Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Why might an adolescent seem reluctant to grow up at the extremities of adolescence? It’s complicated.

How fast to grow up or not to grow up, that is often the question.

At the start of adolescence, parents often give a double message about growing up.

For example, her parents were proud when other adults applauded how swiftly their daughter was developing: “Your child looks/acts so grown up!” However, when the girl starts separating from childhood and begins adolescence, often in late elementary school, suddenly there’s tendency in parents to want to put on the brakes. “You should wait a few years before dressing like that!” Now they want to restrain the same curiosity and eagerness to act older they once encouraged.

Or, the young adolescent is trying to act more grown up, but sometimes parents want to keep treating him like their little child, so he complains: “Quit hugging and babying me! I’m too old for that!” The parents are having a hard time adjusting to the fact that they will never have their son as adorable and adoring little child again, so they treat him in younger ways to hold on to what they miss. “Remember, you’ll always be our little boy!”

For the young adolescent, these parental inconsistencies can feel confusing. “When I was little they pushed me to grow fast, but now that I’m getting older they want to slow me down!”

RELUCTANCE TO GROW UP IN EARLY ADOLESCENCE (9 – 13)

At the outset of adolescence there can be a resistance to growing up in a young person who does not yet feel ready and willing to let go childish attachments to things, interests, pleasures, and comforts. “Even at age 11, she still likes being tucked into to bed at night.”

Sometimes a well-beloved youngest or only child will delay adolescent change, partly because the benefits of childhood attachment to parents are so strong the young person is reluctant to give them up, and partly because detachment and differentiation from childhood and parents, and the disagreements that can be engendered, feels too costly to do. “I hate having my parents distant or displeased with me!”

Then there is the stubborn spirit of Peter Pan who lives in many children—the desire to play forever with sheltering fantasy rather than forsake that timeless pleasure for the daunting challenge of engaging with reality. “Sometimes I think she’d rather play with imaginary friends than interact with real friends. Life is so much simpler that way.” Or when the first middle school dance occurs, and all his friends are going, the 7th grader refuses because “I don’t feel ready to do girls and dancing yet.” Truly spoken, and he should not be pushed.

RELUCTANCE TO GROW UP IN TRIAL INDEPENDENCE (19 -23)

Like any change, the process of growing up is a tradeoff—to do the new and different you have to stop doing some of the old and same. Growing up requires giving up and dealing with loss. Change also takes people from known to unknown. So growing up also requires stepping up and dealing with ignorance. “I don’t know what that will be like!” On both counts, courage can be required. It’s hard to let go what’s familiar; and it’s scary to try what feels unfamiliar.

What the last stage adolescent discovers is how growing up is a mix. There’s more worldly experience, but there is also more worldly challenge. There’s more independence, but there is also more being on your own. There’s more you can do, but there’s also more of past to relinquish. There’s more freedom anticipated, but there’s also more responsibility expected. There’s more to freedom to enjoy, but there’s also more self-management to learn. No wonder a young person, frightened of the future, feels reluctant to grow up.

So, the young person wants to hold onto the holding pattern of being “student,” a person not ready to assume adult responsibility because he's still in a stage of educational preparation, not wanting to move on and commit. Thus the young person is pushing for another year in community college by accumulating some incompletes and changing interests a couple of times, justifying a continuation of parental support.   

For parents, whether with a reluctant-to-start first stage adolescent or a reluctant-to-end last stage adolescent, parents do need to be mindful that there is no fixed schedule for growing up—that gathering of self-management responsibility and motivation to self-govern that finally supports the establishment of functional independence.

Every young person proceeds at their own speed. Some take independence early while others take it late, and that variation is normal. What parents have to determine is whether some signs of acting older are apparent. A slower effort is still an effort, and that is usually okay.

Finally, after the young person leaves the family nest, usually during trial independence (ages 18 -23), parents are expecting their daughter or son to fly solo from there. It’s very common for the young woman or man to lose independent footing and boomerang home again for a while to recover.

Some refer to this return as a “failure to launch,” but I believe that is a harmful view to take and term to use. The young person just needs time to learn from what went amiss, practice any lagging self-management skills, do some more growing up in the shelter of family, and then get ready to try independence again. It does the young person no good to label himself as a “failure” for not being fully prepared any more than it helps parents to take on that label for not somehow providing all necessary preparation in timely way.

Maybe there should be a sign posted when a young person enters adolescence: “Growing up ahead. Proceed at your own rate.”      

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Re-teaching and Teaching the Early Adolescent about Freedom

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