relationship of Mark, an adolescent boy age 17, and his father. Up until his mid-teens Mark was an underachiever and was overweight. He was relatively unmotivated in school, did not asset himself, and shied from confrontations. These aspects of his life affected his relationship with his peers and family. In his mid-teens several events occurred that resulted in Mark becoming more assertive and developing a more identified sense of self. These events resulted in positive changes but also led to many confrontations and moderate levels of strife with his father. The events and the conflicts with his father are discussed in terms of Mark’s biological, psychosocial, cognitive, and moral development along with the concept of psychological distancing.
Mark is a 17-year-old male who lives with his mother, father, and younger brother Roger. Mark is a senior in high school. His father is an electrician at an automobile assembly plant with a high school education. Mark’s mother has worked as a beautician and as a secretary but for the last four years has stayed at home and taken care of the house. She dropped out of high school. His brother is three years younger than him. As a child Mark was born at full term and met his developmental milestones (walking, talking, etc.) at the expected times. His overall physical and cognitive development has been fairly typical and there is no history of developmental delay, developmental disabilities, or other issues. His grades throughout elementary school and middle school were average to low average, despite being bright. Mark seemed bored with school and unorganized in his approach to his work. He was evaluated for ADHD and learning abilities while in grade school as his parents and teachers believed that his school performance was lower than his potential, but the evaluations failed to find any evidence of these disorders. Later, when in middle school and early high school his father started telling Mark that he was “lazy” and often, especially after report cards were received by his parents, his father would yell at him for not performing better in school. Typically for a week after report cards were received his father would make Mark stay home and do homework, even if mark did not have any homework to do. His father would not assist Mark, nor help him with the work or check it, but he would not let Mark leave the house after coming home from school. Mark would simply stay in his room for a couple of hours and then come out telling his parents that he was finished with his homework and spend the rest of the evening watching television. After a week the grounding would be over and Mark would return to his usual routine of coming home, eating dinner, and then going out and hanging out with a few of his friends in the neighborhood. His grades remained in the average to low average range throughout middle school.
In terms of his relationships with his peers, Mark was rather tall and heavy for his age throughout elementary and most of middle school. This led to him often feeling as though he was the “fat kid” in school. He was teased at times by his peers and younger brother for being fat. As a result he found it difficult to deal with the typical flighty confrontations that male peers at this age group typically have as he always found himself feeling that he did not measure up to most of his peers. When they got into a verbal squabble his peers would call him “fat” or “fat ass” or something along those lines and he did not know how to handle it. These names hurt him and led to him often making negative comparisons with his male peers. They got better grades than him, were able to run faster, and Mark felt that he did not perform as well as most of his male peers in competitive team athletics and in gym class. This added to his feelings that he often did not measure up to his peers. He avoided competitive team sports, even though he actually was a good baseball and football player in his gym classes. Being larger than most of his peers, Mark was physically stronger than them and when there was a fight or scuffle most males his age would not engage him, but Mark did not like to fight or engage in aggressive activities, even if he was being picked on or bullied. After a while some males in school realized that Mark would not fight back, and routinely bullied him. Again this reflected a long-standing feeling of inadequacy and a desire not to put himself in a position where he would confront someone.
Mark’s relationship with girls in middle school was also strained. While many of his friends began going steady and to school dances in middle school, Mark never had a girlfriend or went to a dance. He was shy around girls and did not know how relate to them adding to his poor self-image.
Mark tended to daydream quite a bit in class and used his allowance money from doing chores such as cutting grass or shoveling snow to go to the movies. His favorite movies were martial arts films and action movies. He admired the depiction of martial artists in the movies as a sort of super-hero, always in control of himself and able to overcome any obstacle. Mark imagined himself as a martial arts master and this seemed to be an outlet for his frustrations. When he was 15 years-old Mark asked his father to enroll him in a local karate school as a Christmas present. Mark’s father consented, telling Mark that after a month he expected Mark would quit the karate training. However, Mark gravitated to the karate classes and went to as many as he could. Soon he began to lose a lot of weight which resulted in him needing new clothes. Mark’s father complained of the new expenses of buying new clothes and the ongoing cost of the karate, threatening to stop paying for the classes. However, other changes occurred as well. In the tenth grade, when Mark was 16 years-old, he began getting A and B. grades in all of his classes. He also got asked by one of the football coaches in school to try out for the football team, but as this would interfere with his karate classes Mark did not try out.
