Get Rid of Your Teen

March 4, 2021

The title is a bit of an overstatement. However, there are some good reason to consider giving your adolescent a taste of independence. Throughout recorded history, children were often sent away from home to live with adults other than parents at the end of childhood, a practice known as extrusion. Not only was this a common practice in many pre-industrial cultures, something similar also happens among our close primate relatives.

To look at just a few examples, the bar mitzvah celebrates a young man becoming a full adult upon reaching the age of 13. The final blessing in a traditional bar mitzvah is the Baruch Sheptarani, which translates as “Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy.” In Biblical times, a boy reaching the age of 13 was ready to leave his parents.

Even until fairly recently, young people were “placed out” at the end of childhood to live with other adults. In medieval Europe, boys and girls were often apprenticed to live with other families and learn a trade. Though it sometimes happened that a child would be apprenticed to his or her own parent, this was relatively rare.

Why would this be such a widespread practice, found even among our non-human cousins? The universality points to a deep, archetypal need that young people have to separate from their parents as they seek the story they came into the world to tell. Leaving home psychologically is a necessity for those who would set out on the hero’s journey, and this psychological development can be kindled by an actual, physical leave-taking. In leaving home, the young person is challenged for the first time in his life to manage without the close support of his own parents. He is therefore able to test himself and experience a sense of his own efficacy and agency.

To our parents, who have known us since birth, we will always be children. When a young person at the cusp of adolescence ventures into the wider world, she has a chance to be experienced as a budding adult individual – and to experience herself in the same way. This experience of being seen and seeing ourselves as other or more than our parents even imagined is often vitally important as the young person seeks to find their individual sense of meaning and purpose. As Michael Meade writes, “It’s difficult for parents to see through the veil of their own expectations to the inner nature of the child born to them. And each child carries something that waits to be born in the world beyond the parent’s door” (The Water of Life, p. 35). Today, where are the opportunities to let our young adolescents go beyond our parental door?

Though our modern practice of sending children away to boarding school at age 13 or 14 is similar to these historical practices, there is a substantial difference. In traditional versions of extrusion, young people lived in semi-autonomy with close non-parental adult guidance. In modern boarding schools, the milieu is more peer focused, and there is less close adult mentorship.

There are still a few opportunities for an experience that is a bit more like the traditional practice of extrusion. When my daughter was 12, she asked that we allow her to go overseas as part of an exchange program called Adolesco. For three months, she lived with another family in France, and in this way learned another language through immersion. As wonderful as it was to see her learn French, I have come to understand that the gift of gaining some psychological independence at this critical time in her development was just as valuable, if not more so.

According to psychologists, conflict between teenagers and their parents goes back as far as recorded history. This likely reflects young people’s urgent need to separate and seek their own path. Throughout history – and perhaps never more than now – a young person’s negotiation of separation can be fraught and dangerous. When young people aren’t allowed to have this separation in a way that is safe and supported by other adults, they can resort to less healthy ways to address their need for independence. Seeking the extremes of experience that will help them initiate, teens can use drugs, acting out, and unhealthy identity exploration to establish for themselves and their parents that they are unique individuals who have their own destinies.

It is no coincidence, surely, that extrusion traditionally occurred around the same time or even in conjunction with a formal initiation into adulthood. “…Initiation was one way in which ancient cultures sought to break the spells of childhood and open the life of each person to inspiration and meaning” (Meade, p. 122). Leaving one’s childhood home is itself an initiation. The experience of leaving home as a young person is likely always terrifying and thrilling. The young person casts herself into life’s depths. In struggling with new challenges, she learns both awe and something about what she is made of. My daughter returned from France not just with a new language, but with a new appreciation for what the world has to offer, and what she might offer it. This first taste of initiation has helped her open to where her life needs to lead.

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