An additional reinforcement to the potential instability of adolescence is the emergence of newly sophisticated metacognitive abilities which lead to increased egocentrism, self-absorption and the development of ‘The Personal Fable’. ‘The Personal Fable’ is the view of the adolescent that what happens to them is unique, exceptional, and shared by no one else. They may feel that no one has ever experienced the pain they feel; that no one has ever been treated so badly; or that no one can understand what they are going through. This perceptual framework can lead to feelings of isolation, despair, and disconnect, further increasing the adolescent’s vulnerability to manifest maladaptive behaviors.
During the time my son was navigating the challenges of this complex developmental stage, I was compelled to make myself a t-shirt with the following inscription on it:
Mothers of teenagers understand why wolves eat their young
What made this sentiment even more apropos was that, at the time, we were living in the Adirondacks with two wolves. So we were both able to enjoy the sentiment with the provision that I not wear it out in public while in his company.
All of my experiences, both personal and professional, have helped me discern over the years that the most balanced and effective approach to parenting the adolescent is achieved by focusing primarily on what it means to be an adolescent from the perspective of the adolescent.
Just as with the child, joining the adolescent where they happen to be in the moment in their experience is the most important thing we can do. This requires that we, as parents, teachers, mentors, and coaches, suspend our own personal agendas in favor of establishing a truly empathic connection with the teenager. What makes this difficult to do is that the adolescent’s experience is often infused with a lot of instability, drama and crisis which serves as a reflection and painful reminder for all of us of a time in which we experienced the same deep existential angst and suffering that often defines this stage of development.
In addition to not wanting to revisit our own imprinting from adolescence, parents will become extremely uncomfortable with the recognition that they have less influence on their child than in previous years despite using the same external control mechanisms which had always proven successful. So what’s changed?
Around the age of twelve rapid neuronal changes in the brain result in newly emerging metacognitive abilities. Metacognition is essentially ‘thinking about thinking’ and once the adolescent has reached this cognitive benchmark; from their perspective, everything is up for review; including whether or not they will continue to conform to the conditioning and control mechanisms that have been in place since they were born .
Around the age of two when language is acquired, one of the first and frequent utterances that comes from the toddler's mouth is the word "No". Unfortunately, the widely accepted interpretation of this new verbal expression is often referred to as the beginning of the "Terrible Two's ". However, I could not disagree more. It is my personal belief that this new verbal expression is related to 'Object Relations Theory' in which prior to 18-24 months of age, the child's experience is that they are literally attached to their primary care giver. At the age of two they begin to differentiate from their primary caregiver by seeing themselves as separate and apart from them and the word "No" is their attempt to do so by identifying that it is so. It is also my belief that the adolescent's version of the need to further differentiate from their primary caregiver is often expressed with some variation of the verbal expression "Fuck You". Both examples are drawn from the two most critical stages of development as it relates to rapid and accelerated physical and cognitive development which absolutely requires that the child further differentiate from their primary caregivers. In both examples it is developmentally appropriate and biologically driven. Unfortunately, in both examples the parents will often attempt to defend themselves by engaging in a power struggle with either the child or adolescent.
From the previous article, “Parenting the Child”:
“Increased differentiation from our parents is a requirement for transitioning successfully into adulthood. However, in order for this to happen the parents or primary caregivers need to be fairly healthy, balanced, conscious and aware. If they are not then they will take the child’s attempts to differentiate from them very personally. They experience it as extremely threatening since their influence and control over their child appears to be diminishing. This is evidenced by the fact that the negative consequences and positive reinforcements that they have come to rely on to ensure acceptable behaviors in their child are no longer effective. In response to this unwelcome development, the parent usually ratchets up the control mechanisms and engages in increased power struggles with their child which always fails to satisfy either party’s needs.”
One of my mantras to the parents I work with is “Don’t get involved in a power struggle with your child.” It is my experience that if you do, you will almost always lose because the child is willing to lay prone on the floor of the grocery aisle and the adolescent is often willing to take them self off the planet rather than conform to control mechanisms which, for them, represent the equivalent of self-annihilation.
“Without realizing it, they are defending their right to exist beyond the boundaries and confinement of this conditioning that projects onto them that their inability to conform is evidence of some inherent flaw that will limit their ability to be successful in getting their physical and emotional needs met throughout the course of their lifetime.” - Beyond the Imprint -
What is most important for the parent to understand is that their control/defense mechanisms are more of an attempt to get their own physical and emotional needs met by alleviating the anxiety associated with the dawning awareness that, over time, they have increasingly less control over their child and fundamentally little, if any, control over their teenager. It is never helpful to parent by establishing a power dynamic with the child or adolescent because you are essentially imprinting them with the understanding that whoever is bigger, stronger, louder, and more threatening is the one who gets their needs met. And without a doubt, the child/adolescent will bring this unconscious imprinting into their adult relationships by replicating a co-dependent, power dynamic with their significant other by playing the role of either 'victim' or 'perpetrator'.
“If we, as adults, were able to recognize the degree to which we are influenced by our own imprinting and subsequent conditioning we would be much better equipped to parent, teach, and mentor this most critical and dynamic stage of developmental. Our teenagers are our ‘truth tellers’ and we have much to learn from them if we could only allow ourselves to listen and accept them without feeling the need to defend our position.” - Beyond the Imprint -