Parenting Against the Tide 2: Adolescence Begins

This is the second in a series on raising children in 2020, focused on the tumultuous years of adolescence. The articles are based on the teachings of the developmental psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld and my own experiences as a parent and working with young people. Attachment parenting is distinct from other parenting styles as it seeks to build love and trust between child and adult as the basis for healthy development. It contrasts with the more popular approach of controlling children by using punishments and rewards. ‘Parent’ here refers to anybody in a parenting, caring, or mentoring relationship to whom the young person would naturally form an attachment.  ‘He’ and ‘she’ are used interchangeably.

Part one can be read here.

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Adolescence

According to Dr Neufeld, adolescence (from Latin, to grow into maturity) in western societies now stretches from the onset of puberty into a person’s 20s. The adolescent phase makes sense only in terms of where the young person is travelling to: adulthood and the rest of their lives. Trying to fathom adolescence in isolation is plain confusing. In traditional societies, the adolescent was treated as an adult but in modern urban societies, the situation is far more complex, as anyone who cares for or works with adolescents will testify. We adults have to adapt.

During the early years after birth, parents set the tempo for the child’s life. Nature takes over with the onset of puberty. With a sudden jolt, our children are not ours in the same way anymore. Their attachment needs change and a gap opens between the child and their parenting figures. This is nature’s way of initiating what Dr Neufeld refers to as ‘crossing the bridge’ from childhood into adulthood, immaturity to maturity.

As well as the increased space between the child and significant adults, adolescence hijacks the child with changes to the body; sudden awareness of the realities of the world and a questioning, ‘who am I?’ Nature has initiated the move from childhood to a new phase in which they set out to find autonomy and discover sexuality.

Adolescents race ahead from where they were, and it is a long catching up process, taking years for them to understand and integrate all that they are absorbing. And the role of the adult changes too, whether we are ready for it or not. Crossing the bridge of adolescence is a messy time for everyone involved.

Messy

Parents’ confusion and anxiety during adolescence are a reaction to the dramatic developments being experienced by their ‘babies’ and a reflection of an instinctual desire to protect children from pain. Parental anxiety might also be a reflection of the adult’s own unresolved traumas from their own adolescence. Problems arise when the changes are not embraced.

One messy change will see the adolescent become egocentric. Reacting to the flood of new ideas and other stimuli, the young person presumes that, becuase everything is happening to them, the influx is a signal that everything is about them.

In adolescence, the child will also start to develop ideals, believing that these high standards should manifest in the world around them. They observe that adults often do not live up to these ideals, adding to the adolescent’s increasing propensity to reject parental guidance. And the harsh criticism directed at the parent is also turned inward as the adolescent finds that they themselves have fallen short of these newfound ideals.

This is where the adult needs to embrace change and offer sympathy and forgiveness when the youth speaks out of turn. The adolescent is not making a conscious choice to be demanding and obnoxious; nature is driving them forward on this, the only path. It is crude but it is nature’s way of allowing the youngster to separate enough from his parents to start to become a viable, independent person.

Parent’s New Role

Like moving from one career path to another, the adult carer of an adolescent takes on a new role, whether they like it or not. It is a significant change that is largely ignored in a culture which tends to stoke adversity between parents and teenage children, often in order to provide convenient excuses for adults to disengage and to push adolescents towards compulsive capitalistic thinking and away from the wisdom of their elders. 

With the onset of adolescence comes the urge to resist. The youth resists not only her parents but aso her new uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, her doubts. In our culture, even in lockdown, there is a long menu of distractions for the youth to choose from for distraction. And if they are not securely attached to the parent, these distractions will soon dominate.

Counterintuitively, the parent’s new role is to ego centre the adolescent rather than to push back. The urge for most parents is to hit back against the overconfident, acid-tongued attitudes of their child. But to parent against the tide is to accept the adolescent is involuntarily experiencing a pivotal stage in their personal development. Dr Neufeld identifies that true help can be provided by the parent when they actively and skilfully tease out what is stirring inside the young person, rather than by rejecting what is expressed on the outside.

The adolescent is filled with thoughts and feelings: ideas, plans, questions, doubts; searching for certainty but feeling the opposite; rejecting guidance but needing it more than ever. He needs ways of understanding and organising these thoughts and he needs to know that his struggle does not threaten the parenting figure.

The parent can indulge the child’s idealism, safe in the knowledge that the world will burst that particular balloon soon enough. They can trust in nature’s plan for human development rather than resist it and they can provide tools and space to help the adolescent develop the self-regulation that is essential for maturation. Parents can buy notebooks, journals and sketchbooks for the young person and give them a physical space and time to scribble, processing the thoughts and feelings swirling inside.

This simple step of purchasing stationery is what allows the young person to start to navigate adolescence and reach their potential. Dr Neufeld returns to it again and again in his teachings. If some of the other developmental insights are about energy rather than material, abstract instead of concrete, then buying paper is not, and it seems to be the single most important step for parents to take, in practical terms at least.

The adolescent needs love as much as she did as a new-born baby as she faces two diverging roads: individuation and conformity. Whether or not loving attachments are maintained and strengthened will determine whether she takes the road of individuation, becoming a whole and high functioning person. The other road is to conform to peers and a culture that has abandoned its nurturing role. More on those dangers in part three…

 

By Tom Charles @tomhcharles

For Jenni & Tahlia

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