The most fascinating or the most important thing to a teenager may very well be… him or herself! This is commonly called adolescent egocentrism (however, you are probably quite aware that someone having strong egocentrism or being self-obsessed is NOT exclusive to teenagers!). Young children are naturally egocentric, but are gradually socialized to be a part of the family, the daycare, school, neighborhood, and playground. Adults try to teach them a balance between self-interests and the needs and rights of others. There is usually significant if not strict adult monitoring and regulation (called discipline) to guide children’s behavior in a group or community. Adolescence is a time of transition from the relative careful scrutiny and direction by adults, and hence the security of childhood eventually into the mysteries and demands of adulthood. As they get older, through adult permission, deference… or ignorance or helplessness, teenagers often isolate themselves from adult supervision, guidance, and influence emotionally, intellectually, and especially socially. Adolescence is also a relatively new concept, socially and the models of adolescent development, rules, expectations, and standard are in great flux within the lifetime of most individuals- sometimes. Sometimes what adolescence is evolves during a teenagers actual childhood-teenage-young adult years (within a decade or so)! It is both an invigorating and terrifying experience for teenagers (perhaps, just terrifying for parents!). What was standard, the pattern, acceptable, and even what was cool had been set by parents, kindergarten teachers, and the playground. And had been set in present terms for current urgencies.
Now, Not Now
Conceptually, becoming a teenager, much less becoming an adult was far away for children- beyond them conceptually. Children (and less functional older people) tend to understand time in two concepts: Now and Not Now! Now is what matters. Not Now doesn’t matter. Not Now-Before- “Last time you ate all the cookies, you got sick,” and Not Now-Later- “You won’t have any money to buy what you want later if you spend all of it now,” are essentially irrelevant because “NOW, I want this!” Or, Not Now-Before and Not Now-Later are vague reminders and forecasts of events and circumstances that HAD been or MIGHT be unpleasant. It’s all previous bad luck or only hypothetical possibilities in the unknown future. Who knows if that will happen again, or if it’ll happen that way later? However focusing on Now, the immediate pleasure or benefit is clearly evident. A bird in hand, a toy or gadget in hand, another brownie in the tummy, a gratuitous satisfaction in getting something easily or avoiding a difficult immediate task, a quick boost in social status, a rise in self-esteem (but with potential long-term negative consequences), or immediate relief from stress or depression or a fast rush of drug-induced euphoria tend to be motivating for the Now-focused individual. Developmentally, that is perfectly appropriate for babies and very young children. They don’t yet have a sense of the future. Through childhood experiences and adult modeling, eventually what is happening now is intellectually connected to what had happened before- specifically, to prior choices whose consequences are playing out. What choices made now and anticipated consequences are also eventually confirmed later. As children are prompted Now, they are reminded that Not Now-Before led to Now- the current circumstances. And they are further prompted Now that current choices will lead to Not Now later- the future circumstances they will need deal with subsequently. Not Now-Before used to be Now, and Not Now-Later will become Now!
In addition, certain groups or communities, including families can have a cultural orientation that is more here-and-now focused versus past or future-oriented. American culture has been criticized for its future orientation at the cost of learning from the past and damage to the present community. The parents who dedicate themselves to career ascension and financial accumulation- in no small part to provide living, life, and educational opportunities to their children may lose healthy work-family balance, and inadvertently allow or damage their children’s sense of security, attachment, and relationship skills. Individuals caught up in the “rat race” may come to envy a more relaxed present-oriented lifestyle as seen in other societies and cultures, or in real or imagined more idyllic times. A Norman Rockwell fantasy or a Tahitian paradise, perhaps? The reminder to stop and smell the roses is an admonition to not to get overly focused on the past and especially, the future so that one does not appreciate what is immediately in front of him or her. Of course, for there to be roses to smell, they would have needed to be planted and nurtured before! And a good gardener anticipates the growth demands and obstacles to healthy development of all his or her garden residents. The gardening acumen moreover comes from anticipation, study, and experience about prior gardening adventures both positive and negative. As with almost everything worthy of attention, balance among various seemingly contradictory, complementary, or supplementary principles is most recommended. Working for the family and children’s stability and opportunities in the present and for the future would need to be balanced with nurturing and enjoying and participating in current experiences and the developmental processes of children and the family.
