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'90s FAMILY : When the Growing Pains Strike the Parents

November 02, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe it's true that we're older and have more insurance. But still, there are plenty of reasons for parents to envy and resent teen-agers:

They're younger, firmer, quicker and stronger.

They have their whole lives ahead of them.

They have more fun and freedom, which not incidentally, we are financing.

Their love lives are more interesting.

They're too much like we were at their age. Or, they're nothing at all like we were at their age.

In fact, watching our children bloom into adults just as our own youth is slipping away provokes so many complex feelings that adolescence can sometimes be harder for parents than it is for teen-agers, according to one family relations expert.

It is in fact a critical developmental transition for both. "Some people describe it as too many people in the same household going through a bad period at the same time," said Larry Steinberg, psychology professor at Temple University and author of "Crossing Paths" (Simon & Schuster, 1994).

One mother remembers that she and her husband fought constantly over their daughter's freedom. "Her pulling away caused me to pull her back. I was worried for her out there," she said. "She was doing things I never did. That triggered some jealousy.

"We yelled a lot. My husband couldn't deal with the yelling. He'd walk out. He saw some of his characteristics in her--the bad ones. He distanced himself from that." She said the family sought counseling, but that the dust didn't really settle until after her daughter finished college. Now, she said, "It's really a joy."

Steinberg said nearly half of all parents experience upheaval triggered by their children's adolescence, with mothers being affected more than fathers, and single and remarried mothers being upset the most of all.

"Some of the dads felt envious about a child's physical appearance, strength and endurance," he said. Others felt a loss of power as their adolescents became more independent.

Mothers, especially those who had placed most of their emotional eggs in the parenting basket, "felt that as they watched their children get older, they were losing a part of themselves," Steinberg said.

Another mother said her daughter's emerging sexuality triggered memories of her own past abuse and the destructive way she coped by overeating. As a result, she said, she can't help but want to control what her daughter eats. "I want her to be all the things I wasn't. I want her to be thin, a cheerleader, popular. It's exhausting. I have to stop it."

At the same time, children are naturally pushing and challenging their parents in an effort to feel more grown up. Mothers wind up taking the brunt of their criticisms. "Mom is an easier target," Steinberg said. "Maybe unconsciously, (children) feel that's the route to growing up faster."

But contrary to stereotypes, Steinberg said most parents and adolescents get along fine. Normal bickering and quarreling flash hottest from ages 11 to 13 typically with the firstchild. Often, they calm down by the middle of high school.

Steinberg said parents weather adolescence best when they expand their life outside the family to tie their identity to a variety of roles. Parents should also discuss their feelings with friends and mates and stay emotionally close to their children, rather than disengage.

They can become more positive by learning about the adolescent stage of development. In reality, most children handle adolescence well. Parents who expect the worst often get the worst, he said. They may be overly vigilant and force children to rebel against them.

Similarly, those who feel they will inevitably lose their children in these years may distance themselves too early. "Kids interpret that as if the parents don't really care about them that much and are less likely to behave in ways parents want them to behave," Steinberg said.

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