ERIC Identifier: ED291018
Publication Date: 1987-12-00
Author: Klimek, David - Anderson, Mary
Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Understanding and Parenting Adolescents. Highlights: An
Living with a teenage son or daughter on a daily basis often makes
parents feel anxious, angry, uncertain, or inept. Despite the occasional horror
story regarding adolescence, the majority of teenagers in America navigate this
phase of development quite well. Unfortunately, parents cannot know with
certainty the health and strength of their adolescent until several years after
they leave this phase (Klimek, 1987). On the one hand, parents may have some
control over their child's behavior and may get their youngster to conform to
their standards, but the child's personality may not be developing in optimal
health. Conversely, the adolescent who goes against the grain of the family,
especially a dysfunctional family, may look ill on the outside, but may be
coming into his/her own health on the interior. In short, the process of real
growth during the adolescent years (and in adulthood) may not be easily
discernible even by child development experts.
PSYCHOLOGICAL TASK OF ADOLESCENCE
The task of becoming one's own person, as opposed to mimicking parental and
societal roles, is the major job of adolescence. This process, however, is not
simple and in many respects is similar to the mourning-loss-grief phase seen in
adults. Episodes of doubt, caution, fear, vulnerability; and susceptibility to
bronchial infections, colds, and physical aches and pains are symptoms of the
depressive phase of adolescence. Manic phases are reflected in elevated mood,
loudness, hyperactivity, excitability, poor judgment, and the desire to get away
from home. Vacillation between these phases is necessary to maneuver
successfully through the adolescent years (Klimek, 1987). To be manic all the
time is to short-circuit the development of a sensitive, caring, responsible,
and real inner core. To be depressed all the time is to limit the positive
influences and interactions of the real world. Furthermore, most parents,
teachers, and counselors have every right to be concerned when a youngster
appears chronically depressed and should seriously consider a referral for
GETTING BETTER--GETTING WORSE
Because adolescence is a time for separating from the direct, day-to-day
influence and control of parents, it is also a time when youngsters minimize
their dependence upon parents for love, support, care, direction, and security.
Adolescence is a phase when relationships with peers and reality slowly replace
the relationship with parents. In dysfunctional families, youngsters often are
unable to chart a healthy course of separation-individuation because they try to
get away from parental influence too early and become excessively peer
dependent. Teenagers of dysfunctional families may also be unprepared to
separate-individuate because they lack an adequate foundation of the self, or
because parental dependence and neglect hold them back. Such youngsters seldom
navigate a course of healthy adaptation because they essentially have had an
Regardless of the family's health, the adolescent's pulling away from
parental control toward self-direction and peer influence carries with it a
delicate balance. This balance consists of getting better or getting worse, both
psychologically and behaviorally. Many parents are too emotionally involved with
their children or too caught up with their own problems to help the youngsters
chart their way. Therefore, a checklist of inner life processes may be helpful
in determining whether a child (or parent) is growing or regressing.
CHILD AND PARENT CHECKLIST
A few times each year, parents are encouraged to evaluate their teenager and
themselves for indication of healthy or unhealthy functioning. Parents are also
encouraged to help their child or themselves work on one characteristic at a
time to avoid unrealistic expectations of "instant perfection." It is the direct
work on oneself that enables a parent to become more patient and empathic with
his or her child. Real growth is extremely difficult and requires a great deal
of consciousness, encouragement, and support if one is to achieve higher levels
of mental health. If parents are also growing, they will know the difficulty of
real growth and tend to be less critical, controlling, demanding, and rejecting,
while becoming more sensitive, caring, and loving.
The observable behaviors that reflect inner, psychological mechanisms are
listed below. When parents are conducting the evaluation, they should see
improvements in the following areas if growth is occurring:
. Self-containment . Self-knowledge . Self-fulfillment . Capacity for
appreciation or gratitude . Openmindedness . Peace of mind . Skill acquisition
or mastery . Self-direction and capacity to plan ahead and be responsible
Conversely, if a child or parent is worsening or psychologically regressing,
the following characteristics are more prevalent:
. Anger, hostility, resentment, or bitterness . Depression, despair,
hopelessness, or cynicism . Rigidity . Obsessions--alcohol, sex, drugs . Envy,
jealousy . Increased self-centeredness . Disregard for feelings of others .
