The Available Parent

The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens
by Dr. John Duffy
Viva Editions; ISBN 978-1-57344-657-0

The process of transitioning from child to adult is sometimes as difficult for parents as it is for their children. In his new book, Dr. Duffy provides a framework for parents to navigate these tricky years with a minimum of anger and conflict.

“As the parent of a teenager your top priority – before anything else – is to stay in touch with your rapidly changing youngster. Staying in touch is the essence of what Dr. Duffy means by availability.” ~ Dr. Thomas W. Phelan, Forward

This book is written in a clear no-nonsense style using observations and examples from Dr. Duffy’s work with youth and their families. More than anything else, it is obvious that he understands the teenage “mind” and the psychological and social factors involved in changing children into adults.

Dr. Duffy aptly captures the vicious cycle:

Conventional wisdom dictates that teenagers are poor communicators, and that they often stop talking with parents altogether. In my experience, however, I’ve found that a parent’s anxiety about raising a teenager too often gets the better of him, such that he is less available to his teenager. I would argue that, more often than not, the teenager then responds to his parent’s unwillingness to listen to and communicate with him appropriately and effectively… In fact, teen after teen has expressed this sentiment to me over the years. Parents find themselves judging their teenagers, and wanting them to be somebody different than they are… Through the judgment and emotional baggage they themselves bring to the relationship, parents too often limit their ability to communicate with influence and enjoy the relationship with their child.

Teenagers are left feeling unheard and misunderstood, and parents are left feeling bewildered by the changes in their child and their sudden lack of effectiveness as parents. The parent has become unavailable, the teen responds in kind, and a negative and often destructive cycle of communication begins.

But he also describes in clear terms why the changes in your child are required in order for her to mature into a normal, fully functioning adult:

First and foremost, you need to know that developmentally your adolescent is, by nature, highly egocentric. Yes it is all about him! He is not yet expert at taking the perspective of someone else, including you.

There is a very important and simple reason for this. All children are born egocentric. The universe really does revolve around the child, even to the point where objects (including people) in that universe are not yet perceived as having independent existence. They are simply extensions of the infant child, there to serve her needs. As that child grows from infancy through childhood to adolescence and finally adulthood, she gradually acquires, first, the recognition that those other beings and objects have independent existence and that other people have their own needs and thoughts and feelings and reactions to the world around all of us. The ability to do this – to feel empathy, to see things through another person’s eyes, to sympathize, to feel remorse, to be able to predict the logical consequences of one’s own actions, and to inhibit one’s own impulses or delay gratification of those impulses – all of these capacities reside primarily in the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobe is that last part of the brain to develop from an evolutionary perspective and the most underdeveloped part of the brain at birth. It continues to grow throughout childhood and adolescence, and even into the mid-twenties.

[The teenager’s] job is separation and individuation, developing a sense of himself in the context of relationships, and learning to cope with stress and manage his emotions. It vis here, during adolescence, that your teenager learns self-motivation, self-starting, self-control, and frustration tolerance. He will also explore the trial-and-error method of experimenting with new things, and truly creative thinking. He may try different looks, linguistic styles, music, and so on. While traversing this terrain, your teen may seem difficult, irrationally emotional, contradictory, opinionated, and angry. If you pay attention, you will find that he can also be brilliant, insightful, and empathic at the same time.

For parents, this is probably the most difficult part. It may appear as though your teen is rejecting everything you believe in and stand for. It may appear as if your teen is rejecting you. And in a sense, that is true – temporarily.

On some level, teenage minds actively work against taking your perspective into consideration. They have been working from the foundation of your perspective, your values, and your timetables their entire lives. During the course of adolescence, they begin to develop their own values, interests, styles, and perspectives. To do so, they often try on different ways of being. You have probably seen this in your child and perhaps written off these developmental steps as “phases’. The label is less important than the fact that your teen needs to go through them in order to find himself and to hear his own voice… the vast majority of the time, this is a normal and very important development.

This is a book I could have written myself, in that it echoes the advice I have given to many parents of teens over the years in my practice. But as one of my students once told me, “You snooze. You lose.”, and Dr. Duffy has beaten me to the finish line.

I highly recommend this book to parents and practitioners alike.

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1 Comment

  1. That transition is not only hard for parents but for the child transitioning into adulthood also. You throw bipolar in their and it can be a nightmare for both. For the child trying to find who you are and if you have value in this life can feel like the story of Hansel and Grettle only you forgot to leave a breadcrumb trail. Until a manageable combination of meds and therapy are achieved the whole of life can feel much like to hard of a struggle. I say don’t give up each year is a year of wisdom gained on how to deal with your bipolar and slowly you can learn to manage your symptoms and if relapse occurs you can regroup and move on!

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