Adolescence: A Time of Transformation

My wife and I have been married for 15 years. We have two boys, aged 14 and 11. We both have been extremely tolerant of almost all the needs and desires of our kids and now it has come back to haunt us. Our 14 year old spends at least six hours a day on the phone with his girlfriend and spends several hours a day with her. His lack of interaction with us leaves us feeling suspicious and frustrated. Neither myself or my wife have invoked much in the way of limits or consequences. I just removed the phone from his room and insisted that he go outside to try to get a life. Please help -- I just need some guidance on how to get back on track as a parent.

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

You and your children are certainly going through some changes. Be compassionate to yourself because you are losing the earlier years of closeness as a parent to younger children, especially since you stayed at home with them during that time. At the same time, you children are working to develop their own identities--the most trying task in the transition from child to adult.

While adolescence is a transformational stage in any family, many parents hit their own midlife transitions at this same time. No wonder you are feeling alienated and tossed aside. But do not take it personally. It does not mean that you have done it all wrong in the past. It is simply a time to reassess your roles as parents in your children's lives. What do they need from you now? What do they no longer need from you? The process of becoming a teenager is marked by an incredible amount of hormonal change and imbalance. Their young bodies are steeped in hormones causing physical changes that could be overwhelming. It is a period of intense self absorption and selfishness. Some psychologists jokingly refer to this developmental stage as "healthy narcissism."

Adolescence is a time when the search for identity becomes a more separate and independent endeavor. The need for parental attachment does not disappear, it merely changes. Adolescents are seeking out the company of peers while simultaneously trying to find a place for themselves in the world. These are big pressures, and they are intuitively aware of the upcoming future prospect of having to survive on their own away from the family. This can be both exciting and treatening all at once! But do not let your fears for your child's well-being cloud your view of him. Often parents project negative images of their children based upon their fears of the transition that lies ahead, without taking into account that the teenager is still amidst a very shaky developmental stage. Teenagers are "beginning adults" in a manner of speaking, and your role to them becomes more one of guidance than protection. This means that you are in transition in developing new skills and parameters to guide them on their journey.

You have raised them and enjoyed a primarily unambivalent attachment to them in their younger years. Perhaps you are feeling a bit rejected by them. But be careful you do not retaliate or punish them for their development. It is their job to grow away from you. And if you have done your job well, they will do so.

Their growing independence does not mean, however, that they do not need you! They simply need you in a different way. Continue to develop your relationships with your sons. Take them out individually to spend time together. Perhaps playing basketball or some other activity can provide a touchstone through the teenage years for connection and sharing their lives in a new way. Work to forge a new kind of relationship instead of throwing in the towel or overreacting in a rejecting or demeaning way. If you are concerned about your son's direction or how he is spending his time, tell him so. But be careful not to do it in a destructive way that shames or infantilizes rather than opens up opportunity for your guidance and suggestions. Telling him to "get a life" communicates your frustration and lack of belief in him without offering any guidance. It is a put-down. Taking his phone away does not address the problem. It is infantalizing rather than limit setting, and reduces him to a child's position, rather than helping him learn the requirements of a "beginning adult" in the family.

Instead, seek to involve yourself in one of the activities your son enjoys. Learn more about him, what makes him tick. Become interested in really grasping the man he is becoming. He needs your help, not your criticism at this time. Begin to see your relationship to your son as a period in which he needs to learn how to become a man. You can help him with this. Consider that you are apprenticing him to manhood, now. He needs you to help him grow into the unique man that only he can become. Search yourself for obstacles that might be in the way of your relating to your son, based on your own relationship to your father. Did you get the relationship with your father that you needed when you were a teenager? Did he help you find your own answers through your teen years? Or did he just tell you what to do? Did you share activities that gave you ongoing contact with your Dad on your terms as a developing young man? Did he assist you towards manhood and leaving home by guiding you, but not overshadowing your growing need for independence?

