Who Stole My Child?
The Book Brigade talks to clinical psychologist Carl Pickhardt.
Posted Nov 08, 2018
Adolescence has long posed challenges to both parents and children. Today, parents must navigate those challenges in two worlds—the real one and the online one—and through a more extended course of adolescence.
That’s a provocative title: What message are you hoping to deliver to parents before they even open the book?
Parents need to accept it: Adolescence begins with loss. An adolescent is no longer just a child. Now they lose their adoring and adorable little girl or boy; while the young person loses their idealized and favored social companions. Each will miss the easy closeness of the childhood years when the foundation of trusting attachment and commonality between them was built.
This is a playbook for parents that describes some normal adolescent changes they can expect through four stages of growing up, and it prescribes some constructive ways of dealing with them. I believe such preparation can help reduce parental overreaction from surprise at what they didn’t anticipate.
Does your view differ from the conventional view of parenting and adolescence?
Yes. The World Health Organization (which has a much wider base of experience than mine) defines adolescents as “young people between the ages of 10 and 19 years.” From my more limited view, I believe adolescence begins earlier (between ages 9 and 13), and the last stage extends to a little after the college age years (18-23). In addition, for me the process of adolescence is not just about how a young person transforms on the way to early adulthood. Change begets change. As adolescence changes the child; the parent changes in response. And now the relationship between them changes as well. My book is about all three arenas of change.
What are the four stages of adolescence, and what are important distinctions between them?
Associated with each stage is a developmental goal followed by specific challenges commonly associated with meeting that larger objective.
Stage One: The Separation from Childhood (ages 9 – 13) Challenges can include: Increased personal disorganization and distractibility, a more negative attitude and boredom, active and passive resistance with parents, early experimentation to satisfy growing curiosity.
Stage Two: Forming a Family of Friends (ages 13-15) Challenges can include: more conflict over social freedom, more lying to get away with the forbidden, more physical self-consciousness from puberty, more peer pressure and social cruelty at school.
Stage Three: Acting More Grown Up (ages 15-18) Challenges can include: older activities like driving, dating, partying, and drug use; more emotional, romantic, and sexual experience; more sadness over graduation loss of friends; more worries about readiness for independence.
Stage Four: Stepping Off on One’s Own (ages 18 – 23) Challenges can include: lower esteem from difficulty coping, increased anxiety from future uncertainty, lack of sufficient self-discipline to catch hold, losing footing and maybe boomeranging home.
What research supports your view?
I am not a research psychologist; I am a practitioner. The data I primarily work off is from counseling experience with parents and adolescents, and from giving talks about parenting teenagers, doing both for many years. My ideas are simply subjective efforts to organize my observations to help parents frame their experience with their adolescent—what might be happening, why, and what they might want to do in response.
Has adolescence changed over the course of time—say between 1918 and 2018?
Over the last 100 years, I don’t think the two basic drives of adolescence have changed—detaching from childhood and family to finally establish a functional independence, and differentiating from childhood and family to finally claim a fitting identity. However, the social and technological context in which this transformation takes place has wildly altered. Today parents are rearing children in two worlds, not one—in the comparatively ordinary offline world of daily demands and the infinitely fascinating online world of Internet experience. This is an evolutionary and revolutionary change.
Over your years of practice, have you observed changes either in the way young people enter or course through adolescence or the way parents approach their adolescents?
For good or ill, I see fewer authoritarian parents than early on because parents seem less sure of themselves today. I see electronic estrangement taking its toll on their relationship—both parent and teenager often more self-preoccupied with screen enjoyments than with each other. Maybe there is less face-to-face communication time; I don’t know.
Disorganization and distractibility are two things that tend to drive parents of teens wild. But you seem to have a more adaptive view of them. Please explain.
When a child enters adolescence their world of operation, interaction, and awareness becomes much more extensive and complex. Emblematic of this change is moving from the simpler world of elementary school to the more complicated institution of middle school—more students to move among, a larger building to navigate, multiple teachers, rules and routines one didn’t have before.
In adolescence, the simpler self-management system that worked in childhood is insufficient to cope with this increased complexity, so the young person can become honorably disorganized before they can get reorganized to cope with all that is demanded. With so much change going on, one can be honorably distracted, and it takes refocusing attention to take it all in.
Rather than rush to medicate early and mid-adolescent disorganization and distractibility, it can be worth trying an educational approach first—coaching and practice to learn new self-organizing and attention-paying skills.
Could you please explain why teens suddenly seem to lose confidence—and whether that plays into later mental health problems?
There are so many educational (secondary school), social (peer belonging), physical (puberty), and psychological (self-esteem) challenges to be met in the early and mid-adolescent years that, at the outset, a young person can doubt if they have the capacity to master it all. The fifth grader who was really confident in the old childhood world can become the sixth grader who is afraid to try in the new adolescent one—for a while. So parents respect effort as an act of bravery, and as little initiatives start yielding rewards, by eighth grade most young people are back to feeling full of themselves once more. Where that effort is not made, the young person can carry low confidence forward, but not so much as a “mental health problem” as the need to do some catching up later on.
You deal with substance use. It seems to be a fact of life, but no parent welcomes it. What’s the most productive way to handle it?
The answer is, the hard way: accept it, know about it, talk about it, watch out for problem signs of it, and get counseling help for it if some of these occur.
Smart phones and social media take on a huge importance in adolescence that parents everywhere seem to be struggling with right now. What role is it playing in adolescent development, and is there a sane approach through this new phenomenon?
The Internet is an evolutionary social change. I think parents need to have three goals in mind. The adolescent needs to be competent in navigating and utilizing the online word. The adolescent needs to know how to stay safe navigating this world. And the adolescent needs to be balanced, not allowing online involvement, escape, and entertainment to be at the expense of developing healthy offline growth.
If you had to pick one thing to tell anyone about parenting adolescents, what would it be?
Particularly during more disaffected and distant times, parents must keep initiating opportunities for enjoyable engagement with their teenager. This means continually offering small ways for sharing and doing fun things together. All such invitations will not be accepted; but parents should not be deterred. At stake is creating continuing positive contact points so that parent and teenager can stay caringly connected as adolescence gradually grows them apart, which is what it is meant to do.
I know your book is aimed at parents, but if you had one thing to say to adolescents, what would it be?
“Think one day ahead.” At the outset of any adventure .ask: “Will I be glad tomorrow about the action I could be taking now?” If not, consider making a different choice.
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