The Adolescent Dance

Adolescent Dance

The young person begs, pleads and makes a remarkably persuasive case for a 2 a.m. weekend curfew. Finally Mom and Dad agree and the youngster skips happily out to meet friends. You are probably guessing what happens next. It’s 3:15 and the parents are still up worrying. The young person slips in the door and suddenly it’s World War III. The parents cancel the new freedom and the young person feels outraged because the reason for coming home late was so perfectly unavoidable.

This dance in many variations is a regular part of family life and a source of a great deal of pain. Im not sure it can be prevented but understanding what is going on can help both parents and young people to handle it better. Before we take a closer look, there is a reason I didn’t use the word “teen.” It’s because today adolescence can extend well into the twenties, so this is about adolescence, whatever the chronological age.

The adolescent really does ardently want to have greater autonomy and to handle it in a responsible way. The parents really do want to encourage responsible independence. In the dance, the adolescent acts in a way that pointedly demonstrates irresponsibility. That forces the parents to treat the young person more like a child. Each time the dance is repeated there is more pain and more conflict.

How does this happen? Yes there were unforeseen events, but despite the best intentions a series of thoughts, impulses and rationalizations from the young person were also needed to ensure a late arrival home. In a future post, I’ll tell you more about the mental black box that produces those behavior-guiding thoughts and impulses. For now, the end result, coming home late, strongly suggests that there is a hidden force in play. The lateness genuinely wasn’t intentional. That is why our young person is so outraged at the parents’ response. What the adolescent doesn’t see is that, along with inevitable random events, his own misjudgments and underestimates of the likelihood of something going wrong combined to produce the lateness. Yes, there was some degree of lack of experience, but anyone who really wanted to get home on time would have taken extra precautions. That’s why the parents wrongly assume it was intentional. So what hidden force lurks behind the adolescent’s behavior?

Is it any surprise that young people are ambivalent about responsibility? Of course they are! It is truly frightening to face an unforgiving world full of real dangers. As a child, we were shielded form this fear. Yes, we learned to cross the street, but there were clear rules. By following them we were assured of safety. Even more troublesome, responsibility means having to control your own impulses. When pleasures are so new and intense and impulses are so strong, it is truly painful to have to battle with oneself, to tell yourself, “No, I’d better not do that.” As painful as it is, it is easier to fight your parents than yourself.

So part of the young person wants responsibility and part doesn’t. But what young person will admit to being afraid of autonomy? Perhaps in a quiet moment, but certainly not to parents, who will seize on the chance to paint a terrifying picture of all that is dangerous about the world. The ambivalence goes underground and is expressed through actions like coming home late.

The adolescent is not the only one who has ambivalence. The parents respond to the young person’s irresponsibility by taking two steps backwards. Not only is the old curfew reinstated, but they regress to a younger developmental era. The parents want to return to the blissful time when their child had a list of chores to do and obeyed with a smile. By reintroducing expectations from an earlier age, parents are showing their wish to have the adolescent return to childhood. Of course the adolescent, whose job is to join the outside world, objects strenuously to the humiliation of childhood chores.

Now we are at an impasse. All parties feel righteous outrage. The parents feel their generosity and understanding has been betrayed and the young person feels that her good intentions were not only dismissed, but punished. She concludes that the parents really are out to stop her from becoming adult. As a result, she no longer feels any obligation to tell them what is going on in her life or even to tell them the truth. “You get punished anyway, so it doesn’t matter what you do.”

What started as a battle turns into a war that can stretch over years. In the end, most of the time the young person does survive intact and gradually gains enough self-control and confidence to act responsibly. The parents gradually acknowledge their child’s maturation and make peace with her becoming a different adult than the one they originally had in mind. In the end, hopefully, they are able to appreciate each other and return to the warm family bonds that once felt so good.

Is there a better way? First, some recommendations for parents:

  1. Make sure that a basic sense of responsibility and degree of self-control are in place before adolescence begins. It is much easier to instill the habits of being responsible for homework, hygiene, safety, and respect for others before they are contaminated by the need to be different. This is the safest time to give your child enough room to make mistakes and learn from consequences. Once adolescence starts, the need to differentiate from parents means that whatever is most dear to the parents will likely become the most intensely contested battleground and often that has negative consequences for the young person.
  2. Be alert to notice and recognize responsible behavior. Catch your child being grown-up. Simply taking note and letting your young person know is strong encouragement to keep up the good work.
  3. Do whatever will work to ensure success in the outside world in those areas where your adolescent has strengths. The more the motivation to grow comes from outside, the less it will be contaminated by the need to be different. Teachers, healthy friends and other outsiders are better sources of encouragement than parents. Your job is ultimately to put yourselves out of the business of parenting.
  4. Recognize that parents often have trouble not seeing their offspring as extensions of themselves. You may be trying to help your youngster with challenges that were real to you but not relevant to the new generation. You may also be over-invested in your young person fulfilling your own dreams. This can be positive, but can also be a source of discouragement and shame.
  5. If your young person suffers from ADHD, then recognize that self-mastery is significantly more challenging. Make it your business to understand how and when to modify expectations. Effort at controlling one area may be successful, but focusing on too many at a time will backfire. Organizational and time management techniques that are fine for others may not work at all for ADHD youngsters.
  6. Recognize that maturation is a moving target. Give your young person more responsibility as he or she has demonstrated the ability to handle it. The answer that is right for today will be wrong tomorrow. Overestimating can be damaging by setting up failure but underestimating will communicate your ambivalence. In the end, this is an art and will involve best guesses and probably errors.
  7. Recognize that achieving self-mastery is hard and painful, and that coming home at 3:15 is not a betrayal, but an expression of fear, and ambivalence, not to mention lack of experience with self-management.
  8. If you have to take more control at times, be aware that a young person’s job is to become a citizen of the world, not to be a citizen of the family as it was earlier. Infantilizing rules, chores and consequences will generate maximum resistance and do the least for maturation.
  9. If you need consequences, prefer positive ones, like doing hard exercise or doing something constructive that leaves your adolescent feeling proud. If you have to use negative ones, remember that your young person’s sense of time is still very short. A consequence that lasts the rest of the day or maybe tomorrow will be more effective than one that extends beyond 24 hours. Consequences should be just strong enough to curb the bad behavior.
  10. Yes, parents have rights. It is your house and you have a right to a household you can live in. A few rules, clearly stated and enforced will work better than any amount of nagging. Recognize that the rules are for you, not your adolescent. Don’t expect your young person to embrace your rules or even like them, just to follow them.

For young people, growing is a hard job. I don’t think there is an easy way to become the owner of your own life and values. It will help to realize that, without wanting to, you are nonetheless likely to sabotage yourself. It isn’t because you are bad or even that you don’t want to grow. It is your mind, mistakenly trying to keep you safe by prolonging childhood. In spite of your intentions, it sends you impulses and ideas that somehow guide you into the adolescent dance. Your parents may indeed have mixed feelings about your growing up, but they really do want you to make your own way in life. Even if you turn out differently from what they expected, the overwhelming likelihood is that, in the end, they will accept you as you are.

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