Adolescence and the Power of Promises

For parent and teenager to work together well, each must keep their word.

Posted Oct 01, 2018

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Consider two overlapping parental needs that typically increase when a child enters adolescence – the 10 to 12 year process of growing up that begins with the separation from childhood around ages 9-13 and doesn't end until a little after the college-age years. 

One need is for the young person to keep agreements and commitments to their parents. The other need is for the young person to tell them the truth.

When met, each need helps secure parental responsibility at a time when they typically feel they have lessening leadership influence and control. Now, developmental change is causing the young person to push for more freedom of action and independence, and for more freedom of expression and individuality, than did the more compliant and conforming child.  

This blog deals with the problem of breaking commitments and the importance of keeping promises. The next blog will examine the problem of lying and the importance of honesty. 

WHAT IS A PROMISE?

A promise is a verbal assurance to oneself or others that a commitment has been made and will be kept. In this sense, all promises incur obligation. A promise is contractual this way. For example, a promise to oneself can be a resolution to make some personal life change: “From now on, I will meet my obligations in a timely way.” A promise to others can be a declaration of intent in the relationship: “From now on, I will return or repay whatever I borrow.”     

WHY DO PROMISES MATTER?

A promise can be a powerful commitment in a couple ways. It can verbally verify the occurrence of something past or present: that actually happened. It can vow to desist from hereon or to deliver at some specified future time: what won’t be repeated or what will occur. At a period when parents must cope with more developmental change in their teenager and more uncertainty in themselves, adolescents keeping their promises can count for a lot. "I appreciate your promise. That gives me one less thing to worry about."

So, after the troubling incident, parents may want both kinds of promises from their wayward teenager. 

·     Verification: “Do you promise that this is how it really was?” 

·     Vow: “Do you promise not to do this again?” 

Broken promises can prove costly. Broken to others they can break a relationship. "You swore you'd never do that, but you did!" Broken to self they can lower self-esteem. "I keep telling myself I'll quit, but I never do!"

A further way to consider the utility of promises is in terms of two different uses in the parent/teenager relationship: promises as commitments (“I will honor my word with you”), and promises as persuaders (“I swear to do this if you do that.”)    

PROMISES AS COMMITMENTS

Promises are powerful. To keep your promise shows that you have acted as you said you would, that you have kept your pledge, and that your word is good. The power of a promise kept is that it creates reliability, predictability, and security to be counted on, thus engendering trust in the relationship. An adult example would be a couple exchanging marriage vows. Both parties make promises the other can depend upon. Promise-keeping between parent and child, and between parent and adolescent, are just as important. Parents can explain to their adolescents, "Just as you want to be able to rely on promises from us, we want to be able to rely on promises from you." 

To break a promise is to become unreliable, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. Receivers and believers in the promise can feel surprised, disappointed, and betrayed. “I thought I could count on you!” “You let me down!” “You misled me!” If parents want to encourage promise keeping in their teenager, they have to model promise keeping, which consistent parents tend to do, but which inconsistent parents often do not. 

“Sometimes my parents promise something bad will happen if I don’t do what they want. Then they forget, get tired, become busy, or just let it go." In this case, a teenager may bet that parents don’t mean the promised rules and regulations they make, testing to see if some warning or requirement is real. Parental rules and regulations only have power to the degree their commitments are consistently kept.

PROMISES AS PERSUADERS

At worst for parents can be extortionate promises they make in the heat of desperation—unrealistic empty threats prompted by impatience or anger: “If you don’t shape up now, you’ll be grounded for the next six months!” In such cases, the teenager may have learned that such overpromises have no lasting impact once adult frustration has passed. It’s best for parents to consult their judgment and not make rash promises of the empty threat kind. 

If inconsistent parents can often make empty threats, the insistent adolescent can often make extravagant offers: “I’ll promise to do whatever you want from now on without an argument if you just let me go tonight!” Adolescent bargains for freedom can be urgent this way, offering all kinds of unrealistic promises for later in exchange for being allowed to do what feels paramount right now.  Best not to accept adolescent promises that parents know cannot be realistically kept.   

Finally, consider possible promises that may helpfully be made and kept—first, some that parents may want from the adolescent; and second, some that the adolescent may want from parents. 

PROMISES PARENTS WANT

“Please promise to tell us:

When you are feeling unwell,

When you are painfully unhappy,

When challenges feel overwhelming,

When you are under threat or in danger,

When you feel continually scared or anxious,

When you don’t know what to do about a problem,

When you feel that no one understands you,

When you need a good and caring listen,

When you find us hard to live with,

When we are doing something wrong,

When you need to know we love you.”

PROMISES THE ADOLESCENT WANTS 

“Please promise me:

You will hang in there with me during hard times,

You will listen when we disagree,

You won't laugh when I am being serious,

You will let me earn more freedom as I grow,

You will welcome my friends,

You won’t hold past mistakes against me,

You won’t tease when it's not funny,

You will tell me what you believe I need to know,

You will appreciate what I am doing well,

You will help me when I can’t help myself,

You will love me when I do not like myself.”

If a parent can rear a teenager who mostly keeps promises to them, and mostly tells them the truth, and the parent mostly does the same as well, then together they can mostly stay communicatively and influentially connected as adolescence gradually grows them apart, which it is meant to do. 

Next week’s entry: Confronting Adolescent Lying