Early Adolescence and Losing Popularity with One's Child

Growing up requires some falling out of childhood favor

Posted Nov 30, 2020

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

For some parents, the onset of adolescence (starting around ages 9 – 13) can be dispiriting when traditional popularity with their child falls away. 

What can happen  

An account of this change might sound like this. 

“What happened? We used to have such a great relationship, but she’s become so irritated by me now. In endless little ways, I’m hard for her to stand. That’s when she’ll have something critical to say. Like this morning, I’m spreading butter on my toast (I use the back of a spoon) and she asks: “Mom, why do you have to be the way you are?” Grumpy with herself, she takes it out on me! At worst I feel treated like an enemy! Is she going to grow up hating her parent, blaming all her problems on me? It used to be I could do little wrong, but now I can do little right! Who stole my child?”  

Then there’s the son who was proud to have parents watch his elementary sports, but not anymore. Now he’s making an ‘invisible spectator’ request. “If you have to watch my game, please sit off to the side where I can’t see you, don’t make a lot of noise cheering, and afterwards don’t come down and congratulate me. Just go to the car. I’ll meet you there.” At an acutely self-conscious middle school age, the public association with parents can feel socially embarrassing with peers. 

What’s going on?

Credit adolescence and the transformation it creates -- developmentally changing the child, the parent in response, and the old relationship between them.  

Thus adolescence begins with loss. Parents will never again have their adorable and adoring little child who doted on their company, while the adolescent must give up the perfectly wonderful parents they once idealized.  Neither can ever go back home to the simpler, secure, sheltered world of childhood they once shared. 

Adolescence is the insecure and awkward coming of age passage that starts around ages 9 – 13, the 10-12 year transformation of little girl into young woman, of little boy into young man. This developmental change begins with the separation from childhood, the girl or boy no longer content to be defined and treated as just a little child anymore. 

Rejection for separation

Not interested in “kid stuff” anymore (playing old games or with treasured old belongings) now these have been cast into the discarded pile of “what I don’t do anymore.”

And in relationship to parents there is some rejection of the old hugging and snuggling expressions of affection which the child loved, now misses, but can no longer afford to accept.  “Don’t keep kissing on me!”

Now, as parents become less popular company, the companionship of friends, all changing like the girl or boy is, becomes increasingly powerful as peer group belonging and support matters more. A second social family is being created to which parents are outsiders.   

Growing up is growing apart

Growing up requires giving up: this is why adolescence is often an act of courage. So much old definition must be forsaken to create freedom for new definition to be claimed. This change proceeds on two levels that both alter the old relationship with parents to some degree. The challenge is to stay connected as they grow apart.

  • Detaching from childhood and parents to assert independence creates more conflicts over freedom of action. Complaint: “You never let me do anything!” However, parents can turn this conflict into communication by listening to the opposition. Connection: “I always want to hear whatever you have to say.” 
  • Differentiating from childhood and parents to express individuality creates more contrasts in personal likes and enjoyments.  Complaint: “I’m not the same as you!” However, parents can bridge differences with interest to relate to what matters to their teenager now. Connection: “Can you help me appreciate this too?”

On both counts, parents can feel less popular with their adolescent than was so with the little child who prized the harmony and similarity of parental company. Now they are more often in the way and out of touch.

The adjustment

My favorite description of this loss of parental popularity was given to me years ago by a mom explaining her anguish at seeing adolescence change the old cozy relationship with her beloved son. To get me to understand, she asked: “Well, how would you like it if you woke up one day to discover that your affectionate dog had turned into an indifferent cat?”

That caught my attention. We spent a few minutes educating my understanding. In summary, the ‘dog’-child that had been mostly friendly, compliant, close, playful, predictable, communicative, and warm now often became a ‘cat’-adolescent that was more aloof, contrary, distant, prickly, unpredictable, private, and cool. 

Of course, the love between her and her son had not changed, but at times the relationship had become more challenging to manage than before. As commonly happens, the harder half of parenting was coming last.