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Adolescence: A psychological crisis for teens or their parents?

A new article makes the intriguing argument that the teenage years often have a bigger psychological impact on parents than on the teens.

girl in car
An article in New York Magazine makes the argument that the teenage years often have a bigger psychological impact on parents than on the teens.

“Is it possible that adolescence is most difficult — and sometimes a crisis — not for teenagers as much as for the adults who raise them?”

That’s the fascinating question asked — and discussed — by Jennifer Senior, a contributing editor to New York magazine, in an excerpted article from her soon-to-be-published book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting.”

I recommend the article to all parents, no matter what your child’s current age.

The article shakes up some of our conventional beliefs about adolescence and makes the intriguing argument that the teenage years often have a bigger psychological impact on parents than on the teens.

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Writes Senior:

Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on puberty, thinks there’s a strong case to be made for this idea. “It doesn’t seem to me like adolescence is a difficult time for the kids,” he says. “Most adolescents seem to be going through life in a very pleasant haze.” Which isn’t to say that most adolescents don’t suffer occasionally, or that some don’t struggle terribly. They do. But they also go through other intense experiences: crushes, flirtations with risk, experiments with personal identity. It’s the parents who are left to absorb these changes and to adjust as their children pull away from them. …

In the 2014 edition of his best-known textbook, Adolescence, Steinberg debunks the myth of the querulous teen with even more vigor. “The hormonal changes of puberty,” he writes, “have only a modest direct effect on adolescent behavior; rebellion during adolescence is atypical, not normal.”

For parents, however, the picture is a good deal more complicated. In 1994, Steinberg published Crossing Paths, one of the few extensive accounts of how parents weather the transition of their firstborns into puberty, based on a longitudinal study he conducted of more than 200 families. Forty percent of his sample suffered a decline in mental health once their first child entered adolescence. Respondents reported feelings of rejection and low self-worth; a decline in their sex lives; increases in physical symptoms of distress. It may be tempting to dismiss these findings as by-products of midlife rather than the presence of teenagers in the house. But Steinberg’s results don’t seem to suggest it. “We were much better able to predict what an adult was going through psychologically,” he writes, “by looking at his or her child’s development than by knowing the adult’s age.”

Affects moms and dads differently

Senior’s exerpted article contains many other tantalizing tidbits of research, including the following:

  • Between 5th and 12th grade, the proportion of waking hours children spend with their parents drops from 35 percent to 14 percent.
  • Mothers are three times more likely than fathers to report that the responsibility of disciplining their teenage child falls to them alone.
  • Teenagers, both girls and boys, are more likely to be verbally abusive to their mothers than to their fathers. They are also more likely to quarrel with their mothers.
  • Mothers tend to suffer less than fathers after their children leave home (a not surprising finding, perhaps, given the previous two points in this list).
  • Once a teenage child begins to date, fathers report being significantly less satisfied with their marriage, especially, writes Senior, “if those teenagers were sons, suggesting they were jealous, or at least nostalgic for a time of open-ended possibilities.”

“Here’s what may be most powerful about adolescence, from a parent’s perspective,” Senior concludes. “It forces them to contemplate themselves as much as they contemplate their own children. Toddlers and ­elementary-school children may cause us to take stock of our choices, too, of course. But it’s adolescents, usually, who stir up our most self-critical feelings. It’s adolescents who make us wonder who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us. It’s adolescents who reflect back at us, in proto-adult form, the sum total of our parenting decisions and make us wonder whether we’ve done things right.”

You can read the excerpt in full on New York magazine’s website.