Early Adolescence: The Point of No Return - Part II

In the last article (Early Adolescence: Part I), I described the major changes in development that take place among young adolescents during the years between twelve and fourteen. Included was a discussion of the onset of puberty with its accompanying changes in sexuality, physical development, and new focus on appearance. Along with puberty, changes in cognitive development revealed a new capacity for thinking about problems hypothetically, allowing young teens to begin to evaluate not only their own values and behavior, but also those of authority figures and peers alike.

I also spoke about the importance of the peer group as a vehicle through which teens begin to separate themselves from their families and test out the various possibilities for formulating an identity that will become the basis of their personalities and character as they move into adulthood.

As promised, we are now ready to take on the task of discussing the major changes in the parent-child relationship as teens begin to move through the uneven waters of adolescence. These changes begin in early adolescence, but come to somewhat of a peak during middle adolescence as the process of individuation gets into full swing.

So as we go through the various aspects of what parents can expect during this period, we'll be including the years between approximately twelve years of age up to and possibly beyond fifteen years of age.

Let's start with defining the primary changes in the parent-child relationship, why these occur, and what role the peer group plays. Then we'll go on to discuss what parents can expect during this period, and what they can do to best facilitate the transition.

Primary Changes in the Parent-Child Relationship

The major transition that takes place beginning with early adolescence, and becoming more fully developed during middle adolescence, is the movement away from the family as the center of the teen's life. Simultaneously, the peer group becomes the new locus of the teen's affections and interests. Why is this? Because the process of individuation (forming a full identity) requires that the adolescent deal with two very real problems presented by the onset of puberty. These are: (1) the integration of sexuality into the feelings of affection and attachment to others, and (2) the necessity to break away from dependence on the family while at the same time forging a means for operating in the world independently. Said another way, adolescents must necessarily navigate three very important shifts:

  • The shift away from dependence on parents
  • The shift of affections away from parental figures toward peers and opposite sex partners
  • The shift towards a new and more complete identity that surpasses simply being someone's son or daughter

All three of these shifts require a certain degree of separation and differentiation from parents. There are particular ways that this process is negotiated, and that surface in changes in the parent-child (or we should say parent-teen) relationship. Let's look at each of them individually.

De-Idealization of Parents

Most parents with middle teens (fourteen to sixteen) are already well acquainted with this process. The hallmark of this development is the teen's need to see the parent as not perfect, and therefore not the total authority. This begins with looking for ways to devalue the parent in the teen's eyes. Your teen may ask about whether or not you have ever engaged in recreational drug use, or skipped school, cheated, or gotten into trouble in any way that you would now consider cause for alarm if your teen were to do the same thing. They may go so far as to ask aunts and uncles questions hoping to get information that might not be forthcoming from you.

The idea here is that they need to begin to see you as a person rather than as an idealized figure that knows all, and can do no wrong. They need to be able to challenge what they have been taught, your ideas, values, and perceptions. They begin the process by first devaluing you which necessarily requires looking for your faults, blunders, or past secrets. The second part of the process involves a new kind of conversation that has a somewhat equal footing where you share yourself with the teen from a more adult perspective. It's more like swapping stories, or discussing your feelings and ideas about things without so much censoring.

This latter part of the process doesn't really get going until late adolescence (seventeen years and up), but may get started around age fifteen or sixteen.

Parenting Prescription

Handling questions about past indiscretions is probably one of the more difficult challenges for parents of teens. If you have a rather checkered past, it is important to realize that it is not wise nor necessary to divulge a great deal of information to your teen at a time when he or she is dealing with the many choices posed by the peer group.

For example, if you grew up during the late 60's and early 70's and were involved in substantial substance abuse, you should not feel compelled to outline this history to your teen. Honesty is not the best policy in this case. What you can do is discuss the difficulty in trying to make choices when confronted with such situations, and how you had some of the same difficulties.

What you don't want to do is serve up some new information that will send your teen's previously idealized picture of you crashing and disintegrating. That could be very harmful. Let your teen devalue you as he/she needs to, but in small amounts with rather harmless information. Be honest about the difficulties in dealing with adolescent decisions and struggles, but maintain your privacy regarding more extravagant breaks from the norm during your adolescence.

These are subjects for adult discussions later on, if at all. Your teen still needs to see you as a steady character against whom he/she can differentiate as the process of identity building goes on. The rule of thumb is that minor disillusionment with parents is healthy and necessary, but major disillusionment can be devastating and destructive.

Beginning to Depend on Others

The shift in dependency from parental figures to others in the environment begins in early adolescence, but really blossoms around ages fourteen to fifteen years. Generally this shift manifests in a number of ways, beginning with a new reliance on the peer group as the primary source of self-esteem, behavior styles and decisions, appearance, and interpersonal relationships.

The Peer Group

Approximately 50% of the teen's waking hours are spent with peers, about 15% with adults, and the other 35% either alone or with combinations of peers and adults.

There is also a significant increase in time spent with peers of the opposite sex beginning around fourteen. The same sex groupings of peers during early adolescence gives way to larger peer groupings of both sexes (crowds) during middle adolescence, and then a movement towards opposite sex couples and small groupings in late adolescence.

The peer group is the primary vehicle through which the teen establishes independence from the family, and learns how to participate in interpersonal relationships that include the opposite sex, thus replacing the family as the previous source of affections and standards of behavior.

