Contributed by Jeremy Moeggenberg, MA
As a therapist working with many adolescents, I have seen the spectrum of problems that families can run across when roles are not well defined. Many of the adolescents that I see are having problems at school and/or at home, are having issues related to drug or alcohol use, or their parents feel that they can no longer “control” them as they mature into young adults. Many parents wait until the problems facing their family are so dire that they are ready to throw their hands in the air and give up. The most common set of instructions I get from parents is to “find out what is going on with my child and fix it”.
The most common problem I have seen is parent’s confusion as to what roles they should play during adolescence. Some parents feel like adolescence is a time to reign in their child and protect them from the dangers of sex, alcohol and violence. These parents typically take an authoritarian role in the lives of their children, setting at times unfair or unrealistic boundaries and working under the idea that, at this age, children need a parent and not a friend. The downfall with this approach is that it assumes that parents can always protect their children from life and, if they can keep them in this protective cocoon for long enough, their children will eventually come out the better for it. Like all individuals, however, adolescents must learn not only from the knowledge of their elders but also through their own mistakes.
I have also seen the complete opposite, where parents take a completely hands-off approach to parenting and begin to see their adolescent children as friends. I can recall a myriad of stories about parents who would let their children drink if they did so safely at home, or who would extend a curfew provided that their children maintained passing grades at school. In short, these parents did not set boundaries because they wanted their children to like them – they often confused the idea of being liked by their children and being respected by their children.
A few months back, one of my mentors gave me the best description of the role of a parent during the adolescent years. Being the father of teenagers himself, he explained that he felt the role of a parent during a child’s teenage years should be somewhere between parent and advisor. The idea is that children would have limits on their behaviors, such as curfews and check-ins; would attend family functions, such as family meals and activities on occasion; but would also feel safe to run ideas past their parents on advice on life. After all, isn’t part of adolescence learning to think for oneself and growing into an individual while doing so in the safety of a secure environment?
I’ve found that teenagers raised by authoritarian parents will often rebel and do what they please, or will enter into a state of learned helplessness where they just stop trying to make choices for themselves. These are also those who will still explore their own individuality, just later down the road at college or on their own when their parents are far behind them. On the opposite side of the coin, the teenage children of permissive parents will tend to make choices that they are not completely informed of or ready for. These teens may experiment sexually, with substances or make other poor choices for their age range. They will also most likely be the teens that will throw out the dreaded “I hate you!” and not respond when their parents finally do try to set down limits.
The best analogy that I have heard regarding parenting is as follows: when children reach their early to mid teenage years they effectively “fire” their parents and begin to explore their own individuality. If parents are able to watch over their children and allow them to fail at times when it is not going to result in catastrophic consequences their teenagers will bring them back as advisors and accept feedback and suggestions while still making their own choices. The role of teens in this scenario is to seek their own identity and create their own value system. The role of parents would be to still set limits but to more carefully choose their battles forming hard lines against activities or choices that could be dangerous for their teens while still allowing their adolescent to make choices on more minor items at first and building more trust and freedom as they make better decisions and grow older. Teenagers, like almost all adults that I have encountered, are better at accepting advice than orders.
The overall goal of adolescence is for teenagers to find their own personal identities and values. While this is difficult for many parents to handle it is a necessary part of growing up. By choosing battles and acting as advisors, parents have the ability to shape the path their teens follow but not control it completely. The end goal of adolescence is to form an individual who shares the standards and principals of their parents, but who is not an exact clone either.