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Tweens and Teens

Idolizing Adults

Why Teens "Reject" Their Parents For Other Adults

July 01, 2009
The screen door slams and in walks your 13-year old son. "Hey, Mom and Dad!" he calls. "Can I have $25? Jason's mom says I'd be really good at woodworking. I'm going to sign up for a class."

You and your son's father exchange incredulous looks. Is this the same woodworking class that you've been telling him to take for months? The one that he scoffed at, and then sent you looks suggesting you were both crazy?

This is a common exchange between a young teen and his parents. The average child at this age is beginning to gain the skills he needs to become independent, and one of the biggest changes he must make is a gradual separation from his family. He does this, in part, by "rejecting" his own parents and turning to other adults for both emotional support and guidance.

Although this is a natural and essential step in growing up, the resulting shift in loyalties can feel frustrating or even unjust to the child's parent. After years of nurturing and giving their best to their child, they are now seen as "old-fashioned" or "out of it" while the track coach or a youth group leader becomes a hero.

As trying as it may be for parents, the idolization of other adults is important for a number of reasons. While a young teen is ready to begin separating from the most important adults in her life, she still needs direction and nurturing from parental figures. Since it may feel "babyish" to cling to her own parents, she unconsciously seeks out substitute moms and dads to whom she can attach, and thus maintain her sense of security. Her dance teacher or her favorite aunt can provide the adult ties that she still needs without threatening her budding independence.

During these growing years, a child learns more about the vast world that exists beyond his family. He begins to comprehend that not all adults think or act exactly like his parents, and that there are many ways of running households and living life. He becomes interested in the ideas and opinions of other adults and, at some point, he stops idolizing his parents. Still needing to idolize someone, however, he shifts his admiration to a figure outside the family.

Also, while most young teens are ready to start thinking and acting for themselves, they may still lack full confidence in their own convictions. Connecting with a trusted adult outside the family offers a safe stepping-stone into greater maturity and self-reliance.

To ease the family through this phase of maturation, parents must be able to strike a healthy balance between letting go and maintaining control. Here are some suggestions:

Allow your child to form and foster new relationships with other adults. Understand that this is not a personal rejection, but a necessary step for normal separation. When your preteen raves about how cool, smart and fun his biology teacher is, he is expressing his excitement not only about the individual person, but also about the fact that he has been accepted by a respected adult other than his parents. This knowledge helps raise his self-esteem and foster his feelings of self-worth.

Keep abreast of which role models she chooses. Don't hesitate to meet and monitor your child's choice of mentors. Coaches, teachers, scout leaders, neighbors, aunts and uncles, parents of friends, counselors, faith leaders and step-parents may be good people for your child to connect with. But don't assume. Learn enough about another adult's background and relationship with your child to assure yourself that the connection is a safe and healthy one. A park district camp counselor is very different from someone who "hangs around at the park." Meet the person, exchange phone numbers, and discuss your mutual caring for your child.

Determine the limits. While you may need to tolerate your child looking up to other adults while putting you down, you should not let him compromise the basic values and morals that you have instilled. If your young teen is idolizing someone who does not adhere to the same standards that you feel are essential, it is your right to set limits on- or completely forbid – the relationship, just as you would if the person were your child's peer.

Remember that even though your child may be forming important relationships with other adults, her parents are still her most important source of security. Although she may not admit this openly, you are the ones she counts on to be there for her – physically, emotionally and spiritually – any time she needs you. She may view the younger couple she baby sits for as "cool" and interesting to talk to, but she still needs to be able to come home to you. You still form her strongest base of love and security.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 25 and 29. She can be reached at 847-782-1722.

Lisa M. Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24.
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