A common way to conceptualize adolescence is as a phase or a stage. These words imply that it is something that will inevitably pass and that adulthood will come; an understandably hopeful and comforting thought to us parents of teens. These words imply that if we, as parents, can somehow sit back, hold on and find a way to endure the years between thirteen and twenty, we can then breathe a sigh of relief that we no longer have teenagers. Unfortunately, however much we may want this idea to be true, it just isn’t. And thinking that it is true can lead to the common laissez-faire attitude adopted by many parents of teenagers that actually ends up being a unintentional disservice to their kids..
Adolescence is not a phase or a stage; it is not something that will pass as year nineteen turns to year twenty. Rather, adolescence is a transition, a bridge between childhood and adulthood, a time during which certain developmental rites of passage must occur in order to move into adult maturity. This bridge is not inevitably crossed by all teens. In fact, more often than not, people get stuck on the bridge for quite a long time, with some getting stuck on it for the rest of their lives! Don’t we all know fifty year-olds who are no more mature than teenagers? As Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, “We all get older, we don’t all grow up.”
So what are the rites of passage that must happen along the bridge? And what can we do as parents to support the teens in our life in crossing the bridge? There are many answers to this question (all of which are deeply and thoroughly explored in the Neufeld Institute’s Making Sense of Adolescence and courses)–let’s look at a few of them below.
One of the most significant rites of passage that teens must go through is becoming their own person. In adolescence, an attachment void, some natural distance in their relationships with their parents and other attachment figures, opens up. This happens for many reasons, including an increased capacity for reflective and idealistic thinking (they can now imagine the ideal parent and we don’t live up!), their increased physical size (they don’t fit in our laps anymore and may tower over us in height) and the ways that school and activities keep them away from home for longer amounts of time. The void is, ultimately, meant to be filled with the teen’s emerging sense of self–who they are, what they believe, what their values are and what they are passionate about. But, this void can feel quite uncomfortable, lonely and confusing and teens must be able to tolerate those feelings or else they will be tempted to fill the void with all sorts of things that, rather than lead towards self-discovery, actually lead away from it. The temptations are myriad–friends, social media, youtube videos, food, drugs and alcohol, to name just some. If our teens enter the teen years with deep attachment to us, their parents and teachers, they will be much better equipped to tolerate the vulnerability and discomfort of the void and will not experience the void as a relational severing experience (as is so commonly depicted in the media, where it is common “wisdom” that teens hate their parents) but, rather, as a more gentle space in which they can continue to receive our support and nurturing. This makes the experience more tolerable and makes it much more likely that they will pass through this rite by rooting into their own personhood.
Another significant rite of passage that must occur if our teens are to cross the bridge into adulthood is becoming what Dr. Neufeld calls “well-tempered.” Being well-tempered, or well integrated, means being able to hold multiple thoughts, feelings or perspectives in our mind at the same time. It is this ability that leads to the development of many of our most valued virtues–patience, consideration, empathy and fairness. If I am able to hold both my care about myself and my care about you in my mind at the same time, I will be able to be considerate. If I am able to hold onto myself while being in relationship with another person, I will be able to relate in healthy ways. If I am able to have both my frustration and my caring in mind at the same time, I will be rendered patient. And so on. We can see how this capability lies beneath so many traits that we associate with maturity. For a teen to become well-tempered they must be able to tolerate the vulnerability that is inherent in feelings all of their feelings, especially the tender ones. This requires deep attachment with caring adults, time and space to know themselves and expressive “playgrounds”– places where their emotions can move, such as in writing, music, movement or art. As parents, we can support the integrative process by modeling integration, talking about our own mixed feelings (though never about the mixed feelings involved in parenting as this is way too alarming for them!) and remaining patient and accepting with their untempered expressions (strong opinions, argumentative moments, surety around complex things) as stops along the way to becoming more balanced.
As we can see, crossing the bridge from childhood to adulthood is a long and complex process that requires us as parents to “stay in the room” so that our teen can have the stable, warm, safe relational home base needed as they journey to becoming their own person. By understanding that while what our teens need from us is changed from what they needed in childhood, they still absolutely need us, we can both ensure that they make it to the adult side of bridge and that, when they get there, they’ll be happy to receive the big welcoming hug we are waiting there to give them!
I will be offering ongoing support groups for parenting teens beginning in Fall 2021. Participation in the group requires some familiarity with the Neufeld Paradigm–participants must have read Hold On To Your Kids or taken a class from me or from the Neufeld Institute. Space is limited and participation requires a short application form and interview. If you are interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org