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Who Is This Adult in Place of My Child?: Coping With Teens in Transition

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by Priscilla Dean, LPC

Parents and teenagers inevitably experience all kinds of conflict. This stage of development in the teen’s life is fraught with some major shifts during the ages of 13-18. The same could be said of the stage of parenting development that the parent experiences during the teen years of their son or daughter. 

The teen experiences adult emotions for the first time, begins to form opinions and to explore their identity in some real ways. For parents, their shift comes with the realization that they have a woman-child or man-child on their hands. Until this point, the parent only knows their son or daughter as the child–the emerging man or woman is as foreign to the parent as it is to the son or daughter. Many conflicts between parents and teens breed in situations where the son or daughter wants to shed the child-skin and discover the woman or man in themselves, and the parent wants to keep the child around a bit longer–after all, it’s all they know.

And who’s right? Well, both parties are right, to an extent.

Parents are right in that they still have the child inside them, and they need boundaries, like children do (“No, you still need a curfew. Yes, that skirt is a bit too short.”).  Likewise, teens are right in that they have the adult inside them that struggles for air and is desperate to experience life as an adult (Why can’t I have a tattoo if I want to? I don’t want my friends to see you pick me up from the movies”). Unfortunately, both parties tend to sit on opposite ends of this struggle, creating sometimes enormous conflicts and fights.

Some families handle these disagreements and arguments in a mostly healthy manner. Some do not. Some parents merely ignore their teen’s acting out behaviors, others respond with an iron fist of authoritarianism. In each of these approaches, there are inherent problems as well as useful solutions.

Total authoritarianism in parenting seems wrong, for some obvious reasons. Fights become control battles, and the teen can be driven to deep rage, depression and even suicide because they feel so helpless to have any say in their own lives. What is not so obvious is the cases in which there are even some useful solutions that can be brought about using more authoritarian parenting.

When a teen refuses to adhere to any rule of the household, or when the basic trust has been broken between parent and teen, an authoritarian approach can be useful for a time. Having strict rules and little freedom for the teen to make their own choices should be used when the teen’s behavior has become out of control. Trust must be earned, and freedom gradually should be brought back into the teen’s life. However, the manner in which the trust will be earned absolutely must be communicated to the teen. Otherwise more frustration and rebellion and broken spirits will flourish in the teenager. 

The main error in using this type of parenting as a primary method of dealing with conflict is that the adult in the developing child is completely overlooked and invalidated, day in and day out. When the day comes when they are sent out into the world, because they’ve rarely been given the opportunity to make their own choices under the safety of their parent’s home, they are completely unequipped to make the right choices as adults. They may rebel finally just because they finally can. Or they may feel so overwhelmed by adulthood that they may deny their need to make any adult decisions.

Simply ignoring a teen’s acting out behaviors tend to breed more acting out behaviors.
Why? Not only because the teen may be acting out to get the parents attention in order to get a reaction, but also mainly because they seek validation for the emerging woman or man inside of them. Ignoring a teens’ behaviors may not necessarily mean ignoring their teenager during conflict altogether, saying statements of emotional dismissal when they act out, such as, “Well, all teens say they hate their families, or all teens hate being at home”, or “He’s just going through a stage–he’ll grow out of it” are all examples of this “ignoring bad behavior” parenting approach. Inherent in these statements is a refusal to engage with the actual raw emotion or the specific behavior in question. And what is being created in the teen is more incredible frustration because the emerging woman or emerging man is not being validated or even acknowledged.

Think about it: if you’re in a conflict with a friend, and you say things in a passionate way for them to truly hear you, and they respond with, “Oh, you’re just going through a stage, you’ll get over it,” you are going to be even more disconnected from this friend because of their refusal to acknowledge your passionate cries. Just as in the previous approach, the adult in the son or daughter is not acknowledged or validated, they have just been dismissed. This is a type of permissive parenting that can even lead the teenager to believe that their behavior is not inappropriate–Mom and Dad don’t seem to be too bothered by it. It’s very possible that parents unintentionally can be rewarding this behavior by their attempts to remain unemotional and in control during conflict.

However, ignoring a teen’s acting out behaviors actually is appropriate in some cases. For instance, when a teen is persistently goading a parent to react to their outbursts or is attempting to have the parent validate their inappropriate behaviors, ignoring the attempts to do so is appropriate. However, ignoring should only occur after the teen’s inner adult has been acknowledged, and the desire to be an adult validated.

What’s a parent of a teen to do? In both approaches, the parents are not acknowledging, engaging, or validating the adult in the teenager. In both approaches, parent’s specific emotions about the conflict are also not being addressed in the conflict situation. either. Each party needs freedom to acknowledge their emotions, even in conflict. If a teen hurts his Mom’s feelings by his words or behavior, Mom saying so can be powerful, as long as it does not become manipulative to increase better behavior. Mom can acknowledge the man’s desire for speaking his mind in the teen, as well as communicate her own feelings in a healthy manner for the relationship to have a better chance of flourishing. For parents to realize they have a man-child or a woman-child is a powerful notion when both the adult and the child in the teenager are kept in view while dealing with conflict. It’s impossible to become overly permissive or too authoritarian with this approach.