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Adolescent breakup and stress

Of course the greatest break up that adolescence brings is between child and parent, as abrasive and estranging changes in the young person begin to strain the relationship that was once so companionable and close. To a degree, the separation from childhood stresses the old relationship as the adolescent begins to pull away from the ties that bind.

Gone are the constant companion, best buddy, and mutual admiration society that the parent may have enjoyed for so long. Hard on the child, this loss can be harder on the parent because it is easier being the person leaving than the one left behind.

In response, it's easy to empathize with the parent who expressed her loss partly sadly and partly indignantly: "Who stole my child?" On the receiving end of this break up it's easy for a parent to feel hurt, rejected, grief stricken, or lonely. It's easy to take the break up personally, blaming the child for change that is not personally meant. "We used to have such a great time together, what happened to you?" No. The adolescent is not doing anything to the parent, only braving the challenge of growing herself up.

Now those three relentless engines that drive independence - separation (wanting time for peers and privacy), differentiation (experimenting with unique expressions of individuality), and opposition (pushing to live more on one's own terms) - break up the old easiness together. Henceforth the parenting challenge becomes how to keep the relationship connected as adolescence is growing them apart.

Then there are the break ups that are often associated with the four phases of adolescence. Each can be painful to the young person in a different way, and should be cause for parental concern.

In early adolescence (ages 9 - 13) a very painful break up can occur when best friends grow apart. Consider two childhood friends who are so close and similar in every respect that they seem to inhabit the same person, so much commonality and intimacy do they share. Why they even read each other's minds, sensitively attuned to each other's thoughts without being verbally told. Of course, they spend most of their social their time together.

Then adolescence begins its transforming work. One youngster differentiates from the child she used to be and develops new interests while the other remains the same; or one youngster enters puberty and starts to look manly and gets older attention while the other still looks like a little boy.

Notice that the changes are nobody's fault, are not the result of a falling out. So what happened? Significant growth differences sever the similarity that supported the closeness they once shared. For the changing partner, the old friendship ceases to be compatible and more suitable associations and activities must be found. While the young person doing the leaving can feel guilty, the old friend left behind feels bereft. Parents need to be sensitive to this grief and supportive because so much of the young person's sense of self has been torn away at a very vulnerable age.

In mid-adolescence (ages 13 - 15) pairing up across the sexes begins as an act of social completion, signifying that now one is more young womanly or more young manly for having a boyfriend or a girlfriend. It identifies you as having achieved a more grown up social standing and status. Who is interested in who, who is going with who, who is breaking up with who become important items in social gossip at this age.

Because they tend to enter puberty earlier than boys, girls (who are usually more relationally socialized anyhow) often take pairing up more seriously. Less socially mature, boys often take it more lightly, treating pairing up and breaking up as casual or even funny to do. Although social pairing up in mid-adolescence is usually based on interest and compatibility more than intimacy and love, to be broken up with can impact one's social reputation: "She (or he) got dumped!" And significant social identity and standing can be lost. Not heart breaking, this break up can be socially costly, and for that reason parents need to pay empathetic attention.

Marriage and just managing the relationship with each other is a challenge. Marriage and managing children is more challenging. Marriage and managing adolescents is more challenging still.

The simple domestic partnership of marriage creates the complexity of learning to live with incompatibilities, cooperating about sharing, and communicating about disagreements.

Add children and new adult roles are introduced into the marriage as partners become Parents, start defining what mother and father roles will be, and shoulder mutual family responsibility.

Come children's adolescence, parents feel more embattled and less appreciated by young people who push for more independence through social separation, experimental differentiation, and opposition to authority. Now "the hard half of parenting" begins -- hardship that is usually harder upon the marriage.

When marriage partners think about becoming marriage parents they are usually shortsighted. They focus on the early delight of having endearing children, not on the later demands of having abrasive adolescents.

Although they will see their teenager less than they saw their toddler, because adolescents are more drawn to the company of peers and eager to experience life away from home, parents will spend more time preoccupied with the teenager. They will be more entangled with conflict over matters of freedom and responsibility, and more beset by worries over harmful conduct and social danger.

There is no point underplaying the stress that having adolescents can place upon a marriage. Letting go as children separate from childhood and push against and pull away from family for more independence causes parents to feel less in control but no less responsible for what occurs.

Making this pressure worse is when discord over parental contributions (who supervises what) or over appropriate discipline (whose approach is right) creates unresolved conflict in the marriage.

Perhaps rule number one when parenting adolescents is this: never let parenting decisions about the teenager become divisive of the marriage. Remember, when the young person is grown and gone, how well parents partner will partly depend on how well they managed their relationship during their son or daughter's adolescent years. Was it a time of unity and gratitude for each other's support or of intractable opposition and resentment for feeling abandoned? Did they pull together or did they pull apart?

I believe it works best to treat every parenting decision about your adolescent, particularly when you first disagree, as primarily about the marriage and secondarily about the teenager. "Should she be allowed to?" Parents initially disagree. Now they have to talk for however long it takes, while the teenager impatiently waits, for them to discuss and reach a mutual accord.

They need to feel "married" on whatever parenting decision they make so they feel unified and together. Maybe their solution is to say "yes," but setting conditions that address issues of safety about which one of them is truly concerned.

As for value differences between parents, they are not a problem to be eliminated. They are a reality for them to accept. All marriages are cross-cultural. Partners come together out of different family backgrounds, having received different kinds of parenting, being given different models for mothering and fathering, knowing different experiences growing up, and inhabiting different sex roles of being a daughter or a son.

Common Causes and Responses to Stress

Young people become stressed for many reasons. The Minnesota study presented students with a list of 47 common life events and asked them to identify those they had experienced in the last six months that they considered to be "bad." The responses indicated that they had experienced an average of two negative life events in the last six months. The most common of these were:

  1. Break up with boy/girl friend
  2. Increased arguments with parents
  3. Trouble with brother or sister
  4. Increased arguments between parents
  5. Change in parents' financial status
  6. Serious illness or injury of family member
  7. Trouble with classmates
  8. Trouble with parents

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