Adolescence and Order

Since the adolescent is more disorderly than the child, order must be learned.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

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

Consider two opposing experiences with order in life.

First is when order creates predictability and supports confidence from a sense of control. "I feel in charge of what is going on."

Second is when disorder creates unpredictability and arouses anxiety from a lack of control. "I don't know what will happen next!"

In general, people prefer order unless it is of the oppressive or hurtful kind. Thus, parents tend to feel more comfortable with the compliant child than with the challenging and changing adolescent,.

On five common counts, parents can find the adolescent more “disorderly” to live with than the child:

  • Adolescent focus, scattered by so much personal alteration and worldly exposure, can make sustained concentration difficult to maintain: “It’s harder paying attention!” Disorderly = Distracted.
  • More to learn and remember as life becomes increasingly complex can make maintaining personal order harder to do: “I can’t keep track of everything!” Disorderly = Disorganized.
  • Asserting and defending a growing need for personal freedom can inspire increased opposition to parental orders with more argument and delay: “I’ll do it later!” Disorderly = Resistant.
  • Fitting into household order can be challenged by youthful determination to live on one’s own terms in the family, hence the more untidy room: “This is comfortable for me!” Disorderly = Cluttered.
  • Interest in alternative definition and individual expression can make fitting into parental preferences for traditional order harder to do: “Well, all my friends dress this way!” Disorderly = Unconventional.

In this sense, adolescence can be more of an “outlaw age” — a time for living in contrast to and outside of the established order of childhood. Adolescent disorder is partly functional when it creates room for more individuality and independence to grow, to become one’s own person. However, between very orderly parents and a very disorderly teenager, there can be more frequent conflicts about order: “Stop being so messy!” vs. “Quit being so fussy!”

Although “order” can be a touchy topic in adolescence, it is well worth parental attention because the capacities to create order and to follow order are essential self-management skills that an adolescent will ultimately need to support responsible independence. 

Creating order

Adolescence is not only about growing disorder; it is also about learning to become more “orderly.” The capacity to create order keeps young people from living in chaos, an anxiety-producing circumstance experienced as an absence of sufficient order.

Thus in Early Adolescence (ages 9-13) rapid developmental change can cause the young person to feel extremely disorganized: "I can't concentrate, remember, or find what I want!" Thus parents provide more supervision in support. "We'll help you keep track of what you need to do until you can do so for yourself." 

While in the last stage of adolescence, Trial Independence (ages 18 - 23), the young person can feel overwhelmed by the demands of operating on their own. "How am I supposed to keep my life together?" Now trial and error experience help the young person gradually learns to assert more self-discipline.  

Taking charge of one's life

Learning to assume more independent responsibility requires taking charge of ordering one’s life. This assumption of responsibility, creating order, breaks down into a very demanding skill set for self-management that has many working parts. 

Consider what just a few of these essential ordering practices might be: structuring, planning, arranging, sorting, neatening, regulating, scheduling, budgeting, strategizing, organizing, sequencing, simplifying, and prioritizing. Creating and maintaining personal order takes a lot of work!

Personal order helps you predict, proceed, find, locate, remember, keep up with what matters to you, and feel in charge of what you have to do. The more of these skills that a young person has learned while still living at home, the easier the adjustment to living on one’s own turns out to be. 

Creating and maintaining order takes effort, subjecting conduct to responsibility when lax temptations are always calling — to kick back, to let down, to put off, to deny, to escape.  

Following order

Human beings are social creatures who create systems to live in. No individual lives independently because every person depends on a host of social systems as they conduct their lives — educational, occupational, governmental, commercial, medical, financial, legal, health care, for example. 

Thus the adolescent has to learn to follow established order to successfully function in the larger world. 

  • To drive a car one has to observe traffic regulations; 
  • To hold a job one has to accept employment requirements; 
  • To get through school one has to work with educational practices. 

Young people have to learn to go along to get along in many human systems. To do so, the teenager has to sacrifice something very dear — personal freedom to decide what they can and cannot, must and must not do. Older adolescents who have not learned to live with this sacrifice can have a hard adjustment to independence: "I still have a hard time following rules!"

Following order breaks down into a very demanding skill set for self-management that has many working parts. For example: conforming, fitting in, obeying, agreeing, complying, participating, cooperating, adjusting to, coordinating, compromising, and collaborating. Following order and playing by the rules is hard to do!

The contradiction

If the issue of order in adolescence sounds contradictory, that’s because it often is. The onset of more individual disorder opens up adolescent freedom for developmental change; while the growing capacities to assert personal order and follow social order are essential for a functional independence to be achieved.

Hence the parenting challenge: They must adjust to more adolescent disorder, while at the same time insisting that more capacities for personal order and following social order be learned.

Thus, a rebellious teenager is encouraged to transform into a responsibly acting young adult.