Parents sometimes throw up their hands when it comes to their teenaged daughter or son: “I have no idea what you were thinking when you did that.” “Why do you spend so much time with that group of friends?” “What are you, crazy?”
After all, their son or daughter finds themselves becoming more independent, perhaps a little more self-confident, and open to exploring different facets of their personality that previously were left untouched.
And all of this behavior is absolutely terrifying to the parents.
What happened to the kind, thoughtful, and sharing son or daughter you used to have? In fact, nothing out of the ordinary. They’re growing, learning, and exploring all that life has to offer. In short, they’re going through the normal changes of adolescence.
Maybe they’re not the crazy ones after all. Maybe it’s the parents who are nuts.
So goes the premise of a recent article in New York magazine penned by Jennifer Senior.
Yet their parents are still going half-mad. Which raises a question: Is it possible that adolescence is most difficult—and sometimes a crisis—not for teenagers as much as for the adults who raise them? That adolescence has a bigger impact on adults than it does on kids?
Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on puberty, thinks there’s a strong case to be made for this idea. “It doesn’t seem to me like adolescence is a difficult time for the kids…”
Well, not entirely difficult, anyways, in the grand scheme of life difficulties. But many teens don’t yet understand that, or have enough experience to put what they’re going through in context.
So, to them, everything new that’s happening to them actually is a big deal. That first crush? Big deal. That snide remark made by someone who you thought was your friend? Big deal. The first romantic rejection? Big deal. The teasing you got the first time you had a bad hair day? Big deal.
I might argue it’s likely a tough time of life for both parents and their teens, just in very different ways.
But parents don’t really understand this… or they try to, but fail miserably because they spend too much time acting like a know-it-all adult and too little time acting as a non-judgmental, empathetic ear. Which may be just as well, since a parent can’t always be a teenager’s friend too.
All of this stress takes its toll out on the parents’ mental health:
Forty percent of his [study’s adult parent] sample suffered a decline in mental health once their first child entered adolescence.
Respondents reported feelings of rejection and low self-worth; a decline in their sex lives; increases in physical symptoms of distress.
And it’s no wonder, since teens are expressing more and more of their autonomy and independence — to the consternation of most parents, who are convinced their teenage son or daughter simply isn’t ready for the world. They stop interacting with their parents, and parents are left mystified, upset, and left-out:
I ran across a remarkably meticulous study from 1996 that managed to quantify the decline in time adolescents spend with their families. It followed 220 working- and middle-class children from the Chicago suburbs, once when they were in grades five through eight, and again when they were in grades nine through twelve. At each interval, the researchers spent a week paging these kids at random, asking them to identify what they were doing.
What they found […] was that between fifth and twelfth grades, the proportion of waking hours that children spent with their families dropped from 35 to 14 percent.
That’s a huge decline. And the ingratitude that comes along with most normal adolescence is a huge hit to parents’ egos and self-esteem.
So what’s at the core of the problem? Perhaps it’s the teenager’s struggle to find their own identity, sense of self, and personal preferences — separate from their parents:
What children object to are attempts to regulate more personal preferences, matters of taste: the music they listen to, the entertainments they pursue, the company they keep.
The problem, says [psychologist] Darling, is that during adolescence questions of preference start to bleed into questions of morality and safety, and it often becomes impossible to discern where the line is.
And if the parents aren’t on the same page, it only increases household stress:
As children become adolescents, their parents’ arguments also increasingly revolve around who the child is, or is becoming. These arguments can be especially tense if the child screws up. […]
These fraught dynamics may explain why mothers, contrary to conventional wisdom, tend to suffer less than fathers once their children have left the home. Kate readily admits her relationship with her daughter improved once she went off to college.
In the end, most teenagers turn out just fine. Parents need to try and put their daughter’s or son’s behavior into perspective, and recall they too engaged in many of the same behaviors when they were teens. As the article notes, ““Sane parenting always involves a growing sense of how little, as well as how much, one can protect one’s child from; of just how little a life can be programmed.””
In other words, try as you might, you cannot protect your son or daughter from the world’s ills. You just can’t, and you’ll drive yourself crazy if you try.
If you take the stress out of the interactions you have with your teen, you’re going to be healthier yourself — and perhaps have a little better time of it in the process.
Read the full article (well worth your time if you’re a parent dealing with a teenager right now): Why Adolescence Is More Brutal for Parents Than Teenagers