instead of angrily focusing on “what is the matter with you” the parent calmly addresses their specific cause for concern. “I’d like to discuss some of your choices that I disagree with so we can work something out.”
The High Cost of Resentment
Parental resentment not only can injure the adolescent; it can alienate the parent as well. “I’m devastated that my lovely young daughter has turned into such a self-centered teenager. She doesn’t make any effort with us and acts as if we owe her anything she wants. I used to love her company, but now I’m more inclined to leave her to herself!”
It’s better to mourn painful loss and appreciate the gift of what was given than, in anger, to turn grief into an unforgiving grievance and grudgingly start living with that. How sad for all concerned when parental resentment has its angry way. How self-defeating such a response can be.
To cope with the loss of their daughter or son’s beloved childhood time, with grief but not grievance, perhaps heed the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) warning as a good piece of parenting advice: “Resentment is like take taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” It embitters the holder and embitters the relationship. So shun resentment.
And attend to this common piece of adolescent advice to parents should it be given: “I’m not your little child anymore, so stop treating me that way. I’m changing. Get used to it!”
A parental response that might work best is one that values the past and is excited about the future. Maybe it could sound something like this. “I just want you to know that I loved our cozy childhood time together, and am forever grateful that we had it. Now I look forward to what comes next, watching you become your own independent and individual person, and being a loving and supportive part of your growing up.”
Next week’s entry: Adolescent Questions about Teenage Apathy