“But everyone else is doing it.”
I do remember saying it often when I was a teen, although I can’t for the life of me remember about what. More vivid is my mother’s refrain: “If your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” Being an adolescent in the early 60’s, I probably maintained an at least somewhat respectful silence. But the truth is I neither knew where Brooklyn was, nor had any appreciation for the height of the bridge. All I knew at the time was that my answer was a silent but resounding “Yes!”
What is it about the peer group that is so compelling to teens? Think back and remember. The big push of the teen years is for independence. You wanted to be respected as a young adult. You wanted to make your own decisions. You wanted to have more control over your own life.
But you were probably also terrified. What if you made the wrong decision? What if things didn’t work out as you expected them to? What if you fell on your face and everyone knew it? This duality, the push for autonomy and adulthood, and the pull of being cared for and childhood, is the underlying tension of the teen years.
The solution? For most adolescents, it’s a game of emotional ping- pong. The kids go back and forth between assertion of autonomy (ping: “Get out of my life”) and retreat back to the parental nest (pong: “Want to go shopping?”).
Ping: They spend most of their time in their group. Being “different” – exactly like everyone else – is a whole lot less frightening than stepping off into the unknown alone. Accepting the very real but unacknowledged control of the group’s mores, fads, and activities looks like an alternative to control by parents and authorities. The kids don’t see the paradox. To them, separating from the older generation is confirmation that they are coming into their own.
Pong: And yet most teens also long for parental approval. They want our love. They want our respect. They want us to witness their efforts and their achievements. They check to see if we’re on the bleachers. They want us in the audience. They tell us not to bother coming to this or that event and then are crushed if we take them up on it. They might allow an acknowledgment after the game or show or ceremony but they absolutely don’t want a public display of affection. Ping: Close in for a hug and the kid who was glad to see you quickly checks to see if peers are watching. Hugs are kid stuff and kid stuff isn’t cool. Pong: But fail to give the same kid a high five and you’ve failed as a parent.
Confusing? You bet. It’s confusing for the adult who one minute is told to “Leave me alone!” and the next minute is asked to give some advice or is invited to watch a movie. It’s confusing to the teen who one minute wants to do almost anything to assert independence and the next minute wants to metaphorically crawl back in our lap.
As much as teens at times seem to want us to end any efforts at parenting RIGHT NOW, they do need us. How we manage the teen years can make the pinging and ponging more or less extreme, more or less upsetting. Whether they know it or not, whether they appreciate it or not, they count on us to guide them in the game of this stage of life.