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Parents often experience less closeness with the teenager than with the child.
By Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
The easy intimacy of their daughter or son’s childhood can spoil parents when they expect that degree of closeness and compliance, that openness and confiding, that familiarity and play, that affectionate getting along, to automatically continue once adolescence begins.
This is not to say parent and ‘teenager’ cannot preserve an intimate connection; but it is to say that what parents used to take for granted, they now have to work harder to encourage and maintain. Consider the challenge this way
TWO PATHS TO INTIMACY
I believe that there are two paths to intimacy in human relationships whether between dear friends, romantic or marriage partners, or between parent and offspring.
Couples who say they are entirely alike and never disagree may be suppressing authentic diversity and sacrificing significant intimacy. For example, between an authoritarian parent with a high need for obedience and an anxious teenager with a high need to please, compliance can be at the expense of communication. “With my dad, I make myself easy to get along with, but harder to really know.”
ADOLESCENCE COMPLICATES CHILDHOOD INTIMACY
When the child separates from childhood and enters adolescence around ages 9 – 13, two major avenues for growth open up, each one making it harder for the parent to maintain traditional intimacy with the changing young person.
As the adolescent starts detaching from childhood and parentsfor more freedom of independence, there is more conflictbetween them than before. And as the adolescent starts differentiating from childhood and parentsfor more individual expression, there is more contrastbetween them than before.
While parent/child intimacy was encouraged by both parties sharing more similarities and fewer differences; parent/adolescent intimacy is challenged by both parties sharing fewer similarities and encountering more differences. For this reason, parents can find the young child more endearing and the young adolescent more abrasive to live with. Detachment and differentiation can make this loss of easy intimacy in their relationship so.
So now the parenting question is: how to turn more conflict and more contrast into more intimacy, not less. The answers are: conflict can be treated as an opportunity for communication; and contrast can be treated as an opportunity for education.
CONFLICT AS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR COMMUNICATION
It can be tempting for adults to treat increasing conflict with their teenager as a challenge to parental authority to defend against, or as a contest or power struggle to win. However, to encourage ongoing intimacy with their teenager, it can be better to treat conflict (the joint agreement to contest a difference between them) as an opportunity for constructive disagreement. This means doing two things. First, it means managing the discussion and argument so that each party can become more knowing and better known in the relationship. And second it means jointly creating some imperfect resolution that both are willing to abide by, thereby strengthening unity to their relationship. “It takes a lot of explaining and listening, and sometimes a lot of horse trading, but we can usually come to common terms.”
Each conflict with their adolescent confronts parents with a choice. They can either treat a disagreement as a divider or a connector, as a barrier or a bridge, as something that is wrong in the relationship to be stopped or as something worthwhile in the relationship worth investing communication in. Not only does the safe and honest exchange of opposing views between parent and teenager enhance intimacy now, it also prepares the young person for using conflict to build intimacy in significant relationships to come.
Parents can say to their adolescent and mean: “Whenever we have a disagreement, and there are more times when we shall, I want you to know that I will be firm where I have to, flexible where I can, answer all your questions, and always want to hear out whatever you have to say.”
CONTRAST AS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR EDUCATION
It can be easy for parents to treat increasing cultural contrast between the teenager’s world and their own as necessarily estranging, chalking emerging differences in enjoyments, tastes, values, and wants up to an inevitable generation gap that adolescence grows them and their teenager apart. To encourage ongoing intimacy with their teenager, the parent must bridge these cultural differences with interest.
This means doing two things. First, it means declaring ignorance about the adolescent world today. “You’re growing up in a very different time from my growing up years.” The confession of adult ignorance can confer expertise on the teenager. “I know about what my parents do not.” And second it means asking to be educated about much that is foreign to your understanding. The power of this request to be culturally educated is the positive power reversal that this request creates. Now the teenager becomes the knowledgeable teacher and the parent the ignorant student curious to know. “Could you help me appreciate the songs you love listening to? I would really like to better understand the music that matters to you.”
It can sometimes help if parents understand that many of these differences are of an experimental nature, and are not likely to continue into young adulthood. Although important in the moment; they are usually passingly so. So, best for parents not to panic as some unfamiliar and different expression emerges: “But blue-colored hair!” Relax: it’s a trial difference; not terminal one. However, what it represents may well be worth learning about.