Not Now-Later becomes Not Real
Personal experiences- especially very stressful, perhaps abusive and traumatic experiences can fundamentally disrupt an individual’s sense of mastery and reality. Some children and individuals’ core developmental experiences can be erratic and painful. The parent who promises to be there physically, but often does not show up… the mom who professes undying love for her children only to neglect them to be with her boyfriend… the dad who swears to do better, but descends regularly into a drunken stupor… the birthday party that doesn’t happen… the slap instead of a hug… praise mixed with humiliation… the promised and anticipated reward denied… crossing a line one didn’t know existed… failing a test you didn’t know you were taking… validated, ignored, shamed, and brutalized for the same behavior at different times… Adult inconsistency following through on the predictions for Not Now-Later and distortion of Not Now-Before eventually cause children and teenagers to focus on what they can see, hear, feel, eat, spend, and do immediately or very shortly… Now. Their ability to delay gratification is lost. Delaying gratification- not seizing what is available Now previously has far too often resulted in no gratification, denied gratification, and frustration.
When adults become overwhelmed and distracted with the stresses of their lives, their failure to manage their children and teenagers’ lives leads to expectation of frustration, disappointment, and failure. Children and teenagers can default to opting for immediate gratification and short-term benefits and avoidance. Their orientation to life becomes hedonistic- immediate pleasure seeking. That hedonism can become the focus of adolescent life. Homework for eventual grades; grades for eventual graduation, graduation for later college options, college for a hypothetical career, imagined marriage, and prospective children lack appeal or become irrelevant as opposed to having fun! Skipping a party, passing the bottle without taking a drink, forgoing smoking pot before a family function, going to bed early to be rested for the next day’s science test, letting the “great deal” on the new iPhone (not spending the money), or keeping the sarcastic retort inside rather than blurting it out did not guarantee relationship, academic, social, financial, or emotional success or well-being, so… party on! The logic of delayed gratification is only internalized if gratification in the future is attained or achieved. Adults- parents in particular have great control whether future motivated reasoning and decision-making is rewarded for children… and they have great impact on corrupting the benefits that children desire. The logic of hedonism… of Now and only Now motivations is that only Now is real. Immediate pleasure, benefit, or avoidance is real and even more compelling if individuals’ experiences are that the future is disappointing if not punitive. If they cannot see themselves academically achieving, engaged in college activities, meeting a life partner, being successful in a career, or having a family- perhaps, not deserving the fulfillment of these dreams, then… fun, indulgence, excitement, pleasure Now is ever more enticing. The negative consequences of hedonistic choices? Not Now-Later! Maybe they’ll be lucky!
Me, Me, Me, Me
Despite all the years of prompting future awareness and planning for later goals, the intensity of adolescent turmoil can be so great that here and now, and me, myself, and I become the obsessive narrow focus of some teenagers. A part of a present consciousness seemingly oblivious (or only paying lip service) to past learning and future consequences is teenage self-consciousness. In their transitional stress, teenagers can be consumed with identity struggles, anxiety about sexuality, fitting in, and… ironically, given how hedonistic they can be, their fear of the future. While younger children can more readily ignore or forget that the future looms ahead of them, while teenagers are inundated with reminders all the time. The very tools and accoutrements of their adult future become increasing greater parts of their lives. Now they can drive and otherwise have increased mobility and access to alcohol and drugs (legally and illegally). They no longer need adults to connect to or utilize the larger world with their use of mechanisms such as the internet and social media. All this “adult” access rewards the teenager, often encouraging further distancing from adults. Of critical import, depending on their families and communities, many teenagers gain access without necessarily earning it, nor learning or taking on the responsibilities of adult activity.
Abigail, a middle-schooler had her “Declaration of Independence” published in her school newsletter. In it, she declared her independence and her rights to have a cell phone, set her own curfew, determine who to associate with, have an allowance and how to spend her money, how to set her schedule, to choose what to wear and what makeup to use, and so forth. Missing in Abigail’s declaration of entitlement was how she had earned those rights, what cost those rights entailed, and what responsibilities come with those rights. In other words, who financed all this independence! The therapist challenged Abigail regarding what she was and how did she want to be treated- to be a child and treated as a child or to be an adult and treated as an adult. When Abigail said she wanted to be treated as an adult, the therapist pointed out that adults pay their way. Adults pay rent, buy their own cell phones, clothes, and so forth. Unless they can provide for their own needs, they become less or unable to make fully independent choices, but must “buy” control with compliance and servitude- in some cases known as having a job with a boss. Adults exchange work in exchange for the capital to have their relative degree of independence. On the other hand, a child is dependent on his or her parents- unable to sustain his or her livelihood on his or her own: food, clothing, shelter, money, etc. In exchange for this care and support, the child is beholden to the discipline, rules, and expectations of parents. Fortunately for most children, parents’ goals are normally for the children to become gradually and then completely independent financially. In other times, children were intrinsically part of the family economy- for example, little farmers assisting in farming tasks within the farm family, learning to become farmers. At some point, children often became apprentices for someone outside the family to learn another trade; to work with a blacksmith, or become domestic help in a lord’s home.
