Family transformation during kids’ adolescence • Jennifer Smith, Marriage & Family Therapist
The next phase of the family life cycle is the transformation of the Family System in Adolescence. This phase is marked by many changes in the adolescent. They seem to grow over night physically and they mature sexually through puberty. I once had a teacher that described adolescence and the hormonal changes, as akin to “putting a jet engine in a Volkswagen.” Because of all these changes, adolescents move toward solidifying an identity and establishing autonomy from the family in an accelerated rate.
There is so much for the adolescent and the family to consider during this every changing phase. Changing and often conflicting social expectations about sexual roles and norms of behavior are imposed on adolescents by the family, school, peers and the media. Their worlds are broader than even a generation ago, due to social media and the Internet. Their ability to have their own identity depends on how well they handle these expectations. Hopefully, to this point, the family has encouraged their child to learn to “think for themselves.” If we grow children frequently telling them “how to think,” and not teaching them the skill of thinking challenges through, they will shift from our instruction and thought to the pressure of what their peers think, without determining what they believe about a particular issue or situation. A critical component to their autonomy is to gradually become more responsible for their own decision making and yet feel the security of parental guidance.
Flexibility is the key to success for families at this stage. Adolescents and their parents often fight over issues of independence. Parents attempt to use the same methods they used in earlier stages to diffuse conflicts, but they often do not work. In an attempt to avoid conflicts, parents will try tightening the reins or withdraw emotionally. Adolescents, on the other hand, in an effort to win their way, resort to temper tantrums, go to their rooms for hours, or present endless examples of friends who have more freedom.
This stage does not have to be as conflictual. If parents can frame this time with the belief that their goal is to prepare to launch ( in a few short years), a strong adult who can think for themselves, and has the ability to make good decisions, then they will not fight about adolescents wish for independence. Parents with a strong sense of self are generally less reactive to adolescent challenges. Parents who are honest with their conflicted feelings about their child leaving their home one day also do better.
It has been found that adolescents are more likely to move toward autonomy in families where they are encouraged to participate in decision making but where parents ultimately decide what is appropriate. For adolescents to master the developmental tasks of adolescents, the family must be strong, flexible and able to support growth.
For families, adolescence does not have to be a time that is just endured. It can be a time of tremendous growth and important change.
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Printed in the August 23, 2012 edition