Marked practiced karate everyday and also began running two to four miles a day and began lifting weights and exercising in order to better his karate technique. By the time he was 17 years old he was a brown belt and had taken first place in several local competitions. He was extremely proud of this. His friends were now more respectful of him and he found that he could even talk to girls and ask them out on dates (if he could convince his father to give him the car). His interest in martial arts resulted in other benefits. Mark only tried smoking cigarettes once, but decided that smoking did not fit in with his healthy lifestyle. He developed the same attitude regarding the use of drugs and alcohol and did not hang out with peers that engaged in those behaviors. He also noticed that for some reason his schoolwork, which had never interested him much before, was now quite easy. He was surprised at how easy it was to get A and B. grades in subjects that used to confuse him such as math. All he had to do was read the books and practice and rehearse the material, much like he did with his karate.
Mark’s relationship with his parents in adolescence was strained for him. When he was in grade school he looked up to his father and admired him; however, when he reached middle school things started to change. His father was a good provider for the family, but rarely took an interest in Mark or his brother’s activities. He had high expectations of his children, but spent little time discussing things with them or teaching them. Mark viewed his father as overly critical and unconcerned. He avoided talking to his father or asking him for assistance, because experience had taught him that his father would only criticize him if he did not perform to his expectations or did not do something exactly the way his father did it. Mark’s relationship with his mother was pretty much the same. He viewed her as distant and unconcerned.
As Mark began to gain confidence in himself he also began to look at his parents in a more critical light. While he viewed his father as critical and unconcerned up until he was 16 years old he never thought much about how his parents acted or thought. He was never concerned much with their values and their status as parents. Up until this point he never questioned his father’s views or his father’s authority. He had always obeyed his parents, even if it were grudgingly so because they were his parents. He never talked back to his parents and was never considered a problem. However, when he was 17 years old he began to view the actions, beliefs, and philosophies of his parents in a different light.
One of the first instances occurred when his father, a staunch republican was watching a political television advertisement and began belittling democrats as being “stupid” and “communists.” Mark, who was watching the television as well and had studied communism in his Government class in school thought that the advertisement which advocated placing more money in developing homeless shelters and to develop funds to help impoverished people made sense to him. He told his father that it is not communist to want to help poor people and that it is the duty of citizens that are not poor to assist with those who are in need. His father was somewhat shocked by his son’s defiance, but stated that the redistribution of wealth by the government was the philosophy of communists. Mark pointed out that there was no mention of redistributing wealth in the advertisement, just the development of programs for the poor and needy. His became angered and stated that people without jobs and without homes should not be taken care of with tax dollars. These people were “lazy” and were looking for a hand out. “When I was growing up if you did not work you did not eat” Mark’s father added. Mark stated that not all homeless people were lazy and that many were unable to work for various reasons ranging from disabilities to ‘societal imparity” a term one of his teachers had used. Mark’s father replied that Mark was too young to understand life and that he should listen to his father because his father lived in the “real” world and had to support a family and understood life better than Mark. He told Mark to go do his homework and that he did not want to hear anymore “communist” philosophies. Mark told his father that some aspects of socialism were actually good, but that he was not a communist. He felt that his father was being extremely unfair and felt a strong sense of dislike for his father following his father telling him to go do his homework. Mark was angered but decided not to say anything else.