For parents, this means increasing attempts by the teen to make decisions based on sources of information outside of the family. These sources are peers primarily, but also other adults such as teachers, coaches, friend's parents, etc. In order to facilitate this shift, teens must begin to question the rules, mores, and values offered by the parents and family that they have previously accepted without question. Teens necessarily must loosen the constrictions of these standards so that they may evaluate them and decide whether or not to internalize them as their own.

In actuality, adolescents in their late teens who have sufficiently weathered this task tend to maintain the standards of the family for the most part, however, the difference is that they now have a sense of having chosen those standards as their own rather than just blindly following them. This is an extremely important transition as it is the basis of the teen's adult character. The new integrated set of standards will also include input from other sources gathered from the community and culture.

What You Should Expect

What parents can expect during this shift is the questioning of their authority along with a devaluation of their ideas. For example, if you aspire to a primarily Republican or conservative political stance, your young teen may come home spouting off a more liberal Democratic political agenda obtained from a new source of authority (a friend's dad, or maybe a history teacher at school). Or, you may find that the basketball coach has taken your place as the person who has the best advice for how to maintain fitness, or even how to deal with an interpersonal problem.

Your teen will find other figures in the environment to emulate and to measure himself against. These are called ego ideals and are important transitional figures as the teen works on establishing an identity. You, as the parent, are no longer the be all and end all of the child's world, yet you must find a way to maintain some authority while allowing these other influences into your teen's life.

Parenting Prescription

It is important to allow your teen to begin to shift the locus of dependency outward into the environment. This means that you need to recognize who and what the new sources are for dependency, and to encourage those you think are valuable. At the same time, you are not going to be privy to as much as you have been from your teen previously, and you need to allow some distance to occur in the relationship.

The difficulty is maintaining the correct balance between loosening the structure and maintaining limits that will promote growth and safety. Three pieces of advice may be helpful here.

(1) First, maintain the stance of being a parent as opposed to a friend or peer. You teen needs you in that place. They need limits at times, and they certainly need the advice and understanding of someone who is older and has more life experience. They don't need the hip, girlfriend sort of parent who tries to wiggle into the fringe of the peer group. They will highly resent you if you try to do this.

(2) Secondly, it is important not to personalize the devaluation of some of your ideals and values. Remember, your teen is in the process of trying new ones on. They'll eventually get to the right fit, but they must be allowed enough room to see what's there and then make their own choices.

(3) Last, allow as much as possible your teen's reliance on other adults when appropriate. For example, don't be the parent sitting in the stands at the basketball game who's yelling coaching strategies to his kid on the court that are contrary to the those of the coach. Sit on the sidelines and observe, allowing your son or daughter to be part of another group that doesn't include you.

Integrating Sexuality and Affection

Up until puberty, sexual drives have remained a latent factor in the child's life. They are there, but they are for the most part repressed so that children can focus more on the development of cognition (learning) that is the focus of the elementary school years. With puberty, sexuality shifts into the forefront of the teen's mind. It can no longer be repressed, and demands expression if only in thought and fantasy.

Secondly, the teen's experience of affectional ties changes as sexual drives surface. Up until puberty, the child's primary objects of affection have been the parents and this affection was experienced with little conflict as there was no interference by intrusive sexual thoughts and drives. However, as sexual drives come into play, affection toward parental figures becomes somewhat confusing as the young adolescent has difficulty in keep feelings of affection separate from the overriding upsurge of sexual drives.

What this means is that affection becomes erotically tinged, and the younger adolescent is not able to successfully separate out erotic feelings from more platonic affectional feelings.

The result is that teens feel a decided need to put distance between themselves and their parents, particularly parents of the opposite sex. Because they are not yet sophisticated enough to keep the feelings separate, they are moved to diminish their affectional ties to parents.

A typical scenario that reflects this problem goes as follows: A young-looking mom gets home after having her hair done. She looks great, feels great, and looks younger than ever. She says to her young teenaged son: "How do I look?" He says, "I don't know!" very irritably, or "You looked better the other way." Mom is crushed, and shows it. He later picks a fight with her and slams out of the house. This brings to mind an occasion when my own teenaged son said to me, "I want you to look like a mom, not a teenage girl." There you have it!

Parenting Description

Again, maintain the parental mode of relating to your teen. Be cognizant of not trying to ingratiate yourself into the peer group, either by trying to be a "cool parent", or picking up the language that is the current fad, or dressing much younger than your years. I'm not suggesting you look like an old-timer well before your years, but be aware of not looking to your teen for validation of your youth, appearance, or self-esteem. Save these for your spouse, partner, or other adults in your interpersonal circle.

Maintain enough physical distance from your teen of the opposite sex to allow for an adequate comfort zone. Remember that touch is sexually charged for the young teen in the throws of puberty, even if they wish it weren't so. Regular boundaries of privacy are also quite important such as knocking and receiving permission before entering your teen's room, avoiding situations of nudity or even of partial nudity in the house, and establishing standards of mutual respect for each other's space in the home.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that although the young adolescent necessarily goes through a process of separating from parents by way of greater involvement with peers, seeking information and advice from other adults, and a process of de-idealization of parental figures, parents still play a primary role during this phase of development. Your ability to be available, to set limits, and to understand and empathize with the struggles of adolescence are key to developmental success.

Teens need their parents! This is not a time to disappear.

Also keep in mind that most often, adolescents emerge from this stage having retained most of their original family values and ideals, only now they are individually interpreted and internalized as their own.

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