Growing up : adolescence a unique experience for parent and child

By Lorea Boneke

Date Posted: Sunday, 12 June 2011


Child poverty has always been a big concern for Lorea and she has been volunteering and working for many years  with vulnerable children and young people in England, Scotland and internationally. Lorea recently completed a Master’s in Social Work and is currently working as a Social Worker in London.

Author’s note : to avoid confusion I have used the term parent to refer to anyone who is the principal parenting figure of a child and young person, be they natural parents, grandparents, extended family, foster carers, residential child care workers or others who take on this role. Claire is not the name of the young woman I introduce into the text and neither is her mother called Mrs. Arnold. I have altered other details of Claire’s to ensure that her privacy is protected. The same is true for the young man I have called Joseph.


Growing up : adolescence a unique experience for parent and child


“I would there were no age between ten and three-and- twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest, for there is nothing in the between  but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing , fighting.”

Shakespeare, The Winter´s Tale , Act III, scene iii

Life is beautiful and full of surprises. From the first news of pregnancy a big smile is coming from both parents’ faces, and then came the sleepness nights, the doctor’s appointments every so often, the food preparation every single minute, the first teeth, the first step, the first word. Everyday for 11 years these kids bring a smile to our faces with any new act that they bring to the family environment. But then comes ‘the teen monster’, just when parents least expect it and then the nightmare starts. Well, that’s one version of the legend of the adolescent.

Tony Smith (1998)


The years between childhood and maturity involve more rapid change and more physical, emotional, and intellectual growth than at any other time of life except infancy and early childhood.

So, that’s why for both parents and children adolescence is defiantly and definitely a unique developmental experience.

It will seem that daily life may be a great deal easier for parents compared to when their children were little angels with no rest. In this case, teenagers sleep, so parents can too; they do not need watching over every minute of the day; spaces open up at the weekends as they go off and do their own thing, and they are even capable of getting their own meals. On the other hand, new depths of anxiety appear as the adolescent begins to experience the outside world without parental protection.

Parents find that once more they play an incredibly important role in their child’s life but this time it will be more challenging for them as it will be a constant learning experience.

Something strange happens to a child when they enter the teenager years. As Charles Darwin said; “Evolution is change and changes are frightening.” We all love stability and so when puberty hits like a violent storm, the result can be chaos. If parents or carers have this feeling imagine how the child may feel?  They were living in the safe shelter of childhood and now they have to begin the journey to adult life. Before these teenage years, parents and children were in calm waters, never too deep or too far from the land. But during adolescence years, the scenario changes and both parents and children are in a deeper sea, swimming in different directions and experiencing all kind of storms.

Each teenager is a unique personality with special interests, and with particular likes and dislikes. However, there are also several developmental issues that everyone faces during the adolescence years.

The lack of communication and the parents´ poor understanding or their denial of the memory of the adolescent period can bring several problems to life in the family home. Some parents are not able to cope with the changes in their adolescent child and they may feel like complete failures, questioning themselves on where they went wrong when faced with a moody and defiant adolescent.

She used to be well spoken and friendly and we used to talk about everything. She no longer talks to me or likes what I buy her. All she does now is talk on her phone to her friends, exchange her clothes with them, look at herself in the mirror for hours , wear black clothes with dark make up all the time and she’s pierced in her nose and got a tattoo. She disagrees with everything I’ve said and she even called me by my name instead of Mum.

These were the words of Ms Arnold about her daughter Claire who I had been working with for ten months after she came into care due to the breakdown of the relationship with her mother.

Nevertheless it’s worth remembering that these battles between parents and their teenage children are not unique to young people in care and their families. Most of the skirmishes that parents have with their teenagers are the result of poor communication. For instance many teenagers seem to enter a monosyllabic zone where every question is answered with a single word. This can be frustrating for parents who find that they begin to lose patience with not getting many of what they think are important and legitimate questions answered. In this situation it seems the parent has to learn that gentler sympathetic statements rather than direct questions may elicit the information required about where the teenager is going, what he or she will be doing and with whom. This kind of response may give a teenager a feeling that you are respecting their space and privacy without the parent giving up what is their vital role of ensuring as far as they can that the teenager will be safe. This approach may also cultivate more cooperative relationships as opposed to antagonistic ones.

Another kind of poor communication I have observed at work are those occasions when a frustrated parent demands that an adolescent should act like an adult or makes comments about the young person being childish. The truth here is of course that they cannot act as an adult as they are not adult yet. Equally while they struggle to find their adult identity suggesting that they are childish is likely to be provocative rather than pacifying.  The fact that they are on the voyage to adulthood does not mean that they have arrived. Sensitivity and empathy may be needed here rather than confrontation.  When I see situations like these arise I am tempted to declare a decree that  every  parent with a teenager at home should watch the film “Big”. In this film a thirteen years old boy makes a wish to become instantly big. The next morning he wakes up with a thirty years old adult body but though he manages to get a job and a decent place to live, he is scared and confused, because he is inexperienced and immature. It’s hardly surprising, really. After all, appearances can be misleading. Whatever this boy may look like, underneath it all he is just thirteen years old.

I see that I am at risk of sounding like a “know it all.” I know that when in my work I was first asked to take on a parenting role I fell into the same traps that I am warning about here. Like every parent with growing children the onset of a child’s adolescence was a new experience for me as a parenting figure. There were new things I had to learn. I think I am much more effective in a parenting role now but I still make mistakes. However I have learnt with increasing experience that teenagers need plenty of our support and encouragement if we are to help them to behave confidently as an adult. I have also learnt that they will frequently tell me that they don’t want my support and encouragement and certainly not in the calculating way they imagine I am offering it. Perhaps it is because of this that I have come to the conclusion that parents should treat the adolescent child like an adult, but still expect them to behave like a child.

