Parenting the More Unavailable Adolescent

Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Whenever I think about parents trying to cope with a teenager who has become more socially unavailable to them at home, living mostly behind a closed bedroom door, this old rhyme comes immediately to mind. 

“Yesterday upon a stair, 

I met a man who wasn’t there. 

I met him there again today. 

I wish that man would go away!”                                                                                      

The unavailable adolescent is there but isn’t there, is home but isn’t at home, is communicative but not with parents, participates with friends but not with family, and parents wish this frustrating situation would “go away.”

“Is this supposed to be normal?” parents ask.  

In many cases, yes; but normal doesn’t mean it is okay. After all, this young person that we’re talking about is a family member; not some anonymous boarder (all bills paid, all services provided, no questions asked, no contact expected, no tasks required), although that may be part of the role the teenager is trying to approximate. So: consider how this teenage unavailability might come to be, and then how parents might choose to respond. 

WHY MORE UNAVAILABILITY

I believe the larger purpose of adolescence is to grow the child up so that by her or his early to mid-twenties they have developed a uniquely fitting identity and established a functional independence upon which young adult development can depend. The challenge for the parent is how to maintain meaningful connection with the teenager as adolescence grows them apart, as it is meant to do.

The differentiation and detachment from childhood and parents that are required for this transformation to occur usually create more social distance and incompatibility between parent and teenager than there was between parent and child.

In addition, the teenager becomes more self-preoccupied and invested in the company of friends — on both counts becoming less available to parents than the young person used to be. The teenager wants more public time with peers and more private time at home. Although it can feel harder to make time for parents, this unavailability in no way signifies a loss of love for parents, only taking them more for granted and treating them as less of a social priority.

Then there is the hard reality that parenting an adolescent is not a popularity contest where the adult is constantly courting the teenager’s approval and favor. Instead, a hard part of the parental job is to create and supervise a family structure of responsible rules and expectations for the young person to live within. Sometimes this requires them to take stands for the young person’s best interests against what she or he may want, and this is not appreciated. So there is more thankless parenting to be done.

Some freedom of expression may be curtailed: “You cannot go to school dressed like that.” Or some freedom of action is denied: “You are not old enough for us to let you go.”  Compared to the childhood years, adolescence is usually a more abrasive period between parent and teenager, an abrasion that is functional in the long term because it gradually wears down the dependence between them.

In most cases, the adolescent simply grows less available to parents than was the child as they seem more socially out of touch and so less admired in youthful eyes. Thus there is that celebrated adult complaint that mourns the loss of traditional standing: “I used to be such a cool parent; what happened?”

TREATING UNAVAILABILITY

So: should parents just accept this unwanted change of circumstance and endure what they don’t like, which is missing personal access they used to enjoy? I don’t think so. So long as the young person lives at home, active family involvement is still important — in some long term ways the adolescent may not think about, but which parents must. 

Consider: family is place of origin, and it will be many years before a young adult creates an independent home as powerful as the one they grew up in.  Peers are certainly important, but in most cases these associations prove to be passing; while relationships to parents are of more lasting value. Furthermore, the family one grows up in provides a formative template of how the young person may want to constitute and conduct a future family of their own one day. Because family is of abiding value, all family members must give attention and make effort for it to function well.

Thus, if parents see adolescent unavailability at home taking hold, they first need to explain the kinds of availability they need and why. And if that isn’t a sufficient inducement to increase availability, they need to use the exchange points (where the adolescent needs something of them) to drive the point home.

By way of EXPLANATION, they might say something like this. “To keep a family together, everyone needs to stay connected. This connection depends on Contributions by family members like chores and support, on Communication between family members keeping each other adequately and accurately informed, and on Companionship together where caring for each other is expressed. If we withdrew our support and stopped talking to you and didn’t want to do anything with you, family would be a hard place for you to live. So each day we all need to give sufficient contribution (help) and communication (conversation), and create sufficient companionship (caring) to keep our family a good place to live for everyone. Availability matters.”   

If unable to get more availability from explanation, parents can resort to using the EXCHANGE POINTS. They can exploit the teenager’s continuing dependence on them as an ongoing opportunity to make sure they are receiving sufficient availability in return. For example, the adolescent depends on their Protection (help they offer), on their Permission (freedom they allow), on their Provision (services they give), and Resources (money and spending they provide.) “Whenever you want something from us, before deciding, we are going to consider your current availability to us. The more available you are, the more likely it is that we will favorably respond to your request.”

 So: maybe rewrite the rhyme. 

“Yesterday upon a stair,

I met a man who was all there.

I met that man again today.

I hope that he remains this way!”                                                                                                   

For more about parenting a teenager, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.)  Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Mid-Adolescence and “Tough Talking” in Middle School

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