Adolescence and The Dance of Separation

Adolescence: Some Thoughts for Parents

Adolescence is a separate stage of life. In the histories of the world’s societies, it is a new concept. In previous cultures and in what today are called primitive cultures (primitive in terms of complex layers of socio-economic strata, not in terms of value judgments) there are essentially two stages of life. Childhood and adulthood are the two stages that societies have historically maintained. When it is time for a transition, these cultures have what are called rites of passage. During rites of passage, boys and girls are separated and tested. If they pass the tests, they are marked in some way and welcomed into the tribal group as full adult members of society this takes a relatively short period, sometimes a few days or a couple of weeks. It is easy to tell if someone is an adult. If they are adults then they are entitled to the privileges of adult status and if they are a child, they are protected from the consequences of their behaviors while they are taught what is appropriate and expected of adults within the community.

Societies which have developed the stage we call adolescence are more complex. In these societies it is much more difficult to differentiate between children and adults. In complex societies there are no rites of passage that clearly mark, or distinguish, the adults from the children. We do not easily know who is protected from their immaturity and ignorance and who is not. Additionally, children do not have a clear definition of when their adulthood begins. They get mixed messages from the media, parents, peers, and schools.

There were three critical factors that lead to the development of the adolescent stage. The first was the evolution of a society into a cash economy dependent upon salaries. The economy was no longer based on barter, but instead required cash for value. Workers moved off the farms and out of agriculture in the industrial era where they were paid wages, which were used to acquire the things they needed. This economic system requires that workers have or acquire a certain level of skills in order to be economically viable. It becomes necessary for children to learn job skills that will enable them to get a job, and thus, a salary. As society becomes more complex these skills move beyond just job skills, but begin to include general skills like computation, reading, and more complex functional skills. This need led to the second evolutionary condition, the public high school. The public high school exists because the society is willing to pay money in the form of taxes to set up an educational system which will train the children in the required/expected skills needed to become successful, productive adults. Also, these schools do a kind of body storage function in which the children are kept in small containable lots under adult supervision, and are not out in the community raising hell or competing for jobs for which they are not qualified.

The third critical factor impacting the development of a stage of life called adolescence is the development of the concept of the “love marriage.” In more restricted communities, marriages are arranged by families and custom, not chosen by the bride and groom. In industrial societies where family ownership of land is not such a critical ingredient, the customs evolved. Children now date and have “exploratory relationships” that lead to the selection of a life-mate. What we call the love marriage is a relatively new custom.
One of the major functions of adolescence is to provide a semi-protected state for the child who is no longer a child, but not yet an adult, to experiment and practice with grown up behaviors. Instead of rites of passage as one time admission tests, adolescents go through a rolling series of privileges which they acquire based on age or level of responsibility. They get a driver’s license, a job, a high school diploma, they acquire a hunting license, earn the right to go in the military, get married, sign contracts to which they can be bound, carry a weapon, etc. All of these are separate events that come at different times for each adolescent. As the adolescent struggles through the acquisition of these adult status points, they gradually become an adult. Some of them leave home and become independent, some leave home and then come back for awhile and some never really leave. But the process through which the entire family goes as adolescence unfolds is sometimes called the “Dance of Separation.”

The “Dance of Separation” is a term descriptive of the process of which parents no longer are able to micromanage their child. As the child acquires more “adult status” in the states of the rolling privileges, the parents have less and less control over the schedule and behavior of the child. In part, at issue is the reality that teens are expert and avid consumers long before they are producers of value. As parents attempt to maneuver this stage with their teen-aged child, I would suggest some strategies for surviving the transit of this period:
1.Build a box around them that is consistent, basic, predictable
2. Remember the power of consequences.
3. Learn to talk with them and not preach at them

As children experiment with freedom, maturity, responsibility and new options, they take risks and have successes and failures. Parents should provide a consistent, predictable structure for them to bounce around inside. I work with parents to help them define the critical three to five “rules” or “expectations” that the child must follow/respect in order to have “success” and continue the privilege of making their own choices and trying their own experiments. If the teen does not make choices that keep him in the box of limits, then he must experience the consequences of his choices. These consequences should be known in advance and keyed to specific violations of the rules. There should not be a discussion about the consequences. There should not be a “sermon” about the misdeeds, no matter how much the parent wants to give one. Children do not listen to parental sermons. Even parents do not listen to themselves. These sermons are exercises in what Albert Ellis calls “musturbation.” Ellis believed that “musturbators” are people driven by their sense of what must be, or what must not be. They work hard to make their life fit these patterns of “shoulds” for the way life operates. One should is the should that good parents explain everything to their child and reason with them for understanding. One of the most consistent problems of parenting that many middle-class, educated parents have is the incredible desire to sermonize and lecture in an ongoing belief that there will be an “epiphany” on the part of the child. Parents feel that, “If I can just explain it to my child, they will eventually slap their foreheads and ‘get it’.” This does not work. Consequences calmly, appropriately and predictably given with a message about choice making work best. Remember, children do not “get” epiphanies” they “get” consequences.

