10 Oct Frustrated By A Teenager Or Young Adult Who Still Behaves Like a Child?

Teenagers: part child, part adult. They expect to be treated like an adult and to enjoy all the perks that adulthood brings, only to regress into the relative helplessness of childhood when it suits them better.

Man as baby. Child in diaper with pink teddy bear sitting on floor - isolated on white.

Navigating the transition between childhood and adulthood is complex.When I work with parents of teenagers or young adults I’m often hearing how frustrating and infuriating it when that child doesn’t take responsibility, show initiative, or follow through (ie. behave like an adult).

If you want to raise a teenager who knows how to behave like an adult (even when it might not suit them to do so), you’re going to need to stop treating him or her like a child.

For parents who express love by stepping in, pulling rank, or taking over when things aren’t going right, this can be more challenging than it sounds.

We love our children, and we want to help them. Right? 

“Here sweetie, let me carry your backpack for you!”… says the parent to the very young child. Loving and well-meaning parents may well carry their tired child’s heavy backpack, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Little kids need a lot of help, but if we continue to help long after it’s really needed, we risk stunting the very capabilities and confidence that we long to see in our teenage or young adult children.

If a child isn’t challenged to find his or her “inner adult”, they will continue to think and behave like a child. There’s only one way that children learn what it feels like to be self-sufficient, and that’s by doing it.

Teenagers and young adults learn by experience that grown-ups behave like grown-ups, even when it’s hard and they don’t really want to.

If you want to create a teenager who has a strongly developed sense of “adult-ness”, you’ve got to appeal to the adult that’s somewhere inside by relating to him or her in adult ways.

There’s an “adult-in-waiting” inside all teenagers (no matter how dysfunctional they may appear). Communicating with that “adult-in-waiting” in ways that empower rather than disempower is crucial.

It’s a case of the chicken and the egg: you might be waiting until your child starts behaving like an adult before you start treating him or her as an adult. But your child won’t start behaving like an adult unless you start treating him or her like an adult.

Treating your teenager like an adult doesn’t mean handing over the car keys or allowing him or her to make decisions or be exposed to situations beyond their means.

Treating your teenager like an adult involves empowering him or her to embrace his or her own “adult-ness”. Start by being mindful of a few key things:

1. Don’t offer advice unless you are asked for it

Offering unsolicited advise is something many parents don’t even realise they’re doing, because it feels like helping… and helping is loving… and how can that be bad?

It’s bad if your desire to help so strong that you take over. It’s one of the sure-fire ways to keep your teenager disempowered and acting like a child.

Here’s what taking over sounds like:

“Go and hang that dress/shirt on the line if you want it ready to wear tonight. Do it NOW!!!”.

And here’s what empowering your child sounds like:

“Is there anything you need to do to get your clothes ready for tonight? Will it matter if you don’t get around to getting your favourite dress/shirt ready?”

2. Don’t “pull rank” when you’re angry. Instead, involve your child in finding solutions to your parenting challenges

Are you one sort of parent during the funny, happy, relaxed, or light-hearted moments… and another parent altogether when you’re mad?

Here’s what pulling rank sounds like:

“Hey, get in here and clean up this room NOW! I’m sick and tired of asking!”

And here’s what empowering your child sounds like:

“Hey, your room needs cleaning. I’ve noticed that you often ignore me until I’ve asked ten times. We both hate me gong on and on about it. What do we need to do differently so that when I ask something reasonable of you, you actually get it done?”

3. Don’t behave like a child yourself

Communicating and relating to teenagers is frustrating, infuriating, confusing, and very annoying at times. But this does not give you licence to act like a child.

The best way to develop adult behaviour and self-responsibility in your children is to show them what it looks like in yourself, in good times and in bad.

Here is what parents behaving like a child sounds like:

“You make me so angry! Because of your irresponsibility you’ve now got (XYZ problem)” … Rant… rave…

And here’s what empowering your child sounds like:

“Hey, sounds like you’ve got a real problem with XYZ. What are you thinking you’ll do to fix it? I’m here for you if you need some help”

Parents need to do everything for their babies. But as your baby becomes a toddler, then a young child, pre-teen, teenager, and finally, young adult, the way you help needs to change too. As a parent you still have the right to expect and ask for whatever is important to you: do so in a way that appeals to the adult inside your child.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For over 20 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.