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Why Adolescents Can Reject Political Beliefs of Parents

During partisan times, political differences within family can be hard to bear.

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

By example and instruction, parents often have fundamental beliefs and practices which they assume their grown child will carry on—be these ethically, culturally, religiously, or politically-based. “We expect our kids to keep the family faith.” (Whatever kind of faith that is.)

When this heritage is repudiated by older offspring, parents can feel at a significant loss of continuity: “We assumed we’d always share the same beliefs!” Explains the young person: “Thinking and acting exactly like you is not how I am anymore.”

In unhappy surprise, parents wonder: “How did our young adult turn out this way?” This is not what they valued, modeled, or taught. At worst, disappointment, betrayal, or even estrangement can follow. “Our grown child’s change of mind has cut us off!”

Politically, for example, they can feel like what they devotedly followed has been rejected. “How can such liberal parents end up with such a conservative son?” “How can such conservative parents end up with such a liberal daughter?”

Hence the topic of this post: In these deeply partisan times, how can parents of one passionate political view come to terms with an older adolescent or young adult who is firmly wed to its opposite persuasion?

Start by considering the changing developmental influence of parents as their child grows.

Similarity to parents at the beginning

Childhood, up to about ages 8-9, is a time for identifying with parents and imitating parents to build a close attachment to parents. The child does so to create a primary adult relationship on which the girl or boy can securely depend and look up to. “I want to be just like Mom and Dad!”

So, to the extent the little girl or boy has any political preference, they loyally mirror parental beliefs. For example, in an election year, for decoration’s sake, they might wear campaign buttons for the parents’ candidate to school to show “I would vote as my parents do.”

Childhood is the age of growing commonality with parents.

Dissimilarity to parents at the end

Adolescence, beginning around ages 9 to 13 and ending around 18 to 23, is propelled by two developmental drives, for divergence and for separation. Now the parental challenge is to stay caringly and communicatively connected with their changing daughter or son while adolescence increasingly grows them apart, which it is meant to do.

  • Differentiating from childhood and parents, the teenager experiments with more individual expression, ultimately creating a uniquely fitting identity. “I am my own person.”
  • Detaching from childhood and parents, the teenager asserts more freedom of choice, ultimately assuming functional independence. “I make my own decisions.”

Adolescence is the age of growing contrast to parents

A challenge for parents is not to take these changes personally. Although adolescent rebellion, for example, can be acted out against them; it is not primarily about them. Rather, it expresses the young person striving for liberation from the old definition of child. For individuality and independence’s sake, the young person is using contrast to parents to help make this growing transformation occur.

How political differences can be divisive

Adolescence normally creates more diversity from parents which can sometimes be expressed in adopting opposing political beliefs—which social outlook one agrees with, which party one would vote for. For those parents whose politics are anchored in strong partisan conviction and commitment, this contrast can be hard to tolerate. What might these hard-pressed parents do?

What parents might consider

Now the focal question might be: how much difference do parents want this political difference to make? At this juncture, beware political argument because it rarely yields resolution as each party becomes more wed to their beliefs by defending and criticizing back, often intensifying the division between them.

What might they want to consider instead?

  • Rather than treat a political difference as a barrier to getting along and listening with their mind made up, treat it as a bridge, as a talking opportunity to better understand each other.
  • Rather than take personal offense, respect the individuality and independence of their grown child’s political convictions and the bravery to assert themselves in this displeasing way.
  • Rather than treat political differences as primary, keep them in perspective as only a small part of a person, and appreciate the abiding commonalities they still share.

Sometimes, political differences between parent and adult child can rend the relationship, which is sacrificed on the altar of partisan disagreement. “If we can’t agree politically, we’ll never get along!”

Back to the earlier question: How much difference do parents want a political difference to make? Do they want to give it the power to divide, divorce, or disown?

By doing so, not only do parents sustain a grievous loss, but they inflict a grievous injury to their rejected child.

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