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Parenting Adolescents Through the 4 Freedoms of Growing Up

Each kind of freedom empowers a different opportunity for growth.

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

Consider four basic freedoms that cumulatively drive adolescent growth and are each often associated with a developmental stage that marks the way.

Each push for freedom offers a mix of gain and cost and gives rise to an array of developmental changes and parenting issues in response.

1. Freedom from Rejection of Childhood

Growing forward during the late elementary school years, young people experience adolescence as an awakening: continuing to be defined and treated as just a child no longer feels OK to the girl or boy. Now begins Stage One of Adolescence: The Separation from Childhood (ages 9-13).

Freedom is gained by discarding the old child definition in the family and starting to redefine more assertively: “I can do it myself!” “Stop telling me what to do!” Now some cost is to be paid when missing what is lost: The young person can never go back home to that more secure, supportive, simpler, sheltered life left behind. Growing up requires giving up.

It’s important for parents not to take this rejection personally. It is not a rejection of them, but of the girl’s or boy’s definition of a child and acting that old way with them. This rejection is often expressed in less acceptance of traditional physical affection, and parents can miss what is lost. In addition, they can miss the child’s old eagerness to please as more active (arguing) and passive (delay) resistance is expressed to assert growing independence. As a consequence, parents usually have more disciplinary encounters to manage.

Now an essential parenting skill is the non-evaluative correction of misbehavior to keep it free from criticism and so not damage adolescent self-esteem. So they need to take issue with decisions, but not attack character: “We disagree with the choice you have made. This is why. This is what we need to have happen now, and we will listen to all you have to say.”

2. Freedom with Age-Mate Association

Growing forward during the middle school years, teenagers increasingly gravitate to the companionship of peers who are now a better social fit than parents. Now begins Stage Two of Adolescence: Forming a Family of Peers (ages 13-15).

Freedom is gained through comradeship with those undergoing similar developmental changes: “My friends know me best!” “My friends are me!” Now, some cost is paid as relationships with peers become much more complicated than the old enjoyment of simply sharing the fun with younger playmates. Pressures of social acceptance and social conformity begin to build. On the hard side is more social meanness (teasing, excluding, ganging up, rumoring, and bullying) than before. Growing up requires getting along.

It’s important for parents not to believe that as peers matter more, parents now matter any less. Parents remain of lasting importance, while peers have more passing value. That said, it’s important that parents understand how the youth culture of their teenager is now differentiating from the parental one in terms of interests, values, and what popularly counts. Unless parents make an effort to stay in touch, this change in mattering can be estranging.

Now an essential parenting skill is bridging growing differences with interest. It’s important that these differences are not treated as barriers but bridges to understanding.

So rather than ignore, discount, or disparage what is culturally important to the teenager but is not to the parent, the mom or dad can ask: “Could you help me appreciate the music you love to listen to because it’s unfamiliar to me?” Or: “I would love to try and play that computer game if you would show me how.” And now not only is a connection made, but an esteem-reversal has taken place: The teenager has become the teacher who knows more, and the parent has become the ignorant student who has a lot to learn.

3. Freedom for Older Experimentation

Growing forward, during the high-school years, teenagers find adult activities compelling, prompting the desire to become more worldly-wise. Now begins Stage Three of Adolescence: Acting More Grown-Up (ages 15-18).

Freedom is gained by satisfying curiosity about adult activities: “I want to see what it’s like!” Now some cost is to be paid when endangering risks are taken, and harmful outcomes can occur. Among peers, more adventuring with older activities is often urged: “You’ll never know unless you try it!” Engaging in older activities is treated as a rite of passage that affirms maturity. Growing up requires gathering older experience.

It’s important for parents not to deny or ignore interest in the forbidden, but to speak to youthful curiosity from their life experience and knowledge about such things as living lawfully, treating police stops, safe dating, substance use, partying, romantic attachment, sexual activity. “Now I have to talk with my teenager about some things I wish I didn’t have to.”

Now an essential parenting skill is teaching predictive responsibility. Not only does the young person need to own consequences for actions taken, she or he also needs to routinely take the time to assess risks in doing something new. This only requires taking a few moments to ask: “Why would I want to do this? What risks are involved? Are the rewards worth the risks? If I manage the risks and things still go wrong, what is my back-up plan?” The best protection is often thinking ahead.

4. Freedom of Emancipation and Self-Rule

Growing forward during the college-age years, adolescence winds down when functional independence of moving out, self-supervision, and self-support are taken up. Now begins Stage Four of Adolescence: Stepping Off on One’s Own (ages 18-23).

Freedom is gained by assuming self-reliance and self-direction: “From now on, I only answer to me!” Now some cost is paid as dependence on parents for structure and guidance has been given up. It’s easy to feel alone and overwhelmed by the many challenges that functional independence brings. Because so much change is happening all at once—what is simultaneously starting, stopping, increasing, and decreasing that must be dealt with—life can feel very stressful. “I never thought independence would be so hard!” Growing up requires managing more.

It’s important for parents not to panic when their last-stage adolescent proves unready to shoulder so much new responsibility at once, as some slipping and sliding and missteps inevitably occur. There is a lot to understand when confronting the challenges of adult independence, and mistake-based education (instruction from the errors of one’s ways) is part of how that education is accomplished. What the young person needs is not rescue or criticism from parents, but their encouragement to learn from hard experience. “On the good side, going forward, you’ll know more than you did before.”

Now an essential parenting skill is shifting from manager to mentor, from a vertical (authoritative) to a horizontal (equality) relationship based on mutual respect. This is essential if the young person is going to be able to benefit from the learning and lessons from a longer life that parents have to offer. The parent respects the right and responsibility of the adolescent to make her or his own decisions; the young person respects the worldly experience and advice parents have to offer. At best, the young person can say: “Having my parent to talk to is like having an older and wiser second head on my shoulders.”

In all four cases, freedom rarely simplifies; it mostly complicates.

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