Think You Don't Know
Your Child Anymore?

As we all know, parenting children is an adventure.  Especially when the moment comes that we look at "Mama's little angel" or "Daddy's little buddy", promptly smack ourselves on the head and say, "Is this kid even mine?!"

Your pubescent changeling holds a certain resemblance to the child you remember, but there are key differences glaring like neon in a night sky.

What's more, these differences may even be things you don't like about yourself (or your co-parent) that the apple of your eye now parades around in public: seemingly for the sole purpose of driving you bananas.

And if you were ever told by your parents - as I was - "I hope you have ten kids and they all act just like you!" it may feel like a prophecy fulfilled.  A vengeful prophecy, that is.

Well, you can relax.  This is not the case.

What's happening is most likely a new phase in your child's mental and emotional development.  And healthy child development is what every parent wants, right?

There are important internal drives that manifest in children at various ages. One of the most important emotional drives is differentiation.  Sometimes the absurd and illogical things youth do to set themselves apart are simply byproducts of normal human maturation.

Typical children begin striving to express their own identity around 10-11 years of age.  They suddenly feel the need to separate themselves from their parents and siblings.

Expressing an individual identity is an example of differentiation in action.

Combined with other developmental factors, healthy differentiation is what allows the now oddly decorated apple of your eye to grow into a healthy adult, make her own choices, establish committed relationships outside of his immediate family, be self-reliant, and parent effectively when she has ten kids of her own who act just like she did!

If your youngster stays in that magical phase where parents and immediate family members are the center of his universe beyond what is developmentally appropriate, there may be cause for concern. If this typical developmental path of becoming somewhat unrecognizable is not rearing its annoying head by age 13 or 14, I advise you to have a frank conversation with your family physician or a licensed mental health professional.

There may be nothing wrong.  But by that age, kids usually begin to show obvious signs of differentiation like:

  • Wanting haircuts different than they had when they were young
  • Changing their preference in music
  • Wearing very different clothing they pick out themselves
  • Being readily vocal about their sometimes unrealistic needs, desires, and frustrations

These changes are glaring partly because they are out of character for your child, and partly because of your child's inexperienced, yet desperate, attempts to be different. 

John in his differentiation stage

She may even choose things at the age of 12 that she would never choose at 16, once she becomes more experienced with individualization.  

For example, here is an hilarious picture of me at the Atlanta Zoo taken the summer I was 12 years old.  I'm wearing a straw cowboy hat, jeans, boots, and walking with a black cane (who knows why?!?). Not really appropriate attire for a 99 degree summer day in Atlanta.

Yep, that was my attempt at differentiation.  

Also interesting, at the age of 16, I knew better than to dress like that anymore.  But instead, I thought wearing black leather pants was cool. I am sure you have a similar story.  Surely you do!

While these changes can be difficult to watch and respond to as a parent, re-framing them from "Is this really my child?" to a perspective of "This is my child growing up, and growing up isn't easy or pretty for anyone" will help you better respond to the sometimes strange and unexpected changes of adolescence.  

Hopefully, it will also remind you that growing up is what children are supposed to do.

When parenting children at this stage, I strongly encourage you to adopt an attitude of openness that stretches your comfort level a bit, without breaking it.

You may not like the t-shirt your adolescent son wants to wear to school, or the revealing top your teenage daughter selected to wear to the movies with friends.  But if it only stretches your comfort level a little, it is probably okay for a differentiating teen. 

However, if it stretches your comfort level too far, there may be room for compromise that respects the differentiation process while reinforcing your particular family values.

Think about your approach.

A parent interested in promoting differentiation may begin with a comment like, "I am not completely comfortable with that shirt (or top).  Would you do me a favor and change into something we can both be comfortable with?"

As opposed to "You are not going out of this house looking like THAT!  Change your clothes immediately!"  It may come to the latter before the conversation is over, depending on how invested your child is in differentiation.

This is the stage of development to pick your battles even more wisely than you did when your children were small.  Ask yourself if what your changeling is doing stretches or snaps your comfort level.  If it stretches, a battle may do more harm than good. If it snaps, approach with caution, love, and respect, but it likely needs to be addressed.

As a licensed counselor, the parent of two teenagers, and the "in the moment" father for my kids' friends who make our house a home, parenting children is one of the issues I enjoy counseling adults on.

If you live in Georgia, USA and are looking for a counselor, please contact me via the phone or email listed at the top of the page.

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