When Teenagers Believe that Parents Know Nothing

Mark Twain’s wonderful observation ‘when I was eighteen I believed my parents knew nothing and when I was twenty I couldn’t believe how much they had learned in two years’ is the ideal introduction to this article. In their late teens young people are utterly convinced that they know it all and that adults just don’t have all the answers and that they are going to save the world. Some authors believe this is an idealistic phase that young people on the brink of their adult years go through. However, I believe there is more to it than that and given that I believe human behaviour always makes sense, then there has to be more to this very poignant illusion. What has often struck me when I speak to an individual teenager or a group of teenagers is how absolutely unready they are for the responsibilities, demands, upsets and roller-coaster ride of being an adult. It appears to me to be very wise and clever of teenagers to create unconsciously the illusion that they know everything in the face of what are overwhelming responsibilities. The illusion prevents them from running away and, indeed, sends them headlong into the world where ‘angels would fear to tread.’ This headlong plunge into various challenges makes it more likely that the young illusionist will learn from his experiences and, like Mark Twain, eventually become a realist. When adolescents avoid the necessary emotional, sexual, intellectual, occupational, social and spiritual challenges of becoming adult they can stay stuck in their fears and dependencies and life is a very limited and fearful phenomenon for them. The wisdom of the headlong plunge is that it creates opportunities for mature development. Those adolescents who travel the avoidance path have been deeply hurt and they are not even remotely psycho-socially ready for adulthood. Resolution of the persistent abandonments from childhood to the present is required before a readiness to proceed will emerge. These teenagers wisely do not buy into the illusion of knowing it all. The armoury of the illusion means the teenagers neither look for help nor do they welcome being advised what to do. Parents would do well to see the ‘vice’ in the word ‘ad-vice’ and in their interactions with teenagers show belief in their capacity to understand and encourage the young person to arrive at their own answers.

Understandably, parents experience great frustration at what they perceive as their son of daughter being headstrong, arrogant and irrational. It helps when parents own their own responses as being about themselves rather than blaming their teenage offspring. Parents’ frustration is about their need for their son or daughter to make the ‘right’ decisions, to be sensible and to listen and avail of their life experiences. The saying ‘you can’t put an old head on young shoulders’ is relevant here and it is the mature parent that allows the adolescent to learn from his or her own experiences. Teenagers are not here to live their parents’ lives and some parents seriously struggle with accepting that reality. These parents can exclaim ‘we’re only saying this for your own good’ but if truth be told they are saying it for their own good. Some parents will defend their intrusiveness with ‘we’re only trying to protect him from making the wrong decision’ but implicit in this is the demand to see and do things the parents’ way. When parents view teenagers as being ‘arrogant’ and ‘irrational’ they are revealing their own arrogance of believing they know what is best for the teenager and their ‘irrationality’ by not seeing that teenagers need the space and the support to learn from their lived experiences.

Within the boundary of maintaining their own dignity and responsibility for self, parents can best respond to teenagers’ illusion of knowing it all with a silent understanding of the wisdom of the illusion, with a maintaining of unconditional relating, with a waiting in the sideline for the teenager to come to them for help and support and with a manifested believing that teenagers will come through this very challenging time of their lives. The presence of unconditional love and belief are the two critical supports that not only teenagers need but parents and all other adults as well.

Parents may well ask ‘how do I respond when my teenage son asserts school is stupid, teachers are ancient and know nothing, poetry is useless.’ What is crucial is that the parent does not get entrapped into conflict with the teenager by attempting to argue how ridiculous is what he’s saying. Maturity calls for an open response such as ‘given what you are saying, how is it for you in school?’ A likely response is ‘I just hate school and I want to be out working and making lots of money.’ The secret is to return responsibility to the young person for what they are saying. In this way, the focus stays on him or her and decision-making lies with them. What may eventually emerge is the truth behind the illusion ‘I know nothing about life.’ When this truth is present parents can then affirm how much he knows, what it is like to be on the brink of adulthood and their willingness to offer support and resources for how to explore how he can best negotiate this particular time of his life.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including The Mature Manager.