The Dance of Opposition

Garden variety opposition in adolescence is quite common, of course. Any kid who’s worth her weight in salt will push back at some point in her teen years, and it can become a bit of a dance after she’s rehearsed it for a few months, improving her technique. Parents often become unwitting partners in the routine, recognizing the important part they play only after the signs and symptoms of imminent demise are well established and becoming serious. It’s safe to say that kids from every generation have worked tirelessly to perfect these classic dance moves, often despite the fact that their parents are reasonably kind, intelligent, and thoughtful adults. For some parents, you can add “not-so-savvy” to the list of their attributes; some parents are just terribly reluctant to recognize their kid’s churlish performance for what it is. As her repertoire expands over time, the dance unfolds, and a very unhappy collaboration with a stroppy girl eventually emerges. These slow-to-accept-reality parents are cleverly kept off-balance. They’re alternately encouraged by their precious daughter’s apparent steps forward, and then, once their guard is down, they’re shocked when she abruptly leaps into the air, lands, pirouettes, and spews petulance as her head spins about. Soon, she’s controlling everyone around her with an impressive array of manipulation and anger. Before you know it, she’s in the advanced class, happily tap dancing on her parent’s foreheads.

There is a part of every parent that would love to treat their lovely adolescent daughter like an almost-young-adult being, give her age-appropriate responsibility and privilege, and toss her the car keys, so to speak. However, it’s very important to realize that with regard to the girl I’ve just described, the level of maturity present in her is still low for her age. It’s frustrating for us as parents when our adolescent’s learning curve with respect to all of these issues is shallow and slow. It’s even more painful when she reflexively returns to old destructive patterns every time she bumps into situations that frustrate her, that she can’t control. The idea of simply ignoring this issue, and potentially reinforcing her impudence, and manipulation, and stubbornness, and rudeness, etc. seems like a terrible idea, of course, and it is. The solution is usually pretty clear; together, all the adults in her life who matter must hunker down and help her grow through this, utilizing appropriate firmness/limits and accurate recognition to guide her toward the skills she needs for future success.

Taking this thought a step further, the parental coalition must agree that she needs firm limits, time to develop some missing pieces of character, serious family work, and an an absence of urgency about the process. She needs to know that everyone around her, collectively, is deeply committed, that they’ll respect her timing to a reasonable extent about her maturation process, and that they see a bright future for her beyond the current unhappy disarray that surrounds her. Once good and reasonable parents and other parent-figures understand the path back to relative peace and calm, they become hopeful again. With hope renewed, they’re able to take a deep breath, relax, and focus on learning to be less reactive to their daughter’s periodic emotional assaults.

As you may have noticed, there’s no suggestion here that giving her what she’s kicking and screaming for will fix this problem. This is by design. Reinforcing a tantrum has always been a bad idea. In the same way, succumbing to adolescent threats and push-back never delivers a happy or better outcome. The petulant attitude and oppositional behavior that have been described at length above tend to follow these kids, and perhaps intensify within them, no matter what desperate compromises parents may offer. It’s almost always a mistake, then, in this situation, to acquiesce. Once these kids find a crack in the parental armor, they exploit the perceived weakness, they attack it with gusto, and they remain relentless in their strategy until their parents respond effectively.

Here are some thoughts about this phenomenon, in no particular order:

  1. When girls are acting like this, there’s a part of them that is begging for someone to stop them, to look them in the eye and call a spade a spade, to recognize that they aren’t trustworthy nor able to manage their own lives safely or successfully at the moment. As much as that important piece of parental recognition may evoke anger, it also, at a deeper level, creates very important security. Kids don’t instinctively trust and feel secure around adults who they can easily manipulate, fool, control, or dominate.
  2. It’s critical to help these girls approach the challenges of adolescence (i.e. their “work”) in a different way. We must sometimes spell it out for them so that they understand exactly what we need from them, and what they need to do differently in order to regain trust and healthy, stable status in the family. It’s all about clarity. When we do this well with our kids, it’s pretty effective, it gets their attention in a way that almost nothing else can do, and at the end of the day, it’s a relief to to them. Parents need to do this, both for their own integrity, and (most importantly) for their kids.
  3. These girls often throw around lots of rhetoric about wanting to control their own lives. They accost their parents regularly about making choices for them that they dislike, and they accuse their parents of not knowing/understanding them, etc, etc, etc. It’s important for parents to know that these kids are also full of ambivalence, though they won’t often tell you about it. Ambivalence is one of the definitive aspects of adolescence, and it’s particularly true of these girls. There’s a part of them that knows that they aren’t ready to live successfully at home or on their own. They’re insecure and scared by their own sense of undeserved power. When two year olds are full of themselves it seems cute and we laugh at it; when adolescents are narcissistic and pushing limits, they’re suddenly playing with a loaded gun. It isn’t cute anymore, and it scares us to death. Fortunately, an important (but mostly hidden) part of these girls is much more reasonable, more humble, and more able to appreciate reality than they generally allow anyone to see. They hide this softer part of self as a protection, an ego defense. At some level, more subconscious than conscious, they’re at least somewhat terrified that they’ll get their way using this flood of push-back. That part of them, no matter how small, would really appreciate someone stepping in front of them and saying “knock it off!” with gusto and conviction.
  4. It’s worth considering a plan that includes less worrying about an oppositional teen’s possible reaction to firm limits (since we can’t do too much about it) and shifts the focus to what we CAN do, firmly and full of resolve.  We can assert ourselves, together, in the most united manner; we can make it clear that she doesn’t have any good choices except to settle down, do her schoolwork, treat her parents and teachers with due respect, approach her adolescent work with her parents with thoughtful consideration; and we can surround her with a parental team, a village if possible, that helps her shift away from her narcissistic rage (like the two year old) toward a more mature, empathic young woman. Somewhere embedded in that long sentence is the idea that she must abandon the idea that she’s the center of the universe, and stop trying to control everyone around her.
  5. All the firm limits in the world are pointless without accurate recognition. Kids need to know when they’re getting it right. The adults on their “team” need to notice and make a big deal out of it occasionally. We need to celebrate some of their successes if we want a repeat performance. When we fail to recognize their bright and pleasing moments, for whatever reason, we miss a grand opportunity to boost their self esteem, and to let them know that it matters to us. Accurate recognition sends a strong message to our kids that we really see them clearly, which ultimately allows us to induce and support positive change, and thereby facilitate the character development in them that makes all the difference.

Remember, these girls are still “kids” in many ways. The tasks of adolescence are still directly in front of them. They need to complete high school and learn to accept reasonable limits from their parents, teachers, coaches, employers, and other important adults in their lives. Fortunately, most parents in this predicament continue to have big hopes and great expectations about their daughter’s future, even after the dirty dance of defiance has made its way into their living rooms. That’s as it should be. Those hopes and dreams for her are still important, still valid, and still a great idea. Even if she’s lost sight of them temporarily, parents must hang on to them, as her proxy, by any means necessary. Do everything that can be done to support them over time until they take root beyond the sturm and drang of adolescence. By the way, parents often need to assemble a team to help with this, because it’s a tough row to hoe. But be assured, a committed parental team, all pulling on the rock in the same direction, can make good things happen in the end. And the best news? When we get it right, she’ll dance for joy as she sees high school in the rear view mirror, and nothing but the promise of a bright future ahead of her.

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Kenny Pannell