Relationships

How mothering and fathering an adolescent can be different

Drawn from observations in counseling, this discussion is about tendencies, not certainties. Start with how male and female parenting can be different.

Consider a biological distinction between mothers and fathers as a departure point for exploring some role differences between them. These differences can influence the contrasting focus of parenting they each provide.

By Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Created Nov 8 2010 – 4:38am

Drawn from observations in counseling, this discussion is about tendencies, not certainties. Start with how male and female parenting can be different.

Consider a biological distinction between mothers and fathers as a departure point for exploring some role differences between them. These differences can influence the contrasting focus of parenting they each provide.

At the outset of the infant’s life, the mother is the more sacrificial and connected parent. How could it be otherwise? She bears, she births, she even breastfeeds the child, in the process creating a mutual sense of attachment and obligation that is deep and mysterious.

Mother and child begin bonded, emotionally directed toward sensitivity and knowing, sharing a powerful intimacy. Feelings of familiarity breed a sense of acceptance, often causing the mother to be the more relationally focused parent in the years ahead, the one more inclined to ask adolescents the concern question, “How are you feeling?” The mother’s greater sensitivity often deepens the power of her empathy and understanding.

At the outset of the infant’s life, the father is the more distant and disconnected parent. A stranger to the infant, he starts as an outsider, before birth supporting the child by supporting the mother, afterwards creating closeness by touching, talking, and tending to build familiarity and trust.

He must learn and earn his way into attachment with an infant who must do the same with him. Hence it is approval that brings them close as they act to please each other, often causing the father to become the more performance focused parent, the one more inclined to ask adolescents the evaluative question, “How are you doing?” The father’s greater distance often amplifies the power of his authority and evaluation.

Of course, everyone has both relational and performance dimensions to themselves; but women often tend to place more focus on their relational side, men more focus on their performance side. Although less the norm today, even with two working parents, mothers often invest more relational time and energy in family than fathers who invest more performance time and energy in a job. And of course, women still remain the more responsible parents, at least as reflected by the percentage of single parent head of households where about 80% are mothers and about 20% are fathers (U.S. Census.) So not only do mothers begin the child’s life as the more connected parent, but they usually remain the more relationally committed parent as well.

In counseling, this difference in parental focus is sometimes recognized by an adolescent who says, “I talk more with my mom about personal stuff but I go off and do more with my dad.” Again, this doesn’t mean that many mothers can’t have a strong performance focus, and that many fathers can’t have a sensitive relational focus, only that this relational/performance distinction often seems to differentiate their parental roles. The mom can seem more focused on the adolescent’s emotional state and experience, the dad more focused on the adolescent’s conduct and accomplishment.

Reinforcing this distinction can be how mother and farther were socialized in same sex peer groups growing up. With girl peers, the mother may have relied on personal disclosure and providing support to cement friendships. There was a relational focus as communication and confiding created closeness. They talked a lot together. With boy peers, the father may have relied on sharing interests, activities, and adventures to cement friendships. There was a performance focus as companionship and competition created closeness. They did a lot together. Both avenues to closeness work, but they are different.

Since adolescence is a ten to twelve year process of separation from childhood into adult independence, the parental challenge is how to keep the connection with their growing son or daughter together while adolescence is causing them to grow apart.

For the mother, it can be easier to stay attached and harder to let go. Thus I often hear the teenage complaint about a “controlling” or “overprotective” mother. For the father, it can be easier pull away and harder to stay connected. Thus I often hear the teenage complaint about the “distant” or “unavailable” father. In many cases, at least in the eyes of their adolescent, mothers often hold on too tightly (are too involved)and fathers often let go too much (are not involved enough.)

There can also be a significant mother/father difference in how they approach and manage that hallmark behavior of parenting adolescents – conflict. Between young people wanting more freedom, experimenting with more individuality, and demanding to live more on their own terms, adolescents usually provoke more conflict in the family.

Often, because they are more schooled in communication and are relationally trained, a mother tends to be more tolerant of the emotional intensity aroused by conflict. She often tends to be more comfortable hanging in there with a hostile adolescent than a father who is more uncomfortable with the challenge and wants to avoid it, get it over with, or shut it down. Conflict is a relational skill, and combat is a performance skill, and this distinction can characterize how mother and father broker differences in wants and opinions with their stormy adolescent.

Often the mother, taking a relational approach to opposition, treats the teenager as an informant, the difference between them as a talking point for communication, with a goal to discuss and better understand the issue between them. She takes a collaborative approach, treating conflict as an opportunity to learn more about her adolescent and to strengthen the relationship with joint resolution.

Often the father, taking a performance approach, treats the teenager as an opponent, the difference between them as a power challenge over control, with the goal to assert parental authority, arguing to win in order to prevail. He takes a more competitive approach, treating conflict as an opportunity to show the adolescent who’s in charge by resolving the disagreement on the man’s terms.

In general, from what I have seen, the “female” approach to conflict with adolescents seems to work better than the “male.” However, the mother/daughter conflicts and father/son conflicts often have different core issues at stake. For mother and daughter, the issue is more relational: how can a daughter remain emotionally connected to her mother but emerge as a separate woman on her own terms. For father and son, the issue is more about performance: how can a son measure up to the father but still be his own man leading his life his own way.

In both cases, the adolescent needs the parental blessing. “While I helped give you life and helped shape your life, whatever you choose to do with your life is up to you. Please know that I will love you as always, no matter what differences in our ways there may be, as I hope you will always love me.”

Adolescent pain with mothers and fathers can also be quite different too. When the mother is the more relationally focused and sacrificial parent, self-blame over failed obligation can inspire guilt in older adolescents and young adults. “I didn’t give back to my mother enough for all she’s done for me.” “I don’t treat my mother all the ways she would like.”

When the father is the more achievement focused and evaluative parent, self-blame over failed performance can inspire shame in older adolescents and young adults. “I didn’t turn out as well as my father wanted.” “I don’t measure up to the expectations my father set.” With both parents there can be the issue of ‘not enough’ – not enough deserved repayment in the mother’s eyes, not enough earned worth in the father’s eyes.

Oversimplified, but adolescents particularly need empathy from the mother, the relational parent, and particullarly need approval from the father, the performance parent. When neither empathy nor approval are forthcoming, harm can be done. A consistently cold mother and a consistently critical father can both have a lot to answer for. 

All these comments are generalizations based on observations in counseling, so it is important to keep in mind that I have seen many exceptions that “prove the rule.” For example, I have seen fathers who practice a communication model in conflict and welcome discussion of differences and mothers who deal with conflict as a matter of control and want to shut any disagreement down.

Finally, each parent provides the dominant sex role model in the family, the mother as prime example of how to define one self as a woman, wife, and mom, the father as prime example of how to define one self as a man, husband, and dad. The challenge for each parent is to express both relational and performance sides – like listening and coaching, talking with and doing with, confiding in and enjoying friendly competition with each other.

For a further discussion about differences in fathering and mothering adolescents, see my book, “The Connected Father.” More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Leave a Reply