Growing in the womb, the fetus is entirely dependent on the mother for its life and this dependency continues well into the first year of life, maybe even close to two. Yet, in that second year, the child begins to be aware of separateness from the mother. Babies begin to move around on their own by the time they are one year old. By two, they are totally ambulatory and they begin to acquire true autonomy. This newfound independence then engages the toddler in the “terrible twos.”
But what are the terrible twos but the declaration that toddlers are now their own person and can choose to either comply with adults or not. By the way, the twos are terrible for the adults, not the toddlers. For the toddlers, it is absolutely necessary to begin to take on this new autonomy and begin to manage their behavior. For the adults, it is the beginning of letting go of a separate person who is no longer the passive and dependent infant.
Jumping up to adolescence, the teenage years. The tasks of that second decade of life are what is called separation and individuation in the psychological literature. Pre-teens and teens have the task of going from near total dependence on parents to independence and autonomy, that is from children to (young) adults. It’s an enormous job for them and for all of us who went through it. It is not an easy time. It is often a time of confusion, of great emotionality, of anger, and rebellion. It is also the time of puberty, the sexual maturation of the child and it is no accident that these two things occur at the same time. As the body develops sexually, it is getting ready for adult procreation.
Of course, this makes the teen years even more tumultuous. So, teens have to navigate these difficult waters and swim for their life. This is arduous work and teens do the best they can to manage. They do not have time or energy to think of anyone else, particularly not their parents, as they attempt to both fit into the world around them and find their own place in that world.
In his book titled “Get out of my life but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?” author Anthony E. Wolf, PhD, attempts to guide the hapless adult through surviving the process of the adolescent in the home. The title already tells us that he will be using humor to facilitate our process but, at the same time, warns us of the apparent absurdity of that time.
So, Dr. Wolf informs us that the teen’s process is entirely natural and that we must begin to disengage from the former control that we exercised and allow space for the teen to mutate, to become who he or she needs to become. This is of course challenging and wakes up in us all kinds of anxiety and we often need to be reassured that what is going on is good.
This is a trying time for parents as teens are likely to make all kinds of mistakes in their process. Just as we watched our toddler fall and take bumps and bruises without constantly interfering, we must now allow our teen to struggle through this period. We want to help but we must let them learn on their own as much as possible.
Of course, we created the safest environment we could for our toddlers and we can and must still do that for our teens. But that environment is now more likely to be psychological, not physical. On one hand, it is essential to maintain the rules and expectations, whether they follow them and meet them or not. On the other hand, we need to project trust that they have the essentials to work through their process in a healthy manner.
Dr. Wolf encourages us to manage our fears and anxieties concerning our adolescents on our own. We have already furnished them with what they need; if not, it is too late and they will hopefully acquire it on their own. It is up to us to learn to separate from our teens as well and to become different parents than we have been up to now.
While Dr. Wolf encourages us to step back and allow teens to develop into the adults they will become, Dr. Barbara Mc Rae, PhD, takes an opposite tack in her book, “Coaching your teen to success.” I will review her approach in my next blog which will appear within a couple of weeks.