These political debates became even more heated. As Mark learned more in school he began to question his father’s political views more often. For instance, when the Obama administration passed the healthcare bill Mark’s father was quite furious. However, Mark told his father that he believed that some form of national healthcare plan was a good idea. His father continued to be surprised at his son’s voicing opinions that were not in harmony with what he had believed and preached for years. He was also surprised at his son’s logic: that a national health care is an equal right of all people, that there should be the implementation of that right through a social insurance system that provides universal health coverage, equitable financing of health care, and a commitment to equality in health care. Mark’s father found his argument hard to dispute. More and more Mark was able to apply logic and look at all the elements of an argument and apply solutions to them. However, when Mark told his father that he would be a democrat Mark’s father began to question his logic. Mark’s father pointed out that the democrats supported such things as big government, higher taxes, and more government programs. He believed that people prosper better if they work on their own, have less government support, and are allowed to spend their money as opposed to giving it to the government. Mark countered that the republicans stacked the deck in favor of the rich and that in order for there to be truly equal opportunities in the country the government had to intervene. This led to a very heated argument where Mark called his father’s views arcane and stupid. He was sent to his room.
Mark also began questioning the way his father did things. For instance, when Mark went to the grocery store to help his father with the grocery shopping as his mother had the flu he questioned his father’s choices. He pointed out that by buying generic brands actually saved a substantial amount of money and often by looking at the differences between the larger sizes of an item and buying several smaller sizes one could save a substantial amount of money. In some instances the two argued over the best strategy, but also Mark’s father took his son’s advice on several occasions.
Nonetheless, Mark’s logic failed to serve him more often than it worked for him in confrontations with his father. For instance, Mark wanted to set up a workout area in the basement with some weight-lifting equipment and some other exercise equipment in the basement, which was not being used for anything specific; however, when Mark’s father heard of it he told Mark that he did not want a gym in the basement. When Mark questioned him as to why his father simply told him that it was his basement and he did not want to have a gym in it. Mark argued that the basement was not being used for anything and what difference did it make if he put in a small gym down there, no one was using it. But Mark’s father still declined stating that he did not want a gym in the house. Mark told his father that his logic was faulty and that it made no sense. He became quite upset and went to his room muttering he would be glad when he left the home.
Mark began to question the clothes that his parents bought for him to wear. For instance, some of the slacks and shirts his father had bought were a little too “formal” for Mark. When he decided to wear blue jeans and a tee-shirt to school one morning his father, who was on his way to work, stopped him and told him to dress better for school. Mark complained that everybody dressed this way and that everyone will think he is a “dork” if he keeps wearing dress slacks and shirts to school. His father was having none of this and told him that “No son of mine will go to school looking like a hobo. I work too hard for that.” Mark became very depressed and went up to his room stomping the floor and throwing his clothes around the room while crying and thinking to himself what an idiot he looked like all dressed up at school when everybody wore jeans. He felt for sure that everyone thought that he dressed like a “tool.” Nonetheless, Mark reluctantly changed his clothes; however, he continued to blame his father for everyone thinking he was a dork. This ritual happened several times with each time his father making him change his clothes. He blamed his father for not understanding how he felt and what it was like to be in school. According to Mark his father had no idea what he felt and how everyone must think he is a prude. Interestingly he was later voted one of the best-dressed in his senior class, an honor that later made him quite proud.
The tension between mark and his father continued to mount. For years, Mark and his brother went to church every Sunday on a church bus that stopped by the house to pick them up. Their parents insisted that the boys attend church, but they themselves never went. Mark viewed this as being unfair. One Sunday he confronted his father by asking why he and mother did not attend church and yet Mark and Roger were made to go weekly. Mark’s father told him that he was to go to church because his father told him that he had to go and not to question his father’s authority. Mark replied that his father was a hypocrite for not doing what he made his children do. He added that it was not fair and that his father should set an example for his children by practicing what he preached. Mark’s father told him that he spent years in church and that Sunday was his only off day from work. He wanted to relax on Sunday, but he believed that Mark and his son should go to church in order to form their own opinions regarding God and how they believed concerning spiritual issues. He wanted Mark and Roger to have good religious training in order to deal with the weightier issues regarding life’s meaning later in their lives. He told Mark at the end of his senior year in high school he could decide on his own whether or not he would attend church. Mark however, stuck to his opinion and said it was not fair that he had to go when his parents did not. Mark’s father pointed out that he had to go to work six days a week, ten hours a day, and had to pay bills and provide for his family. He asked Mark how Mark would feel if he (father) suddenly decided that it was not fair that the rest of the family did not work and have all this responsibility and suddenly decided to stop working. Mark muttered that it still was not fair but went to church.