What are the issues facing adolescents and their parents? Parents are trying to promote independence and self-ownership of their children and yet are still trying to control the choices and the outcomes that their children experience. It is really hard to let go. We have all heard ourselves say, “When are you going to grow up?” followed soon after by “You aren’t old enough to do that yet.” The changes and the ambivalence are really hard for all of us. Our teens are influenced by us as parents, by what we have said over the years, but more importantly by what we have modeled. Parental modeling is a constant. Children study us as if we were the lab rats and they were the scientists. They are trying to figure out from our behaviors and our responses to them what really matters in life. They want to know if we walk the walk, or just talk the talk. They learn from us the critical socialization skills of anger management, delayed gratification, and self-discipline. They learn these things by attending not to what we say, but by how we behave. They internalize the lessons, and then they practice them in their own lives to find the way that works for them. It is not one-trial learning. They will choose one behavior one time and another behavior at another time. Circumstances change, risk tolerance changes and risk aversion changes. They are impacted by us, by their peers and by the cultural messages of the media to which they are exposed. Out of all this conflicting input, they have to define themselves and learn to walk a path of their own. We want them to, but we still want to steer them onto the path we think is right for them. This is the crux of the problem. How do we help them, but let them go? How do we make them go?

Remember all this growth stuff is individualized. There are charts about average height and weight, about average intelligence, about what ten year olds do, etc. Your child may be different and may be on a different pace or track. Be aware of the possibility of variance, even within a family. Siblings are not carbon copies of you, or of each other.
Here are some questions to ponder as you attempt to take this journey. Think about these things to ask yourself and to observe in your child:
1. What are the self- soothing strategies your child uses? What are the ones you model?
2. Should we, and if so, how can we slow down the loss of innocence at this age?
Whatever answers you find to the above questions, I would strongly suggest that you give thought to these recommendations:
a. Hold the line on standards of behavior.
b. Resist the pressure to let them do things over the line in order to avoid fights and in order to be friends with them.
c. Have dinner together regularly, attend church regularly. These are the two major predictors regarding experimentation with drugs and alcohol for teens.

Conversations to have with your children when you are not angry or confronting them are:
1. What do you do when your friends do things you know we do not want you to do?
2. How important is it to be popular?
3. What are your dreams or goals for the next month? Year? School?
Lessons you want to teach and factors to consider as you attempt to weave a tapestry within your family for raising adolescents are:
a. They are expert consumers before they are producers.
b. The issue of respect for rules and respect for others are critical lessons.
c. The issue of entitlement, or rights vs. responsibilities, is critical to growth and independence.
d. The issue of caring for others vs. narcissism is a life long personality issue.
e. The issue of self-esteem is not driven by praise, it is driven by self-accomplishment and a sense of capacity and mastery!

As you take the Dance of Separation and help your children learn how to become independent, contributing, and autonomous members of society, slow down and smell the roses. It is a journey and not a destination. The process works more often than it does not. Embrace the journey.

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2 Responses to Adolescence and The Dance of Separation

  1. Lisa Wascher says:

    can you elaborate on self-esteem through accomplishment and mastery? I agree with the principle, but how do you tease that out from having worth or satisfaction from just “being” and not “doing?” How do I model or explain that to my teenager? I feel like I’m giving mixed messages – achieve, but accept yourself anyway . . . is the self-accomplishment you mention the key, as opposed to any outside standard of accomplishment?
    thanks – like your posts!


    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Thank you for your interest and your comment. My thinking is that self esteem does not come from simply “being” until there is a level of maturity to support it. It would be the goal, but when working with younger children, I think the challenge for the parents is to create a structure of experimentation and risk taking that allows for moderated consequences. It is only through experiencing the consequence of failure, loss, or success that we learn and from which, eventually, we learn to trust ourselves as “beings” of worth. This is where our self esteem arises.

      An important ingredient is learning to value the process of making the effort and being honest about your investment in the effort rather than just focusing on the outcome or win/loss ratio. With Teens remember that much of what they feel is camouflaged by the masks they wear. So as a parents, we model that reality testing the effort we make and learning to deal with the reality based outcomes are part of the process of any success or failure.

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