Today we will be continuing the adolescents’ journey towards discovering who they are, their need for limits, the balancing act for parents trying to reach agreement on decisions regarding their child’s process, and also, looking at what stage the parents’ are going through while their child is going through adolescence.
Setting Limits: The correct balance of freedom and limits that is necessary in order to develop a responsible young adult is not easy to strike which is why the tug-of-war is so stressful at times. When is the adolescent ready for this freedom and responsibility and when is there still a need for limits?
Adolescents try to assert their independence and separateness in many different ways. One common characteristic is the disagree to which they vacillate on so many things. They see you, as a parent, being wonderful one minute and positively awful the next; one day your ideas makes sense and the next you know nothing. The adolescent exhibits wide swings in regard to mood, degree of responsibility, and attitude towards family values, rules and traditions. Adolescents will often test, attack or disregard some parental values as part of their way of establishing their own values and identity. When this happens, it is very important for parents not to change their values, but to be firm and make their values known, stating clearly what expectations they have about the adolescent’s behavior while living in their home.
The setting of limits is crucial during the adolescent stage. Since this period is seen as a major thrust by the adolescent to separate from his or her family, it is important that the adolescent has something to move away or break away from. If parents keep changing their values, rules, and positions on issues because of resistance or uproar from their adolescent, they will not be helping their child find his or her own value system but rather will be confusing him/her more. This does not mean that rules should be laid down in cement but that parents need to be both firm and flexible in handling their adolescent. A firm yet flexible position is more difficult to maintain because it calls for more judgment than if one adopted a rigid or laissez-faire position. It is fine to compromise and negotiate on certain reasonable issues; that is where flexibility comes in.
Using the analogy of a family sailboat, adolescence can be seen as a very stormy time in which the boat will be rocked, water will come roaring in over the sides, lightning will strike, and the course may need to be adjusted to avoid rocks and shoals, but hopefully, the boat will neither capsize nor lose its direction. If the captains (the parents) do not hold a firm course through these turbulent waters, the surges of adolescence will throw the boat and all its crew off course.
Let’s talk about the captains for a moment. There has to be agreement when trying to steer a course; you cannot sail North for a while and then South for a while and hope to get anywhere. This is often what happens when parents are not communicating well while trying to navigate these turbulent waters. When parents are unable to agree on how to manage their adolescent, the entire family is in trouble. Adolescents will always play their parents off against each other where possible.
Parental Issue Intersecting with Adolescent Issue: During the turmoil of adolescence, it would be easy for parents to lose sight of their own developmental tasks, which are to focus on their own midlife marital and career issues. It would be so much simpler for a couple to try to shape up their adolescent than to take a serious look at where the marital relationship is headed.
Sexuality is one of the most potent issues of adolescence. The teenager’s sexual development can trigger an unresolved parental issue, thus making it extremely difficult for the parents to deal constructively with their child. Some couples with teenagers describe their own sexual interaction as being routine, infrequent and “not what it used to be;” even to discuss this issue, would provoke an argument. The intersection of this parental problem with an adolescent’s budding sexuality intensifies the conflict. The parents may over focus in a rigid fashion on their adolescent’s normal sexual development and curiosity as a way of not dealing with their own sexual issues. In addition, the adolescent in tune with his or her own growing sexuality and in conflict with the values of the parents, may flaunt their sexuality in front of the parents as if to say, “what’s the matter with you guys… don’t you ever do it anymore?”
In remarried-families, the newly married parent and step-parent, or the parent with a live-in partner, can easily throw the sexuality issue on center stage. The expression of intimacy and sexuality by a parent towards a new partner can be very difficult for the children depending on their ages. You would hope that grown-ups could be grownups, but that isn’t an easy situation. This newly re-married couple is trying to go through the normal stages of intimate expression of love for each other with an audience of budding teenagers.
We have a few more issues to cover before we finish this stage of The Family with Adolescents. I will finish this in next week’s column. Please email me any questions that you may have, and I will gladly answer them for you in next week’s column. Let’s continue this discussion below.