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Emancipation and Adolescence

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

An important part of adolescence is separating from one’s parents, in a process called emancipation. Teens usually embark upon this around puberty, beginning with baby steps (driving, getting a job, developing their own opinions) and ending with the giant leap into college or on to other adult endeavors.

Although teens want to separate from you, the process itself is frightening for them. That’s why you often see your teenager taking one step forward and two steps back. Your 15-year-old daughter might be into giggling about boys and trying new makeup, while at the same time she sleeps with her stuffed animal from childhood and still wants a goodnight kiss from you.

During this process, teenagers start redefining their emotional relationship with you, moving from that of parent and child to that of parent and adult. At the same time, they’re separating from you physically. Suddenly, it seems they’re never home. They may refuse to go on family vacations, or even to go out to dinner as a family. They walk apart from you when you’re in public places, and head straight to their room when they get home. Some get after-school jobs that keep them out of the house, or start spending inordinate amounts of time at a friend’s house, perhaps even “adopting” that other family as their own.

They’re not doing this to abandon you, but to redefine their relationship with you, to move from a posture of physical dependence to physical independence. It’s a tough transition for both parent and adolescent, and, luckily, it occurs gradually, or none of us would survive it!

Emancipation takes many forms. Some teens deliberately do things they know will annoy their parents, such as skipping chores, breaking curfew, or talking back. They’re not doing these things just to be obnoxious (although it often seems that way) but, subconsciously, as a way to tear themselves away from you. This testing of the rules is their way of saying that things are changing. And with those changes, they want fewer restrictions and redefined boundaries. They want to be seen as an emerging adult, not as a child. This doesn’t mean they don’t want any rules, as we’ll see later.

This testing is similar to the way a toddler tests boundaries. He’ll wander off just a bit from you to see what happens—always keeping you within his sight. Teenagers do the same thing. When they break curfew, they’re really saying: “How far can I go?”

When teens exhibit these “testing” behaviors, of course, we get angry. That anger puts another barrier between parent and teen, enhancing that feeling of separation. In a teenager’s mind, it’s easier to need a person less if you’re mad at them. Sometimes they even pick a fight so they can feel mad, and thus have a good reason to move away from you.

For instance, I overheard the following exchange between Bo, 13, and his mother. “I decided to go out with my friends tonight and I’ll be home around eleven-thirty,” Bo told his mother.

“Eleven-thirty! I don’t think so! Your curfew is 10 p.m.,” his mother said, shocked and angry.

“So what? It should be changed. What do you think I’m going to do? Don’t you trust me?” Bo demanded.

A huge fight ensued between the two, ending with Bo storming into his room and his mother in tears.

Bo’s assertion of his new sense of independence is typical of early adolescence. He deliberately picked a fight with his mother so he could have an arena in which to begin negotiating his independence and separation. Of course, he doesn’t recognize that he did this, for, as you’ll see below, he still lacks the sophisticated reasoning that would enable him to see the full scope and consequences of his actions.

Teenagers turn to sex for the same reasons. Sex makes them feel more grown up, more like an adult. It provides a sense of independence and freedom from parental authority. It’s a behavior parents can’t see or control, an action in which the teenager is the one in control, the one making the decisions. This provides an incredible sense of power, and provides yet another way for the teenager to physically and emotionally separate from his parents.

The challenge for parents is to find safer ways for teenagers to exert their independence, like finding a first job, opening their own checking account, taking responsibility for a car. You can provide “safer” freedoms—the freedom to choose their own clothes, hairstyles, the way they decorate their room. Helping them find safer ways to define their independence, while maintaining certain boundaries, will reduce the risk that they’ll turn to sex for that independence.

The balance between providing more freedom without totally relinquishing all rules is tricky. If you’re too rigid, and don’t give your teen some opportunities for independence, they’ll rebel and look for them on their own, often turning to the risky behaviors of sex, drinking, and drugs.

But if you give them too much freedom, they may feel as if they’ve been prematurely thrust out of the nest, maybe because you don’t love them. Many parents of our generation give too much freedom too soon to our kids because we want to teach them autonomy. While your intentions may be rooted in love, your teen feels just the opposite—that he is unloved. Remember, rules and boundaries make teens feel loved. Parents who abandon too many rules too quickly communicate to their kids that the teens are adult enough to make all their own decisions. Thus, teens begin acting in “adult” ways. To them, this means drinking, doing drugs, and having sex.

I often see this in my own practice. Many concerned parents give their teens too much freedom too soon, not because they don’t love their kids, but because they’re anxious to prove their trust. Teens don’t understand this; they just haven’t developed the kind of complex thinking required to comprehend this kind of action. So they get confused and angry. They look for love and a sense of belonging wherever they can—sometimes in sex.

That’s what happened with Myra. As soon as I saw her and her parents in my office, I knew it was serious. I could hear them fighting even before I entered the exam room.

“I just don’t know what to do with her!” her dad blurted out before I even sat down. “She’s out of control.” Ever since Myra turned 14, she’d been very restless and her parents had adopted a hands-off approach. When Myra wanted to go to parties with older kids, her parents let her. When she wanted to date a boy who was 18, they let her. The consequences were predictable: Myra got pregnant and had an abortion—an event her parents didn’t learn about until several months after the fact. After the abortion, Myra became sullen and irritable. She hated being home, she wanted to be out as much as possible. So her parents let her. The more she pulled away, the more her parents let go, afraid that if they cracked down and set limits, she’d only get into more trouble.

What prompted this particular visit? I asked. Myra didn’t answer. “She thinks she might be pregnant again,” her mother said. As her father and mother spoke I could see a coldness in Myra’s eyes. Her body language was stiff and angry. She looked like she wanted to scream and cry at the same time.

When we finished talking, I examined Myra. Fortunately, she wasn’t pregnant. But she did have gonorrhea. Although I treated Myra for the STD, I urged her and her parents to see a good family counselor. At first, her parents didn’t want to go because they felt embarrassed. They insisted they loved her intensely and had always worked hard to be good parents. But they made one huge mistake. They gave Myra too much freedom before she could handle it.

As Myra herself said: “At first, I liked the independence. But later, I wished they’d given me a curfew, like the other kids had. I wanted the rules back.” She was desperately searching for proof that someone loved her and cared—just small things, like her dad waiting up for her to make sure she was okay. After a while, thinking her parents didn’t care about her all, she began having sex, hoping, deep down, she said, that she would get caught.

Myra got her wish and, with help from a good counselor, began to feel the love her parents had for her. Once her parents realized they could better communicate their love for her by providing boundaries and rules, Myra quickly settled down and stopped having sex to get their attention.

One final word of caution about emancipation: When your teen breaks those non-negotiable rules (and feisty teens will break them to test your reaction), you must enforce serious consequences. I recommend that non-negotiable rules center around safety and respect for others. For instance, driving and drinking can kill, so this is a good, non-negotiable rule. In our house, one of our own non-negotiable rules with our children centers around driving. They can’t speed. If they get a speeding ticket, the car gets taken away for a predetermined period of time, say three to six months, depending on their age. These rules and enforced consequences are critical to our teens. Just like the laws of your town, state, and country, they work to keep a collective society civilized. The family is the first place teenagers learn how rules and consequences work.



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