The confusion of modern adolescence has sometimes allowed teenagers to access greater adult capacities without functional processes to earn them and to use them well. Abigail still wanted her “independence” based on dependence on her parents’ financing it! However, confronted with the logic of what adult means (independence based on financial capacity and responsibility) and what being a child means (dependence for development), Abigail admitted that she wanted to be cared for, supported, and financed as a dependent child with the life independence of an adult. She wanted the freedom of living independently as an adult in the Now without having accomplished or acquired the qualifications and resources in the past (Not Now-Before). She wanted it all, but don’t we all want it all! But then as adults, we hopefully have gone through those illusions in our youth (Not Now-Before) to get to Now, while having anticipated and prepared and still anticipating and preparing for Not Now-Later. Reality checks are the best response when teenagers become so selfishly self-conscious. Everyone else are NOT merely players in ones personal story. Others also have their stories and their needs and rights. Included are parents… what an amazing concept that parents have needs and rights! You mean they are not here only to make the teenagers life wonderful?
Me Among Us… Not Me Against Them
When confronted with reality, Abigail had no response other than her sense of entitlement- a sense of entitlement that hopefully, we as adults have given up in our journeys through the hard life! Included in traveling the hard life to adulthood, is an often disturbing realization that we are not… special! Teenagers often traverse childhood with many messages of their worthiness and their specialness. This can lead to a self-centeredness that harms functioning and relationships in subsequent communities, groups, and relationships. The major goal of parenting may be to empower children to become adults that function well within further communities. There is the personal unique “Me” among the social community of “Us.” The individual “Me” risks many social sanctions if he or she experiences others as adversarial “Them.” Seeing others in their worlds as people to fight against for personal goals turns relationships into negative competitive hierarchal struggles.
The desire or need to be omnipotent including a grandiose sense of specialness turns potential mutually beneficial, including nurturing relationships into battles for supremacy. Caregiving adults should be wary of contributing to the personal fable- the conviction that one is special, and that one’s personal experience is unique. In relationships or groups, a highly problematic perspective manifests that one is not subject to the same rules as everyone else. This can even lead to a sense of immortality, where the dangers, harm, and even potential fatality my happen with reckless driving, impulsive risk-taking, and excessive alcohol and drug consumption. These become to such a person as cautions or concerns for others but not for oneself. The promotion of specialness as an individual with personal unique yet shared human qualities needs to be carefully considered. Children can be honored and taught self-respect for their personal amalgamation of qualities, while noting that individual is still subject to same rules as others. Critically, specialness or unique qualities does not grant entitlement to live by egocentric self-serving rules. In particular, that self-love, self-respect, and self-esteem as an individual does not preclude the social rules of care and respect, along with the golden rule of treating others as one wishes to be treated.
In other words, your child or teen is NOT special! Or, he or she is special to you as your child… or special to you as you are invested in his or her growth in your personal or professional role. And it may be considered very well within those roles, that your child derive a sense of being special to you. However, to everyone else he or she is NOT special! Others want to have the toy too. Others want to be the lead in the play, score the winning touchdown, or be the valedictorian. And others want to gain admission to one of the limited slots in the prestigious university or program. And few if any of those others would think your child is so special that they would automatically step aside for your darling! In fact, as your darling gets older through childhood, into adolescence, and eventually into adulthood, the more he or she thinks and acts like he or she is special, including: not beholden to the rules binding others, self-centered, dismissive of others’ needs and rights, or focused on immediate gratification at the cost of future issues including relationships, other people will label darling as an arrogant jerk… or worse! Want a quick clue that this may be happening or developing in your darling? If you find him or her acting like a jerk with you- treating you rudely with disrespect (rolling his or her eyes, making snide comments- much less putting you down), your child feels entitled to violate the basic rules of civility- not to mention the basic rules of child to adult dynamics. On the other hand, your child or teenager may hide their jerkiness from you and other adults, but verbally, emotionally, and psychological abuse others in their greater social world. How might parents miss this? Not my darling! He or she is too… special! Next blog will look at the natural narcissism of adolescence- which is not necessarily a bad thing. The natural narcissism of adolescence will be distinguished from narcissism often is a bad thing… a jerky thing!