(3 minute read)
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” — Mark Twain
Most parents find that their relationship with their pre-teenage kid is pretty smooth. Sure, there are fights and temper tantrums, but there’s no question that the child wants approval from mom and dad, and works to please them. Then at some point in the next few years (if you’re a western parent), an alien takes over some children and turns little Johnny or Jane into a foul-mouthed, argumentative, mendacious, mean, rude, spiteful….I could go on, but you get the idea. The poor parent is left in a state of shock, wondering why their affectionate, gentle child is behaving this way. No more days at the beach, afternoons out at the movies, quiet evenings together playing board games. Hostility, anger, cold silences and disdain become the order of the day. Parents miss the sweet, easygoing relationship they had with their pre-teen, the hugs, the goodnight kisses, the child’s hand in theirs. They no longer dread the idea of the child leaving home, and begin to look forward to it.
One standard explanation for this abrupt change in behavior is that it’s biological. Raging hormones and immature brains are at fault. Confused by new emotions and impulses, the teenager lashes out in anger. Frustrated by the restrictions on their behavior, they struggle for independence, even though they’re not capable of being independent. The best a parent can do is hunker down and wait for the chemical storm to pass and the prefrontal cortex to kick in.
But that doesn’t explain why your surly, monosyllabic troll can be perfectly well behaved with other people. And why it is that hormones and underdeveloped brains make them so unpleasant in the first place. After all, when they were younger, they struggled for independence, experienced new emotions and had even younger brains that didn’t make them turn around and snarl at their loved ones. It also doesn’t explain why Chinese teenagers tend not to experience the same thing despite having much less independence than their western peers.
Maybe this change from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde has nothing to do with hormones and brain development, and everything to do with the search for — and more important, fear of — independence and adulthood.
Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine what it’s like to be in one’s early to mid teens. You know that in just a couple of years, you will have to go to university, or perhaps get a job. If you’re going overseas, you’ll need to learn to live on your own. You can’t go running to your parents when things don’t go right because that’s not what 18 year olds do. You may have a boss, and a workplace, and have to figure out how to deal with both. You may need to pay taxes. Get yourself to the doctor when you’re sick. Buy insurance. Pay your bills.
And of course, you want to be an adult, so you want all those things. (Well, maybe not the paying taxes part.) But there’s a part of you — a part that you’re probably not even aware of — that is terrified of all that responsibility. Adulthood isn’t a game, and you can make mistakes that can change and even ruin your life. So the part of you that is terrified would really, really like to have mom and dad around to take care of you.
And there’s the dilemma: You still need your parents, but you feel you shouldn’t need them because you’re almost an adult. You’re scared that you still need them, and you don’t want to feel scared, so you get angry. You get angry at your parents because you still need them. And that anger drives your parents away, and gives you a chance to practice being independent. All of this, of course, is happening at an unconscious level. Teenagers have no idea why their parents anger them so much; they just know that everything their parents do annoys them.
The fact that this kind of rebellion is much less common in Chinese culture is significant. Chinese kids tend to be much less independent even into their 20’s and beyond. With independence postponed, often until marriage, there is less pressure in adolescence to learn how to be an adult. Adolescents do not fear imminent independence, and therefore do not resent parents for the fact that they are still needed.
So when you ask your teenager what time they’re planning to be home, or tell them that they have to do their homework before they go out with friends, or say no, you won’t buy them a new iPhone, they may well explode with rage. Don’t feel like a bad parent. Don’t feel that your child has turned into a monster. Don’t feel that your kid doesn’t love you anymore. Rather, see it as an expression of their love and need for you, and their frantic search for adulthood before adulthood is thrust upon them.