5 reasons parenting an adolescent is not like parenting a toddler, according to author Jennifer Senior

5 reasons parenting an adolescent is not like parenting a toddler, according to author Jennifer Senior

In her recent book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior explores how children affect their parents at each stage of their development. She devotes one chapter to adolescence and in it she notes that parents often see adolescence as a repeat of the toddler years, but she doesn't necessarily accept that premise.

I've addressed the similarities between toddlers and tweens/teens here and here, but after reading All Joy and No Fun, I started thinking that while they may be similar, parenting an adolescent is not like parenting a toddler.

1. Adolescents stir up more self-doubt for parents than toddlers do.

Senior also noted that while toddlers may "even awaken feelings of regret" it's after we've put more time in as a parent that we become more critical of our choices over the years.

"It's adolescents who reflect back at us, in proto-adult form, the sum total of our parenting decisions and make us wonder whether we've done things right," says Senior.

Parents of toddlers worry that they don't know what they're doing. Parents of adolescents worry that years of not knowing what they're doing will have a detrimental impact on their child and his/her future. The latter is a whole different ball game.

It feels like if we've been doing this parenting thing for a dozen or so years that by now we should have a clue. But we don't. And the stakes are higher, which can make confidence more elusive.

2. Adolescent problems are more complex than toddler problems.

Many readers have noted that while there are a ton of blogs about parenting younger children, there just aren't a lot of options for tween parents. Senior says she has also noticed the lack of adolescent parenting blogs and discusses it in her book.

She attributes the lack of adolescent parenting blogs to a few factors. First, adolescents value their privacy and don't like being written about on a regular basis. The other factor is that it is much harder for parents to share the adolescent struggles families face. They're more complex, and more revealing.

I know that potty training certainly didn't seem easy, but it's a shared experience with a goal that a vast majority of people will achieve. Tween and teen issues, however, aren't as straightforward, and the stakes for both parents and kids are much higher.

"The fears that parents harbor are no longer about what foods to feed their children ... They're about whether their children are moral, and whether they're productive, and whether they're comfortable and sensible...."

3. Tweens and teens aren't clingy like toddlers.

"[I]n many ways the struggles that mothers and fathers face when their children hit puberty are the very opposite. Back when their children were small, parents craved time and space for themselves; now they find themselves wishing their children liked their company more and would at least treat them with respect, if adoration is too much to ask," Senior observes.

The distance that comes with adolescence cuts both ways. A bit of space can be a good thing when an adolescent is jumping up and down on a parent's last nerve. But a snuggle with and a hug from a loving toddler wasn't all that bad.

4. With those higher stakes comes a higher amount of shame.

Senior turned to author Brene Brown for thoughts on why the parent that is the same sex as the adolescent seems to struggle more than the parent of of the opposite sex.

"I think it's a lot easier to parent a child before their struggles start to reflect your struggles," Brown says.

Brown notes that typical adolescent issues, like not getting asked to a dance or not getting a seat at the cool table are "shame triggers" for parents.

I think that in addition to the feeling of shame from events of the past, there's also more shame for parents when a kid messes up. Toddlers are expected to have accidents and meltdowns. Tweens and teens don't get as much of a pass, and their behavior is often viewed, or at least feels like, a reflection upon the parents.

5. Adolescents really know how to hurt parents.

The idea of a toddler pushing buttons usually conjures the image of an electronic toy. The idea of an adolescent pushing buttons, however, is more about their ability to know just how to get to their parents.

It's not that toddlers don't have some indication of how to light up their mom and dad; I know they do. But adolescents are more logical and more cunning, and they can cut a parent to the quick in a way that younger kids simple cannot.

"As the parents of any teenager will tell you, an adolescent knows just what hurts," Senior wrote.

All this makes parenting toddlers seem like the good old days.

While they certainly weren't easy, Senior seems to offer sufficient support for the quote from Dani Shapiro with which she begins the chapter: "They don't tell you, when you become a parent, that the hardest part is way, way down the road."

And while it's hard, I'm hoping that we can start working on giving parents more support and confidence during the difficult adolescent years. Because the parents of adolescents that I know and hear from are doing a bang up job and deserve many rounds of applause.

Do you agree with Senior and Shapiro? Do you think parenting a tween/teen is easier or harder than parenting a toddler?

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