First, I spent quite a bit of time being an adolescent, taking some bonus time in my 20’s really getting to know this stage very well. I spent several years as a public school teacher and youth minister investing lots of time into being near adolescents and their families and working with them. Then I became a marriage and family therapist and worked with families with adolescents in a therapeutic setting. Then my own children entered into adolescence and I am now getting a first-hand education on parenting teens. I am now 45 years old and have been in some level of engaging with adolescents since I become one over three decades ago.
In these three decades, I have explored, experienced, and examined how these humans in the second decade of life live and move individually and how they are treated in their social systems. I have learned a lot in these three decades, but I also know that I have much to learn.
One thing I have learned in these three decades is how much loved these adolescents are by the adults that exist in their families, churches, and schools. I have also learned that sometimes that love is expressed in some ways that are not so healthy. And frankly, sometimes it is not love that motivates the adults in their lives, but something less generous.
One of the processes I have seen frequently between adults and adolescents is adult objectification of adolescents. Adolescents are sometimes objectified by the adults in their world. In short, adults may intend to be protective, engaged, and supportive of the adolescents in their lives, which is a good thing, but what ends up happening sometimes is that the adults treat the adolescents more like a possession than a person.
I have identified three objectification processes that take place between adults and adolescents. For the most part, these emerge from good intentions, but devolve into dehumanizing processes. Here goes:
Monster-making. Sometimes adults and parents of adolescents make all adolescents into monsters. It is generally done as a response to fear as these adults hear horror stories of terrible things done by adolescents and fear that the teen they love is at risk for being the next one to do such a thing. Here are four ways adults engage in this process:
•Obsessing negative. Sometimes adults and parents hold mistakes or imperfections against an adolescent. This process happens when an adult highlights only the negatives, the mistakes, and problems of an adolescent while obscuring, ignoring or dismissing anything good about the adolescent.
•Overgeneralization. Sometimes adults and parents hold the worst in any adolescent against all adolescents. This process happens when the negatives, the mistakes, and the problems of any adolescent are generalized to apply to all adolescents.
•Sympathy magnet. Sometimes adults or parents magnify adolescent’s imperfections as a way to gain attention or sympathy. Sometimes the insecurity or selfishness of the adult or parent becomes central when communicating about adolescents. There can be a sense in which parents or adults compete for who is suffering the most from their adolescent. Parents, teachers, youth ministers, and therapists are all vulnerable to this process.
•Scapegoating. Sometimes adults scapegoat adolescents based on the problems of the adolescent in order to obscure their own problems. This process occurs when the adult or parent has significant issues of their own that they want to protect or are ashamed of and use the problem of the adolescent to absorb the attention of others.
Trophy-making. Sometimes adults and parents overemphasize the successes of the adolescent and obscure or dismiss the negatives, problems, or mistakes. In short, they set up the adolescents in their lives to be trophies of their own success rather than celebrating the legitimate success of the adolescent. Here are three ways this process plays out:
- Self-esteem. Sometimes adults and parent use the success of their adolescent for their own self-esteem. Being associated with the adolescent reflects well on the adult and therefore the adult exploits this process.
- Self-promotion. This process is the next step building off of exploiting the adolescent’s success for their own ego, it drags that process out into the public to demonstrate their own greatness.
- Superiority. Stage three in this process is when this trophy-making process is leveraged against other parents or adults to demonstrate who is the better parent, teacher, youth minister, or therapist.
Colonization. In an effort to be or to appear to be (or to relieve guilt), parents and adults may over-engage so much in the projects, activities, or events of adolescents that they edge out the adolescent partially or completely. Here are three ways this process plays out:
- Take-over. Sometimes adults or parents completely take over the success of the adolescent. They see an opportunity to be supportive, but end up commandeering the whole thing such that the adolescent becomes secondary to the success, project, or event.
- Projection. Sometimes the adult or parent engages with the adolescent in the event, project, or effort so much that the original effort of the adolescent disappears and is remade in the image of the adult or parent.
- Overwhelm. Sometimes the adult or parent offers so many ideas and contributions to the adolescent’s initiative that there is no room left for the adolescent to develop their idea, project, or effort. In the worst cases the adolescent just quits the project and the adult or parent continues it to completion.
Becoming aware of these processes is an important developmental component of the adult or parent. Awareness is the first step to stopping these objectifying processes before they become entrenched. If you find yourself engaging in any of these processes, here are a few tips:
· If you can see a way to stop and it makes sense, then stop. Replace the objectifying process with a more humanizing process.
· For some it might be more difficult to just stop. Talk it over with other parents or adults. Tell them that you might be inadvertently objectifying the adolescent’s in your life. Just talking with someone else might help highlight ways to make a shift in how to engage with adolescents. Make sure you talk to someone who can listen well and not dismiss your struggle.
· For some it might take talking to a professional marriage and family therapist. The process might be so entrenched that it requires a family level shift.
It is never too late to make changes in how you engage with the adolescents in your life.