An extremely common thing I am approached about is teens who begin to exhibit behaviors that are perceived to be undesirable. I’ve never actually counted them, but I’m confident they would be my most common client—them or their parents or some combination of both. Because it’s so common it’s also a good basis for discussing the concept of separate realities, so I’ll use it as a case study to explain where the tension comes from and what you can do about it.
Human beings are wired up not to notice things if they’re too repetitive. Better to invest the available brainpower in something useful, than to constantly stop everyth—SQUIRREL!!! You get my point. So if something goes on too long, it becomes invisible to us by being absent from our consciousness. As I often note, pig farmers don’t smell pigs.
A good example of this is one of the subtle things that happens to parents: they have, for more than a decade, unconsciously been the undisputed masters of their kids schedules, activities, resources and wisdom. So when the child actually begins to change that relationship by having their own ideas, that stands out as extremely noticeable to a parent. It is a shift from near-absolute automatically presumed control, to an inability to control, combined with belligerence and distance. It’s like a two year old with a driver’s licence. To the parent it’s a real whack to the wiring in the brain and even the most open-minded person will need time to adjust.
From the kid’s perspective, they didn’t go looking for autonomy. All that happened was, they eventually had enough trusted outside sources of perspective to allow them to develop an idea about the world that differs from their parent’s. And they notice it when they do it. I remember doing this. It was startling. It was like a whole new way to be. And kids like this new thing to do with their mind, and so they exercise it a lot—which is understandably insanely frustrating to their parents who, until then, could wade in and end any big kerfuffle quickly and effectively. There is no way to break up eye rolling. They either volunteer to quit rolling them or you voluntarily control homicidal fantasies on a fairly regular basis. Either way, for both parties it’s all new.
The kid is at a huge advantage. All of this capability of opinion is captivating. They develop paper-thin perspectives on everything. And blasting electricity into these new parts of the brain feels exciting and compelling. On the flip side, parents are pulling their hair out as they legitimately watch their carefully built lives completely upended by the dramatics that go with the hormones that go with the teen years. This whole era for the relationship is a much better deal for the kid than the parent.
What I want to focus on is the fact that the reason these two parties are in conflict is because of what is contained in their consciousness. The parent wants the kid to have a clean room, and the kid—at least some kids—previously kept their rooms clean out of a sort of blind obedience. But it’s not like a clean room ever had much actual value to a 10 year old. They’d live in a tree fort if they could. So they clean it out of obedience in a one-mind kind of way. They don’t recognize that they have certain autonomies and so they “behave.” But as they age those opportunities to decide appear more and more often and autonomy increases as a result. We never achieve pure independence, but that’s what we seem to target.
My point is that what is in the kid’s brain is legitimate. For a kid. Yeah, an adult can choose to think about how much they paid for the house and how they imagined it looking (like from a magazine), etc. So then this messy room gets converted into some glowing sign pointing at bad parenting, a bad kid, and a non-showhome home. But meanwhile the kid’s actually not doing anything wrong. Doesn’t it make sense that a teen isn’t necessarily going to be invested in the reasoning behind slaving to keep a gorgeous room that only the occupant will ever see? That’s saner than it is crazy.
A lot of kids have trouble following the parent’s rules simply because their mind is filled with the sorts of things it should be at those ages. They are learning about who they are and an integral part of that involves learning things through experience. So they need to be involved in those experiences. They need to be invested in their own life and priorities to a large degree. If they’re destroying your home, kick them out. But if they leave socks on the floor well… so do lots of great people.
It is not unreasonable for parents to feel violated if they have worked hard to buy nice things and live somewhere nice, and then have it be disrespected by the very people who they built it all for. In their imaginations they have built that castle in the sky and now they want to live in it. But the kid sees no such castle and so they simply cannot comprehend what you mean when you describe their mistakes as defying logic and common sense. Because they cannot see the future you see, they cannot imagine what logical steps would get them there.
This process is entirely innocent. The kids aren’t aware they’re doing it, and yet the parents have every reason to feel exasperated on a regular basis. It’s simply the chemistry of those ages. It’s why older parents like mine are much more sanguine about things. They weren’t when my much-older brothers were kids. But by the time I rolled around they were wiser, and I got the benefit of that. They just didn’t offer much resistance at all and I was given general support, but never firmly guided on what to do. I’m sure I looked lazy for a while, especially during the time where my friends and I spent long summer days in the basement playing video games. But those friends grew into good men, and we’ve all gone on to good lives.
Periods of apparent drift shouldn’t be worried about too much, because it makes perfect sense that a teenager would not have the same priorities as someone in middle age. They are learning to socialize and this automatically translates to at least some failure as they learn to make their way through life. But however they get there, if children have been around respectful, positive, compassionate behaviour for most of their life, then they’ll have learned all they need to be truly successful.