As children move into adolescence, they become less responsive to their parents gestures of comfort and relationship building. Instead of talking about their day on the arrival home, teens typically go straight to their room, blinds down, music on, and everything they own on the floor. Instead of helping you with the outside yard chores on Saturday morning, they sleep until 2pm and then want a ride to the movies.
Meanwhile, parents are bewildered. They’ve spent so much time getting to know their child, tending to their needs and making sure they do well academically and socially. Yet, in response teens are abrasive, pushing away from their parents and moving closer to friends.
According to psychologist Terri Apter, author of Difficult Mothers, “teens can be quick to reject the embraces and endearments that were once daily currency in his life with a parent”. She explains that a teen is simply experiencing ambivalence and is caught between childhood and adulthood. She writes that a teen “feels trapped both by the comfort he is inclined to experience from a parent’s hug and by his wish to expel the previous child-self who welcomes the comfort.”
Furthermore, although the irrational moodiness of adolescents have been explained away by hormones or the exploding growth of the adolescent brain. Instead, Apter says, the difficult relationship that often ensues during a child’s adolescence is due to the self-discovery that a teen needs to do. Without a firm sense of self, she says, it’s difficult to be social, to have effective conversations, and to make choices. “A sense of who we are is not a mere luxury; we need it to feel alive. Without it, we feel worthlessness.”
For this reason, teens need to do plenty of role playing. They need the presence of their parents and peers to mimic behavior and try on whether that works for them. Apter describes it as a process of “I don’t know who I am, but I know who he is, so I’ll be like him.”
And this uncertainty about a teen’s sense of self is at the crux of most parent-teen conflicts. When parents are simply enforcing a rule, a teen might misinterpret that rule as a parent not seeing him for his maturity and growth. Even minor interactions can trigger huge hurricanes inside for an adolescent. For a teen, it’s often not about the content of the argument; it’s about what the argument seems to be saying about his or her sense of self. For instance, Apter provides the following example:
“No, you can’t go out tonight,” causes more than a glitch in a teen’s social diary; it implies that a parent doesn’t trust him to make his own decisions. And, in a teen’s eyes, that’s not only unfair; it’s humiliating.
Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist, saw adolescence as the most pivotal because it involved a struggle to find one’s identity. Erickson explained that teenagers are reaching for their independence, their uniqueness, and the role they will play in life. Researcher James Marcia expanded on Erikson’s theory and highlighted the necessity of teens to claim an identity, not just search for one. Doing so, leads to finding balance between role confusion and establishing a sense of self. Although adolescence is challenging, going through an identity crisis appears to be a necessary step to finally committing to an identity, and doing so, leads to psychological, emotional, and even physical health.
If parents can keep this in mind, particularly during those heart-wrenching arguments, perhaps they can facilitate a teen’s ability to claim an identity. This will not only ease the transition between childhood and adulthood, but it will also make a teen’s experience of adulthood a bit smoother.