Mark continued to have significant disagreements with his father and isolated himself from family activities. In the summer before his senior year in high school Mark did not go on the family vacation with his parents and brother (they typically visited relatives). Instead he enrolled in a summer electronics class at school and focused on his karate while the family was away. While he never told them, he could have taken the class in the fall. His father was quite upset and argued over Mark’s staying home for the week, but he decided that taking the class was a good idea and reluctantly gave in. The family typically all ate Sunday dinner together, but Mark began finding excuses not to have dinner with his parents and his brother. This resulted in several arguments with his father regarding Mark not spending the traditional family time with his parents and brothers. “Do I have to eat dinner here every Sunday?” he would say. His father pointed out that the Sunday dinner was a family tradition and that it helped keep the family in touch with one another as since he worked the afternoon shift he could not have dinner with his wife and sons the other days of the week. Mark felt that this few was old-fashioned and that he was old enough to do what he wanted regarding this matter. “Eating dinner together alone does not make us a family” he stated, “We are a family by our blood relations and common bonds. Weekends are the only time when I don’t have to stay home and do homework for the next day and I want that time to spend with my friends.” Mark’s father insisted that he have dinner at home and then he could leave, making Sunday dinner earlier in the day for Mark’s benefit. This worked at first, but then Mark started telling his parents that he had to study for Monday exams on Sunday afternoons and he began missing three out of four Sunday dinners. Mark’s father gave in at this point, understanding that Mark was a senior in high school and would be off to college soon, so he let Mark skip Sunday dinners.
When Mark graduated from high school his father and mother were quite proud of him. His increased GPA helped him land a college scholarship to a fairly good school and also lessened the financial burden on his parents. Mark had also decided the year before that he wanted to be an engineer, as he liked math and believed that he would like designing automobiles. That summer there was much less tension between mark and his father. Mark took a summer job in a clothing store, bought his first car, and continued to practice his karate. He did not go on summer vacation with his family that summer but in the last weeks of summer he began showing up for Sunday dinners more often. He still had disagreements with his father regarding political viewpoints, but they became less heated and Mark did not resent his father as much as he did earlier before. When fall came Mark and his father packed up his car and he drove up to the school by himself. His father was proud of the young man his oldest son had become and was proud of his son’s independence.
Mark went through many changes in his adolescence. These changes had a particular affect on his relationship with his father and slowly redefined their father-son relationship.
Mark’s Sense of Identity
Mark’s relationship with his father became strained during adolescence. His relationship with his father throughout his adolescence was mediated by his own bludgeoning sense of his identity. In Eriksonian terms we suspect that Mark resolved stage four (Industry vs. Inferiority) rather late, at age 16, when he started taking martial arts classes and learned to apply himself. Erikson acknowledged that the age ranges for stage theories like his were not invariant and some children would resolve the issues of a stage earlier or later than other children (Erikson, 1964). Up until Mark started taking karate lesions he was floundering in school and seemed to lack purpose. His ability to apply himself to karate carried over into his school work, gave him a sense of competence, and also appears to have resulted in him developing a sense of identity as we see him starting to question his parents’ ideals and begins to define himself as a separate entity from his father. He begins to think of a career and defines himself different in terms of ideological principles from his father, which causes some strain in his relationship with his father, as he argues quite a bit with his father. By graduation it appears as if Mark has resolved Erikson’s Identity stage and he appears to be Macia’s achievement stage (Marcia, 1980).
Other factors may contribute regarding Mark’s development and how it affected his relationship with his father. We could also be suspicious that he may have reached puberty late (he begins to lose weight and become more athletic as well at age 16) and that the biological changes associated with that led to his becoming more argumentative and sensitive (Berk, 2010). These biological changes could interact with Mark’s earlier experiences to make him somewhat more self-centered and lead to his perception that he needs to stand up for himself when he feels threatened (Berk, 2010).