Conflictual or dissatisfying interpersonal relationships . Little or no capacity
PATTERNS OF FAMILY DEVELOPMENT
Familiarity with the stages of family life helps in determining how and why a
particular family may be having difficulty accommodating, restructuring, and
changing in support of the developing adolescent. When a family is understood as
a system, change or difficulty in one part of the family is viewed as affecting
all of the family members (Bowen, 1978). The midlife stage of parental
development often coincides with the adolescent stage of individual development,
typifying how stress in one part of the family can affect the other part.
Midlife Parental Development. Parents in the midlife reappraisal stage may
focus too much energy on career crisis, loneliness, or anticipation of the empty
nest. They may become highly resistant to changes associated with adolescent
development, feeling that change suggests failure or fearing the unknowns of
their child's pulling away. A primary source of difficulty for these parents is
their own inadequate separation from their family of origin, as well as their
own unresolved adolescent issues. Parents in this struggle can become
short-sighted and overreact to the periodic oppositional and negative behaviors
that are typical of adolescence.
If parents become rigid, defensive, and over-controlling, their adolescents
are likely to feel imprisoned and stifled, and conflict is inevitable. Some
adolescents in these instances may experience a significant diminution in
self-development as they compromise themselves in an effort to save their
families. They can also get caught in triangulated relationships with their
parents when they unconsciously assimilate parental pain, thus stabilizing the
family by keeping the parents focused on them instead of their own conflicts.
Adolescents in unsupportive families may experience excessive pressure to excel
in order to boost their parents' self-esteem.
Influence of Previous Generations. The root of numerous adolescent struggles
is the inability to separate-individuate adequately from their families. The
format for such conflict often stems from similar problems of family members in
previous generations (Haley, 1980). When adolescents challenge the family's
history, traditions, or values, family members have to develop negotiation
skills in order to redefine family rules, roles, and relationships. This
negotiation and redefinition serves to adjust, accommodate, and encourage the
adolescent process of separation-individuation. The influence of siblings is
important to understand, particularly when one child is regarded as "good and
perfect." Such special-status youngsters often stimulate an opposite reaction
among the other siblings which proves baffling to the parents.
In general, adolescent problem behaviors need to be evaluated in light of the
entire spectrum of family issues that may be interfering with the natural
progression of individual development. If this is understood, appropriate
responses can be planned and negotiated among family members so that a healthy
resolution is achieved for everyone.
ROLE OF ADULTS OUTSIDE THE FAMILY
Reliable, significant others outside the family play an important role in
facilitating the transition from adolescence to adulthood. These outside adults
need to understand individual growth and family dynamics, as well as to possess
a level of self-development that enables them to apply their knowledge
appropriately. They also need to maintain a realistic view of the temporary
resistance, allegiance, or idealization that teenagers form in response to
adults who try to help them. Counselors need to anticipate and recognize the
transference reactions typical of adolescents who are working out unresolved
family issues in the counseling relationship. To become aware of family themes
and patterns over generations, counselors can employ genograms which help
adolescents objectively locate and identify factors influencing their
self-image, response to life, and reactions to relationships (Hartman, 1978).
To facilitate authentic adolescent growth, parents and other concerned adults
need to: (1) achieve and maintain emotional neutrality; (2) develop the capacity
for genuinely relating to and enjoying the uniqueness of each youngster; and (3)
adhere to the larger developmental perspective. Regardless of the potential for
problems during adolescence, the majority of teenagers who go "off course"
usually get back on during their early or mid-twenties. When one scrutinizes the
process of parenting and the process of adolescent development, it is a small
wonder that anyone does very well. Yet professional help is not always the
answer--to paraphrase Karen Horney, one of the first psychoanalysts to study
family influences, life itself teaches us best how to grow.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bowen, M. FAMILY THERAPY IN CLINICAL PRACTICE. New York: Jason Aronson, 1978.
Haley, J. LEAVING HOME. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.
Hartman, A. GENOGRAMS. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, School of
Social Work, 1978.
Klimek, D. NARROW IS THE WAY: AN ANALYSIS OF SUCCESSFUL LIVING. Manuscript,
Klimek, D., and M. Anderson. INNER WORLD, OUTER WORLD: UNDERSTANDING THE
STRUGGLES OF ADOLESCENCE. Ann Arbor, MI: ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and
Personnel Services, (in press).