Maybe it’s the long, sleepless nights or the never-ending temper tantrums, but many new parents believe the most demanding days of parenting are in their child’s early years. It can be a long adjustment period for mothers and fathers to change their behaviors around the newest (and loudest) family member. But according to psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Carl Pickhardt, if you think early childhood is tough, you’d better buckle up for adolescence.
“I loved having young children,” he says. “But an adolescent wants to be more like their friends. Separation needs to happen so that by the end of adolescence, you have a young person that can assume functional independence. It takes a lot of growth for that to happen.”
In his upcoming book Holding On While Letting Go: Parenting Your Child Through the Four Freedoms of Adolescence, Pickhardt shares four stages, or “freedoms,” to anticipate as children grow into their own person, which he outlined by observing how they manage themselves at school, home, and in social situations. We’ll go through these freedoms, how the internet complicates them, and how to navigate them.
How can parents help kids become functional adults?
Parents often feel the need to hang on to their kids instead of letting go, which can make the journey from needy children to strong, independent adults difficult for mothers and fathers and their adolescents.
“A child doesn’t have to earn our love,” he says. “But they do have to earn the next level of freedom by demonstrating a certain level of judgment and behavior.”
Mothers and fathers should be ready to listen to and communicate with their children. By talking with them and gauging where they are in their journey to adulthood, parents will feel more confident to loosen their grip on their adolescents and see them grow into self-reliant adults. The following is how Pickhardt outlines the four freedoms:
Freedom from the rejection of childhood
This stage typically occurs around the late elementary school years. Youngsters will tend to stop acting like children and want to feel like adults.
“A kid doesn’t want to be treated like a child anymore and will become a little more insistent on what they want,” Pickhardt says.
Freedom of association with peers
This stage happens around middle school when children want to form a second family of friends.
“Childhood is the time of physical affection, and adolescence starts moving away from that,” Pickhardt says. “On the other hand, you’re relating to them and seeing what kind of person they’re growing up to be.”
Freedom for older experimentation
This freedom happens during the high school years. Teenagers want to try more grown-up activities.
“You see that with the way they dress,” Pickhardt says. “They want to dress like their friends.”
Freedom to claim emancipation
Teenagers become adults heading to college and decide to become their own ruling authority.
“Adolescence begins with loss,” Pickhardt says. “For the parent, it’s the loss of the child. For the child, it’s an act of courage. It’s hard for them to let go of the familiar and comfortable. But that’s part of the growth process. But the long-term goal is to grow and become a functioning individual.”
How do social media and smartphones factor into these freedoms?
That smartphone you bought your child for their birthday could be making their journey to adulthood more difficult. Remember when you asked your parents a question, and they would reply, “I’ll explain it when you’re older.” Pickhardt says that time is gone, due obviously in part to how the internet and social media are available in your child’s hip pocket. It’s allowed teenagers to grow up in an entirely different world than their parents, which makes raising children through the four freedoms of adolescence very tricky.
“In some ways, [social media and the internet] have accelerated growth,” he says. “It’s certainly complicated growth because it’s given kids information and influences at a much earlier age than a generation ago. We’re parenting children through two worlds, not one.”
Pickhardt stresses that communication is the key to helping a child navigate this onslaught of both good and bad information. He acknowledges it can be difficult for parents and children to converse, as adolescents are more inclined to listen to their friends. But if parents are ready to listen whenever their child wants to talk and are appreciative of what they’re curious about, it can go a long way.
“You can use your kid as a teacher to learn about this new world you may not know too much about,” he says.
Help them realize you’re on the same team
Through all the arguing between parents and their children, Pickhardt stresses how vital communication is throughout this entire process. The crucial thing for both parties to realize is that they both have the same goal: to have the adolescent grow into a self-functioning adult. It’s the path to reaching that goal that causes conflict.
“Keep saying, ‘Just because I keep raising questions about what you want to do or don’t want you to do something, it doesn’t mean I’m not on your side. I am on your side, and my hope is that you can use me as a good advisor who has your best interests at heart,’” he says.
Pickhardt also says to give yourself some grace when mistakes are inevitably made and to allow your adolescent to raise questions about reaching that goal. Combine your knowledge and act as a team to get there. “Two of you are better than one,” he says.
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