Emotional Wellness Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

What do we do when our teens start to realize the scary truth that adults are just humans with failings, and that they maybe don’t have to believe everything that they have been told?

In her book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, psychologist Lisa Damour has identified seven tasks that adolescents are all trying to work through in order to reach adulthood. She says that adolescence is a period characterized by rapid and uneven development. When one or more of these tasks get interrupted, it may suggest that this is a child who needs a little more attention, and could possibly use some formal intervention. Understanding these seven tasks can help parents know what kids are going through, to know when kids are being normal and need our support as they do their job of becoming an adult, and to know when it really is time to worry.

For the next few months, I will be writing about each one of these tasks, exploring what a child looks like as they are moving through the tasks; why the task is so important; what kinds of behaviors might suggest that a child is really struggling with a task; and what a parent might need to do about it.

TASK 4: Contending with Adult Authority

Suddenly it happens.  Your daughter is no longer buying what you’re selling.  Your son has realized that you don’t, in fact, have all the right answers. 

They start to ask questions, like “Do I have to listen to this guy?”  “What would happen if I did this my way?”  “What if I don’t want to go into engineering?” 

They start to notice things they hadn’t noticed before.  “Why aren’t these adults all following the same rules?”  “They really don’t understand me at all.”  “I’m not sure that my dad knows what he’s talking about.”

This is the moment that you become aware that your kids are starting to really question the authority of the adults around them, and they know the truth - that adults are just humans with failings, and that they maybe don’t have to believe everything that they have been told.

And, believe it or not, this is what we want for them.  Eventually.  Remember that we are raising kids to become adults, not dependent children living in our basement playing video games.  We want them to be able to evaluate the authority figures that they have to work with in their adult lives, and to make good, thoughtful, even tactical choices about who they put their trust in, when to toe the line and when to resist that authority. 

This process begins here, in adolescence.  The teen brain is going through a major overhaul during this time, literally growing and developing every day.  This growth eventually leads to teens being able to develop two important tools that adults need.  The first is abstract reasoning, which allows the teen to begin to think about new possibilities that they haven’t yet seen or thought before.  The second is the ability to form their own ideas and notions, separate from those that adults have taught them.  These two new abilities allow teens to begin to think bigger, to have new insights about the world around them.  But, they also allow teens to notice that adults are often inconsistent, or that some rules really don’t make a lot of sense when you think about them.  They start to ask questions about what they get out of believing adults, what benefit they gain from following the rules, and wonder if they might try some new ideas on their own and see what happens. 

Adults may have a difficult time with this task, because it potentially leads to power struggles between parents and their teens.  Some parents may begin to assert “role authority”, or the notion that children should listen to their parents simply because they are the adult in the relationship and the child should respect that role.  For many teens, this type of parenting simply does not work, and instead leads to more push back, more questioning, and more demands for greater independence.

What Parents Can Do

  • Hold on loosely.  Attempts to maintain complete control over teens choices might sound like a good way to avoid conflict, but it often leads to either outright rebellion or blind compliance.  Either results in kids not prepared to figure out how to deal with authority as adults.  The rebels learn to push against all authority, and then find it difficult to function in the world of work on their own.  The kids who learn to comply to over-control may chronically find themselves in relationships with controlling people in their personal or professional lives.
  • Have clear expectations of your kids.  At times, parents get so frustrated with teens pushing back that they stop having any expectations and “give up” on trying to have any rules.  This leads to young adults who think the world will bend for them.  But what happens when the world doesn’t work that way?  Kids need rules and expectations and consequences, even if they push against those rules.
  • The goal is to have clear, consistent expectations that are both fair and flexible.  And speaking of consistency, it’s best if both parents can be close to the same page.  Sometimes parents may have different styles of parenting, but that may result in the teen feeling caught between two conflicting parenting styles -- for example, one permissive and one rigid and controlling.  In this case, the parents end up working against each other, and the teen may learn to use it to their benefit, but they may not learn how to navigate authority elsewhere in the world appropriately.

When to Worry

As usual, the times to worry with teens struggling with this task are when they are exhibiting behavior on either extreme end of the conduct spectrum:

  • Kids who are too good to be true.  Good kids that never get in trouble are easy and often a dream for parents.  But, a child who never challenges their parents’ authority -- never even an eye roll or a stomping off to their room -- may be avoiding growing up.  Kids who are too compliant may struggle with finding ways to put their truth out into the world, and as a result may find themselves working to please everyone around them.
  • Kids who are constantly contending with authority.  While we expect that kids will naturally have some struggles with the adults in their lives, most teens will have some relationships where they are more willing to comply and get along.  Teens who are always pushing against rules will likely end up in more trouble in all spheres of their lives -- home, school, work, friends.  This may suggest the need for additional support or services.

If you are an MSU employee and are concerned about your teen, and would like to have a conversation with someone to sort out whether or not your teen is engaging in behaviors that you need to worry about, feel free to contact MSU’s Employee Assistance Program. You can set up an appointment to talk with a licensed counselor about your concerns, who will be able to help you sort out your concerns, and explore any options you have to get your child the help that they need. Contact MSU’s EAP at 517-355-4506, or eap@msu.edu.

Next month: TASK 5 -- Planning for the Future!

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