An important part of adolescence is separating from one’s parents, in a process called emancipation. Teens usually embark upon this around puberty, beginning with baby steps (driving, getting a job, developing their own opinions) and ending with the giant leap into college or on to other adult endeavors.
Although teens want to separate from you, the process itself is frightening for them. That’s why you often see your teenager taking one step forward and two steps back. Your 15-year-old daughter might be into giggling about boys and trying new makeup, while at the same time she sleeps with her stuffed animal from childhood and still wants a goodnight kiss from you.
During this process, teenagers start redefining their emotional relationship with you, moving from that of parent and child to that of parent and adult. At the same time, they’re separating from you physically. Suddenly, it seems they’re never home. They may refuse to go on family vacations, or even to go out to dinner as a family. They walk apart from you when you’re in public places, and head straight to their room when they get home. Some get after-school jobs that keep them out of the house, or start spending inordinate amounts of time at a friend’s house, perhaps even “adopting” that other family as their own.
They’re not doing this to abandon you, but to redefine their relationship with you, to move from a posture of physical dependence to physical independence. It’s a tough transition for both parent and adolescent, and, luckily, it occurs gradually, or none of us would survive it!
Emancipation takes many forms. Some teens deliberately do things they know will annoy their parents, such as skipping chores, breaking curfew, or talking back. They’re not doing these things just to be obnoxious (although it often seems that way) but, subconsciously, as a way to tear themselves away from you. This testing of the rules is their way of saying that things are changing. And with those changes, they want fewer restrictions and redefined boundaries. They want to be seen as an emerging adult, not as a child. This doesn’t mean they don’t want any rules, as we’ll see later.
This testing is similar to the way a toddler tests boundaries. He’ll wander off just a bit from you to see what happens—always keeping you within his sight. Teenagers do the same thing. When they break curfew, they’re really saying: “How far can I go?”
When teens exhibit these “testing” behaviors, of course, we get angry. That anger puts another barrier between parent and teen, enhancing that feeling of separation. In a teenager’s mind, it’s easier to need a person less if you’re mad at them. Sometimes they even pick a fight so they can feel mad, and thus have a good reason to move away from you.
For instance, I overheard the following exchange between Bo, 13, and his mother. “I decided to go out with my friends tonight and I’ll be home around eleven-thirty,” Bo told his mother.
“Eleven-thirty! I don’t think so! Your curfew is 10 p.m.,” his mother said, shocked and angry.
“So what? It should be changed. What do you think I’m going to do? Don’t you trust me?” Bo demanded.
A huge fight ensued between the two, ending with Bo storming into his room and his mother in tears.
Bo’s assertion of his new sense of independence is typical of early adolescence. He deliberately picked a fight with his mother so he could have an arena in which to begin negotiating his independence and separation. Of course, he doesn’t recognize that he did this, for, as you’ll see below, he still lacks the sophisticated reasoning that would enable him to see the full scope and consequences of his actions.
Teenagers turn to sex for the same reasons. Sex makes them feel more grown up, more like an adult. It provides a sense of independence and freedom from parental authority. It’s a behavior parents can’t see or control, an action in which the teenager is the one in control, the one making the decisions. This provides an incredible sense of power, and provides yet another way for the teenager to physically and emotionally separate from his parents.