Even before they begin to worry about sexual activity, parents may become concerned about ‘other as- pects of their adolescent child’s behavior. The teen-ager’s standards of dress, grooming, and hair length may be completely unacceptable to the parents at times, and may seem incompatible with the child’s up-bringing and social circumstances. But the social atmosphere that matters to the adolescent is not that of his parents and their friends, but his own. While rebelling against the standards of his parents’ generation, the teen-ager is very much concerned with maintaining the standards of his own generation.
He does not want to seem odd or feel different from his friends and schoolmates, and so will follow the fashions of his peers rather than the ones that were set for him at home. Parents in such cases usually do well to consider whether the child is really violating their basic standards of personal care, or whether they are merely overreacting to
something that is unfamiliar to them. They may be able to accustom themselves to their boy’s long hair once they give him credit for the fact that he still keeps it as clean and neat as they would like.
It may be more difficult for the parents to reconcile themselves to other aspects of a teen-ager’s behavior. Often parents will find that their cheerful, cooperative boy or girl has suddenly become sullen and unmanageable, for no apparent reason. In many cases, the reason is simply adolescence itself. The adolescent child is moving toward adulthood and strongly desires independence. At the same time, he is unsure of himself, and of his ability to “make it” in the adult world. Conflicting feelings within the teen-ager make his behavior often unpredictable, and a puzzlement, as much to himself as to others. He rebels against authority, but also wants some adult guidance when he is unsure of how to proceed. Usually he cannot admit his need for guidance, however, and cannot openly ask for it without damaging his own self-image.
Sometimes the only way he can obtain the feedback he needs about his own actions is by doing something questionable first, then seeing how his parents react to it. Because the teen-ager both wants and resists his parents’ guidance, the situation can be very disconcerting for them. It is not unusual for a teen-ager to struggle strenuously with his parents over permission to do something they are very much against, and then, after he has won—and regretted it—say, “Why did you let me do it?”
The teen-ager is constantly testing the limits set for him by his parents. Partly this is to establish his own authority and independence; but partly it is also to determine how much his parents care about him. While he is under-going the emotional upheavals of adolescence, the teen-ager often has doubts about his own self-worth. He wonders whether others have these same doubts about him, and whether the important people in his life still like him. When he tries to do something that he knows his parents will consider to be against his best interests, he may be asking them, “Do you care enough about Ine to stop me from doing this?”
Similarly, when he does something that he knows his parents will disapprove of for any reason, he may be seeking answers to such questions as, “Do my parents love me for what I am? Will they still love me even if I do this bad thing?”
Parents in these situations face the delicate task of determining when the teen-ager really wants to do something, and perhaps should be allowed to, and when he really wants an adult to step in and stop him. If the parents give in too easily to every demand, the teen-ager may feel that they don’t care about him; if they exercise very tight control, the teen-ager may feel that they don’t trust him or have confidence in his judgment. There are no rules for the parents to follow in assessing these situations, and mistakes are inevitable.
But in a generally healthy family environment, these difficulties usually can be ironed out by frank, open discussion and by an understanding, supportive attitude on the part of the parents. It is possible for the parents to let the child know that while there are certain standards that they insist be maintained, they trust the child’s judgment in most ways and will continue to love him even when he makes mistakes.