The Parent-Adolescent Relationship

Consultant-parents focus on helping their teenager develop and exercise "decision-making" muscle. The outcome is at times less important than the exercise and development of the muscle.

Conventional wisdom has cast the parent-adolescent relationship as unavoidably adversarial. Both sides view the other as "the enemy" a most unfortunate and destructive role in which to be a parent or an adolescent.

This book assumes that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, it suggests a very different and more useful picture of the parent-adolescent relationship. But first, where has this adversarial notion come from, and why has it gone unchallenged for so long?

On a typical evening when a group of parents gather to discuss and learn about adolescence, we start with two brainstorming questions. The first: "When you think of the generic teenager, what descriptive words come to mind?" This list, written on the left side of a blackboard, is generated quickly.

Then we move to the second question: "What are some of the daily choices as well as long-term decisions that adolescents face while in high school?" This list also comes easily, though generally not as quickly nor as playfully as the first, and it is written on the right side of the blackboard.

Take a minute to look at the two lists in Figure 1 of the sidebar. Looking at these lists side-by-side, parents tend to have a number of reactions, best summed up as: "Anybody in that condition [words on top] shouldn't be making those decisions [phrases on bottom]." Then parents are hit by a second, more powerful realization: teenagers are in this condition, they are facing these issues, and they must be making such decisions.

As parents, you need to fully recognize this fact and reconsider your role as it relates to their struggles. This does not mean convincing your teenager to make decisions that are "right" by your standards, nor does it mean sitting by passively with your fingers crossed. It especially doesn't mean doing more of what got you through the previous 13 years of your child's growth. Adolescence is an entirely different game, and the rules and the goals have changed drastically. So drastically, in fact, that the old "tried-and-trues" often make things worse. We'll come back to this point in a moment.

When I engage teenagers in the same sort of brainstorming about their parents, the results are equally eye-opening. One set of questions is used to address three different periods in the parent-child relationship. The first time through, the questions are about an infant; the second time about a third grader; and the third time about a sophomore in high school. The questions are: "What do typical parents want for their infant/child/adolescent? How do parents show this in their behaviors and attitudes toward their child?" (See "figure 2 of the sidebar").

Clearly, teenagers see their parents as helpful and caring through childhood, and as intrusive, mistrustful, and controlling in adolescence. Quite a shift in perspective! In fact, it is such a radical shift that teenagers can't even focus on what their parents want for them; they tend to focus exclusively on their parents' negative and restrictive behavior. However, with a little prodding they can intellectually understand that their parents haven't deliberately chosen to switch from loving and caring to misunderstanding and nagging. They even get the idea that perhaps parents are not really sure how to go about this whole parenting thing with a teenager. Sure, they handled infancy and childhood without too many hitches, but that doesn't necessarily prepare an adult for adolescent parenting. When teenagers understand this, they also begin to see how they can help, even "coaching" their parents in a developing partnership. They have a lot of influence if they choose to make use of it˜quite a mind-boggling concept to most 14 year olds.

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