08/01/07 - families and adolescence

In today's excerpt - adolescence. Laurence Steinberg argues that many of the problems of adolescence stem from the fact that, at the time of adolescence, parents are often dealing with their own midlife disappointments. In his landmark study, the Families at Adolescence Project, Steinberg supports most parental concerns but warns of those stemming from parents' feelings of jealousy, abandonment, loss, powerlessness and regret:

"The findings to emerge from this study show that the child's entrance into adolescence is often a difficult personal period in the parents' lives—perhaps even more difficult for parents than it is for their children. This is not simply because raising teenagers is an arduous task. It is because watching our children mature unearths complicated and intense emotions deep inside us. That these emotions typically rise to the surface during midlife, a time with its own trying psychological agenda, makes matters much more difficult. ...

"The physical blossoming inherent in adolescence provides a cruel contrast to our midlife journey. ... Psychologists note that in middle age there occurs a shift in time perspective in which individuals start measuring their lives in terms of how long they have left to live rather than how long they have been alive. ... For people in the throes of a crisis, changes in physical appearance become a daily reminder that time is slipping away. ... Rather than being wrapped up in a state of existential angst, most of the adolescents in our research coast through life in a sort of pleasant fog, far more concerned with whether they have a date on Friday night or a social studies test the following Wednesday than with who they 'really' are or where they are headed. ...

"I heard many more stories of parental joy than parental jealousy over the course of the interviews. But the number of parents who were envious of their adolescent was not at all trivial, and for many, the emotion was quite strong. ... Feeling left behind—feeling abandoned—was an important source of distress among many of the parents in our sample. ... Parents who experienced their child's maturation as a loss were grappling mainly with the loss of a role and of the self-definition that accompanies it. ... Why did so many parents spend so much time grappling with their children over such mundane things as the way they styled their hair or the music they listened to? ... Parents' concerns about adolescent autonomy [often] were concerns about power—or more accurately powerlessness. Many of the parents in our study, like Gray Miller, were having trouble coping with feeling out of control. ... Among the adults in our study, having a child enter adolescence frequently triggered feelings of regret, feelings which were often accompanied by a longing for another opportunity at building a different, and presumably more satisfying life. ...

"I am frequently asked by parents—parents whose children are teenagers and those whose children are about to become teenagers—how they can better handle this period in their family's development. ... [My response is to] make sure you have genuine and satisfying interests outside of being a parent."


Laurence Steinberg and Wendy Steinberg


Crossing Paths




Copyright 1994 by Dr. Laurence Steinberg


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