Allowing the Family to Grow and Adapt as the Needs and Abilities of the Family Evolve
When we were expecting our first child, a graduate school friend of mine said, “It’s not just the birth of a child, it’s the birth of a parent.” I laughed and thought this was a bit corny. The cliché has stuck with me, however, as we have grown as a family. Now that we have a second child, and we have both a daughter and a son, I continue to see the validity of the idea of the birth of the parent, and I see the work the children do that makes us better adults. None of us receive instructions. We continue to grow as parents as our children grow. In fact, a primary sign of a healthy family is that it continues to adapt as the needs, wants and abilities of its members change.
During adolescence, the family arrives at a new opportunity to adapt to the needs of the family. It is the first time our children seek to find their own identity outside of the family. It is the first time they consider: Who am I? How am I like my family? How am I not like my family? Before, it was not even an idea, a feeling or a sensation. Suddenly it becomes primary. Because we are social creatures who need connection with others to thrive, our middle-schoolers seek groups outside of the nuclear family in order to test out who they are. They push away from their family because they feel the pull towards other groups, all in service to discovering their own self.
You wonder about the fervent pull to the mall on the weekend. You don’t get it –why is your daughter Instragramming her drink? You are not supposed to get it. It is not for you to get. It is for her peer group – the people who are supporting her growing self-identity. Adolescents must struggle to discover their own identities. The struggle entails negotiating and trying to fit in. They do seek leadership, however, and over time they do develop a set of ideals and a sense of right and wrong. In the successful adolescent, these ideals are socially congruent and desirable. But it takes times, and many awkward trips to the mall, to get there.
By middle school, our children have been attending schools and camps, riding bikes, and playing sports for some time; their worlds have already expanded quite a bit and we, as parents, have already begun to reconcile that we as parents are no longer the complete authorities we once were, though we are still at the top of the list. Our task with adolescents is to continue surrendering to our children’s growth, but to do so with an understanding that the developmental task of adolescence is to form a personal identity. If the family successfully navigates this time, the children will ultimately form an identity that feels true and stable to them. If the family fails, the children may experience role confusion and a weak sense of self. The reward of the family’s successful navigation of adolescence results in a child who is self-assured versus self-conscious. We would all like to give our children this experience in the world. The process during this time is critical and generating a respect for their task may help you understand and support them through the challenge.
But how exactly do we support them? As stated earlier, our children do not arrive with instructions. So we must struggle ourselves to find the right balance of guiding and following. We must guide them towards making healthy decisions and, in order to maintain a connection, we must sometimes follow them towards their interests, which may not be our own. Additionally, sometimes we must see the bigger picture and understand that we cannot even follow. As parents we can expect our children to experiment with different – usually constructive – roles, knowing that the alternative for them is to adopt a “negative identity” (such as delinquency). No matter what, sometimes they will act like jerks, but our ability to continue to tolerate and guide them has lasting benefits for the rest of their lives. Allowing our middle-schoolers to experiment and explore, while providing a safe and supportive home-base, provides the stability our children need to actually anticipate achievement, rather than to feel paralyzed by feelings of inferiority and uncertainty.
Ultimately, we want our children to trust themselves. Trips to the mall provide an opportunity for them to try on different aspects of themselves, so do trips to the state park, the beach, church and other non-consumer activities. The good news is there are lots of adults who can be good role models. In our community there are lots of programs in which they can explore their roles and identities. Adolescent Counseling Services provides students with another venue to begin to understand the patterns and themes that are emerging within them and around them. It is another way for students to investigate their self-identity, but to do so with a supportive, trained professional who is there for them – not a parent, a teacher, a priest or a rabbi, but a counselor who is there to support their own unfolding self without a potentially competing agenda. This can be a very powerful experience for an adolescent.