Adolescence is often a stormy time for families. One of the major reasons for this is that adolescents are beginning in earnest their crucial task of separating from their parents and family of origin and learning to become independent and unattached young adults. There is no clear manual that tells either the parent or the adolescent how to move through this stormy stage successfully. There has to be a lot of give and take. Few adolescents are prepared to cope with the various pulls such as friendships, substance use, careers, sexuality, and potentially moving out on their own. Parents have difficulty with their chief responsibility of this period, namely, flexibility in both setting limits and letting go. The main goal here is to help the adolescent attain freedom with responsibility.
Every adolescent is unique. Two adolescents from the same family may begin their process at very different times and progress through it at different rates. In addition, parents may not be able to let go or set firm limits with an adolescent because of some issue that they are struggling with themselves. For example, if Sarah, the mom, was raised by a very strict and controlling mother, Sarah’s parenting role may be either to do it the same way, take a more moderate middle of the road approach or she could go to the other extreme and be more permissive giving little structure or guidance. Sarah would explain her parenting style as: “my mother was so strict and controlling, there’s no way I would suffocate my daughterlike that.” The problem is that when I was consulting with Maddie, Sarah’s 17-year-old daughter, Maddie told me she felt her mother didn’t really care about her because she gave her free reign, set no guidelines and provided little structure. As you can imagine, when I brought Sarah and Maddie together for a meeting, Sarah was stunned to hear Maddie’s reaction and analysis. Simply put, when someone is suppressed you often get a boomerang effect. Although Sarah thought she was doing the right thing, Maddie’s disruptive behavior brought the two of them together in my office to realign what could have been a very long term, conflictual relationship.
This stage of the family life cycle that we are discussing today, is called: The Family with Adolescents, and has, because of many changes in our society, become a much lengthier process than in previous decades and is now being called by professionals “Adultolescence”(Kimmel, 2009). They suggest that we need a new phase to describe this expanding time frame at both ends – in between adolescence and independent adulthood. The start of adolescence has expanded downward by about four years in the past century to about 12 years for girls and 14 for boys. On the upper end of the cycle, these tasks of separation and independence have been spread out and changed so much that the average marriage does not occur until people are in their late 20s. Therefore, there is an increasing phase of “preparation” for adulthood during which unlaunched children may require ongoing parental support in a very changed life cycle process. It has become quite common to launch an adolescent and then have them return home for a period of time because of job loss, pandemics or failed romances. I will speak later about the need for a “Re-entry and Re-launching Agreement.” In order to cover this lengthy phase of the lifecycle, I will discuss adult-o-lescense in this column for the next two weeks as well.
Elasticity of Family Boundaries Parents have the enormously difficult task of preparing their offspring to become independent. They are expected to love and take care of their child in such a way that the child is able to leave them freely without feeling that there are any strings attached. The confusion of dealing with adolescence is that one day they need you and the next they don’t. There is a constant back and forth struggle within the adolescents themselves for independence. For weeks your youngster might be focused on his computer and want nothing to do with the family and then emerge another week looking to be totally involved. When the adolescent chooses distance, as many do at this stage to handle separation, it is difficult to know how much to pursue him or her. There is a fine line between leaving the adolescent feeling neglected and constantly nagging him or her to join you on family outings, etc.
Friendships become extremely important and romances may begin in full force. The emotional struggles of this time cannot be minimized – fears of attractiveness, having friends, being accepted, getting good grades, facing a future on one’s own – are enormous. Adolescents themselves worry about the mood swings they experience and do not need that to become a family joke.
The good news is that most of us (parents) get through adult-o-lescence and survive. But, I think the reason some of us thrive during this stressful time and not just survive is because 1.) we set the correct balance between freedom and limits for our adolescent, and, more importantly, 2.) we work on our own personal and/or marital issues that are going on at the same time as the adolescent is going through his/her adversities. It is the balancing act of not letting the adolescents’ behavior derail the parent’s addressing his/her own developmental issues. You can’t focus solely on your adolescent’s development without dealing with your own developmental issues at the same time. What are these intersecting parental and developmental issues that are going on simultaneously with the adolescent’s struggles? That is where I will begin next week. If you have any questions, please email me at: familyconsultationservices.com/articles