Adolescence – Is It Harder On Parents Than On Adolescents?

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I’ve read an interesting article in New York magazine recently that states that the period of life called adolescence can be harder on the parents of adolescents than it is on the adolescents themselves. The author of the article, Jennifer Senior (also author of the book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood), quotes a leading authority on puberty named Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and author of the book, Adolescence. Ms. Senior writes,

It doesn’t seem to me like adolescence is a difficult time for the kids,” Steinberg says. “Most adolescents seem to be going through life in a very pleasant haze.” Which isn’t to say that most adolescents don’t suffer occasionally, or that some don’t struggle terribly. They do. But they also go through other intense experiences: crushes, flirtations with risk, experiments with personal identity. It’s the parents who are left to absorb these changes and to adjust as their children pull away from them. “It’s when I talk to the parents that I notice something,” says Steinberg. “If you look at the narrative, it’s ‘My teenager who’s driving me crazy.’ —Jennifer Senior

Well, I would question Mr. Steinberg’s statement about the “pleasant haze” he claims most adolescents find themselves in, but I’d agree about the difficulties parents face when their children begin to pull away.  I, too, am feeling this pulling away, especially today, about a week after my 15-year old daughter passed her written test for her driver’s permit and a day after my just-turned 19-year old daughter announced to me that she is planning to move to Southern California in the summer to continue her studies there. I am feeling a mix of emotions around these changes, and some days I find tears welling up in my eyes at the thought of them moving out and moving on.

In 1994, Steinberg published a study of more than 200 families that suggested that parents suffered increased stress in their life not when they entered mid-life but when their first child entered adolescence. Perhaps a good proportion of it has to do with knowing that it won’t be long before their children pull away—both physically and emotionally.

Jennifer Senior writes,

What makes this transition even harder is how starkly it contrasts with the reasonably tranquil period that preceded it. The Blackwell Handbook of Adolescence goes so far as to say that adolescence “is second only to infancy” in terms of the upheaval it generates, destabilizing dynamics, rituals, and a well-maintained hierarchy that’d been in place throughout most of elementary school. After years of feeling needed by their children—and experiencing their children’s love as almost inseparable from that need—mothers and fathers now find it impossible to get their kids’ attention.

So what’s a parent to do? How does a parent develop the ego strength to withstand the stress and the rejection and any other changes that are inevitable in their family? Well, I’m thinking that this is an especially good time for parents to develop new interests, to expand their horizons, to shine in their career, to take the plunge and make some important and positive changes. To change their diet and their lifestyle for the better. To learn a new skill, or two. To finally implement the changes they’ve always wanted but haven’t had the resources, or the wisdom, or the wherewithal to make them happen.

I’ve noticed that I, for example, have never been so committed to making a difference in the world than I am now. As of last Autumn I’ve been part of a start-up company in the medical device field in a position that gives me lots of personal satisfaction. I’ve never been so determined to following a healthy lifestyle than I am now, and to share what I’ve been learning with others. And I’ve noticed that it’s never been easier to steer free of gluten, deep-fried food and other bad foods that cause damage to my health. In other words, it’s never been easier to maintain the discipline.

Jennifer Senior continues,

Here’s what may be most powerful about adolescence, from a parent’s perspective: It forces them to contemplate themselves as much as they contemplate their own children. Toddlers and ­elementary-school children may cause us to take stock of our choices, too, of course. But it’s adolescents, usually, who stir up our most self-critical feelings. It’s adolescents who make us wonder who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us. It’s adolescents who reflect back at us, in proto-adult form, the sum total of our parenting decisions and make us wonder whether we’ve done things right.

So…what changes have you been meaning to implement but haven’t gotten around to yet? What goals have you had in the area of your health, personal fulfillment and/or career that have not yet manifested? What’s on your bucket list? What difference do you want to make in the world? And what is it that’s stirring inside your soul that has not been expressed yet?

I promise you that getting in touch with what’s stirring deep inside your soul will be not only for your benefit, but for the benefit of your children, and their children, as well. It’s what will keep you uplifted, inspired (and sane) when the inevitable comes and the kiddos begin to pull away.

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