After nurturing and teaching a child for 11 or so years the parent now has to change approach and begin to recognise that the adolescent is increasingly growing towards being the parent’s equal in terms of their cognitive and intellectual development. The parent , respecting this, should start to listen more and talk less to help the adolescent to express and share their new feelings and new ideas as they are trying to find their own identity. This does not mean that parents should not balance this by making sure that the adolescent continues to be made aware of the realities of life, by passing on to them values and principles about rights and responsibilities. If the parent does not take a significant role in this then ideas will be gained about them from a world external to the family or caring setting and this may not always be helpful to a young person.

My own belief is the adolescent period is a time when parents should increasingly allow their children to be involved in the making family decisions and to be involved in the discussions leading to them so that they become aware of the implications these decisions can have for themselves and others.

I understand that it can be very difficult for parents when it comes to talking about sexual relationships and the terminology this brings with it. Parents can often be prisoners of their own childhood where perhaps discussions of these matters were somehow taboo. Nonetheless a parent has to ensure the adolescent has the necessary knowledge regarding personal hygiene, physical appearance, sexual intercourse, pregnancy, sexual transmitted infections and sexual orientation that will help them to make safe and informed decisions. I think this should occur too concerning access and exposure to pornographic and sexually explicit internet sites on computers and mobile ‘phones. I think parents should not wait for their teenagers’ almost inevitable exposure – to some extent or another – to this kind of material. Parents should be proactive in having discussions with their teenage children about these issues. It is my opinion that sexually explicit material and pornography should always be advised against if only because viewing it on computers or on mobile ‘phones keeps the people who promote pornography in business and perpetuates the abuse suffered by those who are persuaded to make and take part in the production of sexually explicit material. I think it is important for parents to initiate discussion about these matters because young people may be exposed to it no matter how much we try to prevent it.  If they wish to, adolescents  can gain access to this kind of material. I say this because I’ve found that young people tend know more about such computer media technology than I do. It shouldn’t surprise us that teenagers have a natural curiosity about sexual matters even if they don’t quite know how to deal with them in as mature a way as their parents might hope. For all these reasons I think informed discussion between parents and adolescents about sex, sexuality, and all that can surround it, is likely to be much more effective in helping teenagers adopt socially and emotionally healthy attitudes towards sexual relationships.

No matter how hard parents try to avoid them, there will be times when an adolescent will fall out with them and the young person might decide not to talk at all to his or her parents.

One day a few years ago a young person called Joseph who I was working with fell out with me as I did not let him break what was a reasonable boundary we had agreed between us and I kept firm to it. From that day he decided that he would not talk to me and wanted another person to be his key worker. The problem of his not talking for so long a time became harder and harder to solve. I have to say that I did not let him to break the bridge of our relationship even if his refusal to talk to me sometimes made me feel very resentful towards him. After all I had done him no harm. So, I always made him aware that my doors were open for making the first move to communication even if he continued to respond with “I am not talking to you.” One day when he needed some of his pocket money for an important school event and there were no other adults around, he came to me and asked politely if I could provide him with the money. I did so and he thanked me.

It was very hard for Joseph to do this, as it had been hard for me to accept his ignoring of me. I think these events offered us both an opportunity to grow up more.  I felt I had learnt not to act on the resentment I felt about his not talking to me and perhaps Joseph had learnt that you can repair a relationship without suffering unbearable humiliation.  For me also it showed that relationships between an adolescent and a parent can go through difficult phases and that this is part of the adolescent process. There will be times when parents feel frustrated, angry, discouraged, or sad but as parents we have always to bear in mind that it is our responsibility to make the first move and be the first one to forgive or apologise and we must able to apologize to a young person when we, as parents, have let our emotions get the better of us. Therefore, as soon as it is done the better, because the longer we put it off, the harder it gets to build bridges.  At the end of the day young people do see their parents as their role models. So if the parent shows respect and apologises to them in the right time, they will learn a virtue.

As I see it in adolescence, the child strives for an adult identity and more independence; the parent acknowledges this but at the same time as helping the child take wing wants also to keep the child safe. In developing that fine balance of judgment the parent is growing just as the child is “growing up.”

To conclude, I will relate the words of my own parents when I told them how difficult my work with troubled young people could be. They said,

There will be times in life that things will not be easy for you as a parent with your adolescent child. At these times just put yourself in the teenager’s position, or just put yourself in your own shoes some years ago when you were a teenager. We just have to remember that life is even more bewildering for the teenager than it is for us. At least we have got the benefit of being older, wiser and more confident. We have to accept that they cannot believe it when we tell them, we have experienced the same bewildering adolescent hormonal changes they are going through . Let’s not forget they are teenagers full of life to live and let’s not forget to enjoy it with them.



Fenwick,E & Smith,T (1998) Adolescence : The survival Guide for Parents & Teenagers,    London  :   Dorling Kindersley


Archer,C (2002) Next steps in parenting the child who hurts,  London : Jessica Kingsley.

Coleman,J & Roker, D (1999) Positive parenting: Teenagers in the family  London :  Hodder & Sloughton

Figes,K (2002) The terrible teens: what every parent needs to know,  London : Penguin Books.

Macfarlane,A & McPherson,A (1999) Teenagers: The agony, the ecstasy, the answers. How to bridge the gap between parents and teenagers,   London : Little, Brown and Co

Sharpe, C. (2001) In Care, in Therapy?  accessed on 5.5.11 at