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The Collateral Damage of a Teenager

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Wesley again responds with tact. “Well,” he says, “in hindsight, you can understand her perspective. But at the time, you wanted to be heard.”

This argument, like so many arguments, wasn’t about much. It was what roiled beneath the surface that had clearly upset Samantha. She had ideas about her daughter’s priorities, but her daughter had different ideas, and Samantha could feel her authority slipping away. She could also detect a hint of mockery in Calliope’s replies. Samantha hates being mocked.

“The cursing doesn’t bother me,” she says. “It’s the tone.”

“Or when we say ‘relax,’ ” says Calliope. “Or ‘chill.’ ”

Samantha springs up from her chair. “Yes! Oh my God.” She starts pacing. “It’s so minimizing. Like, ‘You’re not important.’ ”

The conventional wisdom about parenting adolescents is that it’s a repeat of the toddler years, dominated by a cranky, hungry, rapidly growing child who’s precocious and selfish by turns. But in many ways the struggles that mothers and fathers face when their children hit puberty are the opposite. When children are small, all parents crave is a little time and space for themselves; now they find themselves wishing their children liked their company more and would at least treat them with respect, if adoration is too much to ask.

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.

I ran across a remarkably meticulous study from 1996 that managed to quantify the decline in time adolescents spend with their families. It followed 220 working- and middle-class children from the Chicago suburbs, once when they were in grades five through eight, and again when they were in grades nine through twelve. At each interval, the researchers spent a week paging these kids at random, asking them to identify what they were doing. What they found, 16,477 beeps later, was that between fifth and twelfth grades, the proportion of waking hours that children spent with their families dropped from 35 to 14 percent.

It takes a lot of ego strength for a parent to withstand this separation. It means ceding some power to your children, for one thing—decisions that were once under your purview move to theirs—and it means receding somewhat, accepting that they’ve recast their lives without you, or your goals, at the center. “The adolescent,” writes Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst, “is somebody who is trying to get himself kidnapped from a cult.” Parents go from their kids’ protectors to their jailers, and they are then told repeatedly what a drag this is.

Indeed, one of the most striking measures of how critical kids are of their parents at this stage can be found in Ellen Galinsky’s Ask the Children, an inspired survey of over 1,000 kids in grades three through twelve. At one point, Galinsky asked her interviewees to grade their parents. In almost every category, seventh- to twelfth-graders rated their parents considerably less favorably than did younger children.

Ingratitude is already one of the biggest heartaches of child-rearing. (“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” Right?) While not all researchers agree that adolescents fight more than younger children, almost all concur that they fight with more vehemence and skill, arguing most intensely with their parents between eighth and tenth grades.

Nancy Darling, an Oberlin psychologist, offers a nuanced analysis of what, precisely, makes the adolescent struggle for autonomy so contentious. Most kids, she notes, have no objections when their parents try to enforce moral standards or societal conventions. Don’t hit, be kind, clean up, ask to be excused—all this is considered fair game. The same goes for issues of safety: Kids don’t consider it a boundary violation if they’re told to wear seat belts. What children object to are attempts to regulate more personal preferences, matters of taste: the music they listen to, the entertainments they pursue, the company they keep. When children are young, these personal preferences don’t tend to cause parents too much anxiety because they’re mostly benign. Barney? Annoying, but unobjectionable. That little boy across the way? A little rowdy, but a decent kid.

The problem, says Darling, is that during adolescence questions of preference start to bleed into questions of morality and safety, and it often becomes impossible to discern where the line is: That kid you’re hanging out with? I don’t like how he drives or the stuff he’s introducing you to. Those games you’re playing? I don’t like all the violence and disgusting messages they’re sending about women. Maybe more poignantly, being your teenager’s protector has the convenient advantage of keeping your child close, just as he or she is trying to pull away.


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