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August 2003
PARENTS FACING ADOLESCENCE
By Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.

This particular title was chosen for two primary reasons. First, it relates to parents becoming embroiled in their teenager's struggles and rebellion. Second, just as the teenager is struggling with the transition from being an integral part of his/her family to becoming an independent adult, the parents are struggling with the impending loss of their role of parent/protector/primary influence, which they have had for so many years.

It is important to note that this article deals with the less serious struggles of adolescence, which luckily most of you will face--although it may not seem like it. Also by focusing on these issues early, many of the more serious struggles can be avoided. For the more severe situations, please read the excellent articles by Glenn Peters, Ph.D. and Joyce Parker, Ph.D. on this web site under "Adolescence."

Why is Adolescence often such a Troublesome Period?
One of the reasons involves an interesting paradox. As teenagers mature intellectually (a positive development), they rather suddenly become aware that those whom they have trusted for so long--parents, teachers, their government--can make big mistakes. Adults can lie, may contradict themselves, and can reveal their own inadequacies. The pedestal comes tumbling down because adolescents understand they will shortly be on their own, and they suddenly realize they cannot be sure of the advice (which they reinterpret as "cannot trust") of those whom they have been turning to. They feel betrayed, angry and scared. Feeling scared is the worse, so they mask this to themselves and others with overconfidence and varying degrees of impulsively. "Let's get a cool tattoo or have our tongues pierced." This is their way of representing themselves as different from the older generation and identifying with their peer group instead. Also it is being fascinated with the power of their increased abstract thinking abilities, perceiving they can use their own bodies as art canvasses and a way to define themselves. They may also steal, in revenge for the perceived betrayal, to show these adults, whom they had previously admired, how easy it is to fool them.

The degree of turmoil varies tremendously. Adolescence is part of the continuum of one's whole life. Troubled children in troubled families, where earlier conflicts went underground rather than being worked out, is where we see problems resurface and ultimately become more critical. Also the more rigid and overconfident the parents had been and the less the children were allowed to make increasingly age appropriate decisions for themselves, the greater the adolescent's sense of betrayal and feeling lost. The more the world is seen as unsafe or confusing--such as from the events of September 11th , random killings in school and on the streets, teachers and priests having sex with minors, or police brutality--the more adolescents feel they cannot rely on others in authority and feel they must create a new world. Poverty, social prejudice, fear of being unable to achieve a meaningful, rewarding adult life are also extremely critical factors. Maturational changes in body, increased sexual feelings, expectations and demands, social awkwardness and embarrassment also greatly impair adolescents' ability to achieve a maturing sense of identity. What can occur is detachment rather than separation from parents, denial of change, and turning to rebellion rather than being able to form their own identity. All of these can lead to a decision the renowned analyst Erik Erikson expressed so succinctly: "It is better to be somebody bad than to be not quite somebody."

Parallel Growth Struggles of Parents and Adolescents
As adolescents must develop a unique identity, differing from that of their parents, so parents must face that their identity will change from being a provider and protector. Many parents haven't spent much time with each other while raising kids, and they now need to rediscover each other, which may be frightening but also offers new possibilities. For single parents, they now need to examine whether it would be best to face the challenges of dating again or at least increasing their peer contacts. This is a growing experience for all members of the family!

Adolescents feel in a hurry to be independent, forgetting their parents will still always be there for them. Similarly, parents feel in a hurry to give their last best shot, forgetting two important points. First, their adolescents as they get older will probably return to them for advice. Second, and most importantly in the long run, it is the lessons, good and bad, that parents have taught their children all their life that will most likely shape their adult behavior. It is helpful for you as parents to step back and closely examine what underlies your expectations for your adolescents. Are you trying too hard to give them what you missed in adolescence--not enough guidance--so you tend to lecture your teenager, or too much guidance--so you tend not to set limits and consequences for their behavior? Are you seeing this as your last chance to be an effective parent? If you listen closely, do you hear yourself talking like your parents did to you? Do you remember how that you felt not heard and misunderstood? Even if parents are exactly correct, they must use their suggestions selectively, because of adolescents' fierce desire to be independent. As the psychologist Haim Ginott expressed, adolescents typically view help by their parents as interference, concern as babying, and advice as bossing. Sometimes, unfortunately, they are correct as parents struggle with their own issues of separation. This is not at all to suggest that parents be uninvolved. Being uninvolved is really far worse that being over involved. What is suggested is that you watch more than speak and genuinely express your concerns and ask questions rather than lecture.

The greatest gifts families can offer adolescents is support for experimentation, limits, caring and love. It is very reassuring to adolescents when there is family solidarity to fall back upon; it is important they know they can count on parents to be against certain of their behaviors but always love them. As an aside, it is far better for parents to demonstrate this than continually tell it to them. Think about what you would like your children to remember of your feelings toward them once you are no longer here and tell them this several times a year (not every day).

Allow your adolescent to become an individual, choosing from what you have demonstrated to him/her to be in the world and also choosing how he/she would like to be different. Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society writes of the final stage of development: "healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death." (pg. 269). To humbly reframe this during adolescence, one might say, "healthy adolescents will not fear growing up if their parents do not fear letting them go."

Dr. Miller is a psychotherapist in practice in West Los Angeles and Torrance. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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