Adolescence and the Perils of Parental Pride

When parental pride is not the approval a teenager wants.

Posted Sep 08, 2020

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

It feels odd to write a blog post about a common parental statement of approval, but I have seen this one miscarry with some adolescents to damaging effect. The statement in question: “I’m proud of you!”

Most times, this adult expression is well-intended and received as a direct commendation and that works well—but sometimes not so. Now what used to please the child, for example, can provoke the adolescent to say, “Stop saying that!” 

Why would a traditional parental compliment now cause offense? Let's start at the beginning.

Parental pride in childhood

Childhood begins with an equivalence statement: parent = child. “We are primarily attached. We are bonded by love. We are intimately connected. We need each other to feel whole. We are one with each other.” Retaining closeness and sharing commonality is now the rule.

For a young child, pleasing parents is a big deal. She or he fills up with pleasure when receiving their admiration, “We’re so proud of you!” The child thinks: “I’m really proud to have my parents proud of me!” Pleasing those in charge at this early age feels ultimately affirming. In response to parental pride, the child can feel approval of themselves. 

Parental pride in adolescence

Although the adolescent still wants to please mom and dad; at a more detaching and differentiating age their statements of parental pride can become more complicated to accept. Why might this be so?

Adolescence begins with a separation statement: parent // adolescent. “We are growing apart, we are different from each other, I make my own choices, and increasingly must find my own way.” Expressing individuality and asserting independence is now the rule. 

At the rebellious extreme, there can be a teenager who proudly disdains parental pride. “I’m not your little pleaser anymore! I’ll please myself! I’m separate from you, I’m different from you. And if you don’t like how I’m acting I must be doing something right because I’m going to be my own person, not yours!” 

In response to a statement of pride, this teenager can feel that their personal accomplishment has been co-opted by their parents. How so?

Objection to parental pride

The adolescent can still value their approval, but not when expressed as parental pride.

“When you say you’re proud of me: 

  • You’re valuing me based on how I do,
  • You’re pleased I’m acting how you want,
  • You expect me to keep on doing well,
  • You praise your parenting when praising me,
  • You measure your performance by my own,
  • You want to make my achievement yours,
  • You depend on me to support your reputation,
  • You really compliment me to compliment you,
  • You act proud of me to feel proud of yourselves.”

Feeling any of these ways, statements of parental pride can feel exploitive, like a credit theft, offensive to some adolescents, expressing a kind of vanity parenting that is resented. “My efforts are about me, not about you!”

An alternative to “I’m proud of you”

In such cases, when choosing to praise your adolescent’s performance, be on the safe side. Rather than declaring “We’re proud of you!” or “You’ve made us proud!” both of which can be interpreted as self-serving, keep the credit and congratulation where they belong by simply saying, “Good for you!” 

In addition, rather than expressing global admiration or approval, parents can identify what the teenager particularly did that impressed them: “You didn’t lose your cool in a pressured situation. Instead, you kept your concentration which is really hard to do!” Now from parental valuing, the teenager has specific cause to appreciate and esteem her or himself.

Beware communicating loss of pride

Finally, parents should remember that just because they have a teenager who is offended by statements of parental pride, that doesn’t mean she or he still doesn’t want to shine in the eyes of their parents. It’s part of the contradiction of managing this complicated emotion. 

Thus beware communicating a loss of parental pride to their adolescent. Such crushing statements can include:

  • “You’ve really let us down,”
  • “You’ve disappointed us,”
  • “You have embarrassed us,”
  • “We are ashamed of you,”
  • “We give up on you.”

Such statements can devastate an adolescent when they are understood to convey not only a loss of valuing, but a loss of loving standing in parental eyes: “My parents will never think well of me again!”

So maybe more important than taking pride in children is feeling grateful for children. Parents can communicate this by simply saying, “Thank you for being the person who you are.”