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Adolescence and Pushing Parents for Freedom to Grow

Freedom is the breath of adolescent life, a necessity for being able to grow.

Key points

  • The push for more freedom of choice is essential for adolescent growth.
  • The teenager pushes to detach for more freedom of independence and more individuality.
  • The teenager feels freer than the child to decide when to comply with parents, and how much personal information to share with parents.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

There’s something almost patriotic about adolescence, about the young person bravely pushing for more liberation when parents still insist on being in charge.

For example, in response to parental authority, sometimes there will be more teenage questioning and arguing, discussing and negotiating, delaying and being reminded, ignoring and defying, all for creating more room to grow.

This can be frustrating on both sides of the relationship. It’s harder for parents to get the teenager to go along, and it’s harder for the teenager to be told what to do. On both sides, it’s important to tolerate and talk about normal frustration instead of acting out in anger. Adolescence is simply a more abrasive time in their relationship.

Freedom from parental regulation and freedom for self-direction can become principles worth contesting until, when the coming-of-age passage finally winds down, the young person claims independence at last. Let freedom ring!

The two freedom goals

Adolescence is a gathering of self-management power from childhood to young adulthood and is driven by two freedom goals that alter the old attachment and similarity to childhood and parents.

One goal is to detach from childhood and family to gradually assume functional independence, in the process creating more separation from parents.

  • Now, the company of peers competes with spending time with family. “I want my social life with friends.”
  • Now, privacy from parents is increasingly protected. “I want parents to leave me alone more.”
  • Now, life beyond the family circle becomes more compelling. “I want to spend more time outside of the home.”
  • Now, asserting more personal direction feels empowering. “I want running my life left up to me.”

By the end of adolescence, functional independence is claimed: “I can lead my life and take care of myself.”

A second goal is to differentiate from childhood and family to gradually create a fitting individuality, in the process creating more contrast with parents.

  • Now, there is more trying out new ways of believing and behaving. “I want to act older than I used to be.”
  • Now, terms of conduct with parents become more contested. “I want to object when I disagree.”
  • Now, personal expression is more influenced by fashion. “I want to keep up with the latest craze.”
  • Now, personal interests are pursued intensively. “I want to spend more time on what matters to me.”

By the end of adolescence, a fitting definition is claimed: “I want to be my own person.”

Achieving both goals, the young person can claim both agency and identity: “What I do and who I am are up to me!”

Achieving those goals is not an overnight transformation. It takes many trial-and-error choices over time, from mastery learning (how to do) and from mistake-based education (how not to do). This transformation unfolds over 10 to 12 years, usually winding to completion a little after the college-age years.

Adolescence feels freer than childhood.

Come adolescence, the young person feels increased power of choice in two important ways.

First, the child lived in the age of command, believing parental authority required strict obedience: “I must do as I’m told.” The adolescent, however, has entered the age of consent, now knowing that parents can’t make or stop the young person without her or his cooperation: “What I choose to do or not do for you is basically up to me.”

And second, where the child lived in the age of confiding, believing that parents should strictly be told the truth, the adolescent enters an age of concealment as privacy from parents becomes powerful: “My parents must depend on what I say to know what’s really going on.” And now there is more strategic reporting, more choices for selective disclosure, and sometimes lying.

Why surrender freedom to parents?

The adolescent feels empowered by freedom in ways the child did not. And yet, despite this growing awareness of personal freedom from consent and for concealment, why do most adolescents choose to give parents as much cooperative compliance and forthright communication as they do?

In the case of consent, I believe the young person can still want the protection of the family structure and parental oversight: “Sometimes they look out for me in ways that are hard to do for myself.” And in the case of concealment, I believe the young person can still want to be known: “Sometimes it’s worth telling them so I can get their emotional support.” And in both cases, there is still the desire for a loving connection: “They are my parents, after all!”

So, despite how parents can get in freedom’s way during one’s adolescence, for most teenagers, they can still be really good to have around.