Cognitive and Moral Development
The sense of identity leads us to believe that Mark has entered Piaget’s formal operations stage (Piaget, 1983). We see other hints that Mark is learning to think in more abstract terms. In his discussion of national healthcare he is able to develop hypotheses and mentally test them. This causes strife with his father as Mark’s views conflict with his and Mark is able to logically argue with him concerning them. Moreover, Mark using his reasoning skills in a variety of situations, some of which lesson the strife with his father (e.g., at the grocery store). In addition to his sense of self, Mark also appears to be developing a sense of moral values and would most likely be placed in Kohlberg’s postconventional stage, although it is not quite clear if he is at stage five or stage six (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983).
Mark’s sense of morality clashes with his father’s emphasis on practicality causing more tension in their relationship. Despite Mark’s developing abstract thinking he is still quite immature in his applications of thinking. For instance, we see that he still believes that everyone is focusing on him when he argues with his father over his school wardrobe (imaginary audience; Berk, 2010). Moreover, Mark’s sense of logic and fairness overshadows reality. When arguing with his father over the use of the basement he totally ignores his father’s right to decide how his house will be used. Sometimes authority and ownership are reasons enough in a given situation, and Mark demands that logic and reasoning be applied in all situations (especially his logic and his reasoning). This egocentric over-application of hypo-deductive reasoning is a common feature observed in adolescents in the early stages of formal operations and moral development and in Mark’s case indicates that while he is developing cognitively he has not fully matured (Hall, Lindzey, & Campbell, 1998). Of course it also results in much tension in his relationship with his father and in his view of his father as being cold, harsh, and uncaring.
As Mark reaches middle and late adolescence we see him engaging in more and more confrontations with his father. Much of this strife could be explained in terms of the need for Mark to distance himself from the family. Berk (2010) reports that in non-industrialized countries separation from the family usually occurs after puberty, whereas in industrialized nations adolescences remain economically dependent on their parents and cannot physically leave. Instead they attempt to psychologically distance themselves from their parents by not engaging in family activities and defining themselves in a manner that is markedly different from their parents’ values. It could very well be that this psychological distancing drives much of Mark’s actions and leads to most of the strife between Mark and his father. We see efforts for Mark to distance himself from the family early on and these continue until he is ready to leave for college at which time he subtly reestablishes himself with the family.
According to Sigel (2002) during psychological distancing, the individual psychologically moves away from the object of perception, in this case the parents, so that the self becomes distinct from the object. This concept can explain many of the behaviors adolescence engage in to establish their own sense of identity and define themselves apart from their parents. Often, on the surface, many of these behaviors appear extreme and even potentially harmful to the adolescent, but adolescents often believe they are invulnerable and also are more apt to engage in extreme forms of self-expression (Berk, 2010; Vartanian, 2000). This distancing may be central for human psychological functioning. By creating contrast between the here-and-now context (the actual activity setting) and one’s subjective world of there-and-now the adolescent can maintain a differentiation between themselves and their families and yet still keep a perspective that they are a family member (Sigel, 2002). In Mark’s case his distancing was not extreme and did not involve the use of drugs or alcohol, joining a radical clique, or other measure. Mark also appeared to be resolving his conflicts with his father by the time he was leaving for college.
Berk, L.E. (2010). Exploring lifespan development (2nd Edition). New York: Allyn & Bacon.
Erikson, E.H., (1964). Insight and Responsibility. New York: W.W. Norton.
Hall, C.S., Lindzey, G., & Campbell, J.B. (1998). Theories of personality. New York:
Kohlberg, L., Levine, C., & Hewer, A. (1983). Moral stages: A current formulation and a response to critics. New York: Karger.
Marcia, J.E. (1983). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelseon (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology (pp. 159-197 ). New York: John Wiley.
Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget’s theory (4 ed., Vol. 1). New York: Wiley.
Sigel, I. (2002). The psychological distancing model: a study of socialization of cognition.
Culture & Psychology, 8(2), 189-214.
Vartanian, L.R. (2000). Revisiting the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs of adolescent egocentrism: A conceptual review. Adolescence, 35, 639 — 661.
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