"Oh, he's so cute, I wish he could just stay like this." So said my daugher about her baby boy, now almost four months old. This is the same daugher who, when she was a 15 year old teen, wanted, no, demanded, permission to go to a party at a...Bar!! And we, her Mom and Dad, were to believe that no alcohol would be served...at a bar. I will never forget her comment when we both said NO: She turned to me and said, "And you call yourself a therapist???" Outch, that hurt!!!
Its a long time since then and we often talk about the old days. Very recently she told both of us that "Now I understand why you said no." She even stated that, looking back, she appreciates all the things we allowed her to do.
Over the years I have heard from friends, acquaintances and patients, the plaintive cry, "Whatever happened to that sweet, lovely child I used to have? Ever since he or she turned 14, things have been awful at home."
Of course, I have heard something parallel from teenage sons and daughters in the form of, "Why do I argue with my parents so much, and why do they treat me like a child?"
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It is important to point out that these complaints do not come from every home with teenagers. There are always those people who seem to live lives free of the types of emotional turmoil and conflict that visits so many others. In other words, there is nothing inevitable about parents and teens being stuck in constant battle with one another. However, why do so many other families become embroiled in constant arm battling with their adolescents?
Adolescent Stage of Life
The great twentieth century psychologist, Erik Erikson, wrote about the stages of human development, taking Freud's theory and expanding it to include stages of adult development up through and including old age. He viewed development in terms of psycho-social stages, with each marked by a struggle or dialectical tension which, if resolved successfully, had excellent outcomes. Adolescence was one of the eight stages that he theorized about. The tension or conflict of this stage he posited as "Identity vs. Role Confusion." Expressed another way, the task of the teen years is to consolidate a strong a sense of "Who I am, or of Me." The outcome of this task relies upon the successful completion of the previous stage of development. From birth onwards, the child learns to become increasingly competent, separate and independent. Adolescence has a lot to do with self confidence, making decisions and functioning away from home and parents.
Is every family prepared for the increasing independence and autonomy of their teenage child? The answer is maybe. To express it another way, there is a continuum on which families fall, with very prepared at one end of the spectrum and not prepared at all at the opposite end. Many families fall somewhere in between.
Depending on the level of psychological preparedness, parents will react to their child's assertion that they want a tattoo as "Well, its your decision," all the way to, "No, never, are you crazy?"
The issue may have nothing to do with tattoos. Instead, it may have to do with types of clothing worn, driving, staying out late, changes in foods chosen to eat, to have or not have breakfast, dating, or painting the bedroom wall black, or red or some other color found to be strange and unacceptable to parents.
Depending on the particular set of parents and their experiences growing up and how much they feel secure in the world and in their child, they will permit their child to make increasing numbers of decisions for themselves as they grow and develop. For other types of parents, most or all decisions are made by them for their child. For example, there are parents who are comfortable allowing their five year old select their own the shirt or blouse at the store, as long as it is not too expensive. They will also allow their child to go out and do small errands and chores around and outside the house.
To make a vast generalization, the degree to which parents prepared their children for adolescence by giving increasing but appropriate amounts of independence, is the degree to which the teenager might not have to rebel. The more authoritarian a family is, or, the degree to which independence and decision making is prohibited could be the degree to which teens might have to rebel to gain autonomy.
The main point is that the teen years are those during which parent may very well find themselves shocked and opposed to some of the things their children might demand the right to do.
Some homes are filled with quarrelling over music. If the parents loved jazz, classical, or 1870's rock music, their children might describe that as awful and boring. Then, choosing some "modern" form of rock, parents will complain that the music is nothing but jarring noise.
While parents often complain that their teens are being disrespectful, the teens will mirror the same complaint that their parents will not listen to them, will not respect their tastes in art music and friendships.
Very often parents complain that their teenage child is never home and miss the time when the family had more unity. At the very same time, teens state that they love to hang around with their friends, either on the street corner or at the mall.
It is very important for parents to understand that the conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Their teens are struggling to gain increasing control over their own lives and to know that parents trust their decision making. Its all a process of development, akin to the labor pains mom went through during the birth process.
It is easy for parents to err on the side of either attempting to exert more control over their teen no control almost to the extreme of neglect. In actuality, either way is a mistake.
There is a delicate balancing act that astute parents must use in meeting the challenges presented by their children. On the one hand, teenagers are not yet adults and can be impulsive and unrealistic in their decision making. Therefore, the continue to need a certain amount of parental guidance and protection. On the other hand, if parents react to by insisting on unrealistic limits, their children will become more rebellious and life at home will become more difficult. It is finding that middle ground that is most difficult. Despite the rebellion, the average adolescent does welcome parental guidance and help. However, that guidance must be administered with patience and the willingness to listen to what their teen is saying.
Many families worry about all the dangers out in the world. Among those dangers are sexual predators, drugs, alcohol, unprotected sex and the danger of either pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. However, no one can be protected from the world. Therefore, the best approach for families to take is to prepare their children to meet the world as it is.
Comments are welcome and encouraged from parents, teens and anyone who wishes to share their points of view.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.