Remember, too that relating to your son is also crucial. Share your concerns about priorities in life. Develop discussions between yourself and your teenager. Solicit his opinions and his thinking about such things. This is how you will influence him at this time, not by telling him how he should be, but encouraging him to develop self reflection, morals and values of his own. Being the parent of a teenager requires different skills than being a parent of a younger child. Seek to develop these skills, connect to your son and continue to parent! These conversations will prove precious as he will find them valuable resources to refer back to when he experiences himself out of balance in his life. Remember that it is your son's job to challenge you at this point in his development. Accept this, and do not shove your ideas down his throat, just describe how and why you believe a certain way. And trust him to evaluate it.

I can't count the times through my own son's adolescence that he vehemently pronounced his very opposite view from myself on a subject, only to come to similar conclusions himself one to two months later! But this kind of behavior, I learned, was key to his growth. He absorbed the information of my experience (though denying it at the time) which he later processed with his own experience to come up with an independent answer (which just happened to be the suggestion I had made! Don't think for a minute that you do not have a profound effect on your teenager. You, as a parent, have been and continue to be the most significant influence in your son's life. It is his job to make you feel that you are no longer significant. But do not believe it! He will consider what you say, but in his own time and with independent reflection of his life experience. And so, one of the most important skills to develop as a parent of a teenager is the ability to discuss! These discussions should have room for diverse opinions, ideas and be open hearted and honest without being devaluing of your teenagers thoughts and feelings. Share your own ideas, opinions and why you see things a certain way. But remember, as your children grow, you do not maintain the same level of control you once had. They need to fly on their own, and you must help guide their beginning glides without believing that you can control their flight. But you will influence their direction if you encourage dialogue over agreement. Books such as Hiam Ginott's, "Between Parent and Teenager" or Robert and Nancy Kolodny's "How to Survive your Adolescent's Adolescence" can help facilitate discussions with your wife about adjusting to the current changes and creating your new parental identities together.

Your son will make mistakes. Let them know that you trust him to make decisions in his best interest. If you have concerns, let them know, but place it in context of their learning how to balance priorities and learn from consequences. Perhaps you remember teaching your boys how to ride a bike. If you used training wheels, they had to come off at some point, resulting in some inevitable falls in order to acquire independent balancing skills. You trusted they would be able to learn that, even though they fell. You held a picture of their inevitable success in achieving that balance. You believed in them to succeed!

Maintain a healthy picture of your sons, despite the difficulties. If you feel there is more need for accountability to you, discuss it with your wife. Consider what should be expected of these young men at this age and come up with a plan of implementation. Teenagers need to know that they are part of a family with certain required responsibilities to it, despite their self-engrossment. This does not look the same as when they were younger, however. It takes on a more adult status and expectation. Adolescents want their freedom, but they still need your care. Establish areas of responsibility (household chores, cooking one dinner per week). For example, when my son reached driving age he agreed to weekly grocery shopping for the family. This combined his newfound freedom to drive with a new, more adult responsibility to the family. In this way, adolescents learn that freedom is also grounded in responsibility and discipline. And being loved and cared for in relationships is a two way street.

Do not berate yourself with self doubt. Trust that you have done a good job raising your sons. And realize that the appreciation for your fatherhood must come from your wife. She is your co-parent. Do not expect it to come from your children at this time. They will have plenty of appreciation for you when they mature into adulthood. But for now their job is a selfish one which includes preoccupation with themselves and separating from you. Your job is to remain connected in a new and different way to both your sons and offer guidance in the form of established structure for responsibility and accountability that will build respect into your changing relationships. 

Enjoy the changes that can come with living with "beginning adults" who can contribute in more adult ways to family responsibilities. And who eventually will let you back into their hearts more openly.

Who ever said that anything that is worth waiting for was easy? When the butterfly finally emerges from its dark cocoon, lightness returns. The experience of the transformation is felt by all. Perhaps this kind of shared experience is what "being family" is all about!

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