From Adolescence to Adulthood: Renegotiating relationships

Ms Ruth Jans, Mackay Head of House and Year 10 Coordinator

Imagine if children came with a handbook providing parents with a list of rules and helpful hints on how to raise happy and healthy offspring. Think about how well we would sleep at night knowing that we were doing absolutely everything that was required in order to ensure these precious young people had all they needed for a successful life ahead. If only. Of course there is no such guidebook. However, David Ward’s article ‘Five messages every adolescent needs to hear’ offers something pretty close: a list of key concepts ‘important to successful family relationships for those with adolescents’ (2009, p. 48).

Ward begins by acknowledging that adolescence is a tumultuous phase of redefining relationships and boundaries within the family unit. However, his summary of five key messages provides a helpful navigational tool through this sometimes challenging period. The five key messages are:

  • You can go.
  • We believe in you.
  • We will miss you.
  • We will cope without you.
  • Let’s stay in touch.

#1: You can go

Dr Murray Bowen’s conceptualisation of ‘family as an emotional system with the goal of emotional stability and maturity’ (Ward, 2009, p. 50) helps frame this key message as teenagers need to be given permission to separate emotionally and intellectually from their parents. The ‘you can go’ message relates to both age-appropriate physical freedoms, allowing them to leave and return to the family home when needed, as well as the emotional freedom to express their individuality: you can ‘be’ as well as ‘go’.

Allowing adolescents to enjoy age-appropriate activities outside the home and school can be empowering and can effectively communicate the message that they are allowed to leave the protection of the family and return at an appropriate time. Such experiences help ‘reflect mutual respect [and] clear interpersonal boundaries’ (Bell, L. and Bell, 2009, p. 472). The ‘you can go’ message can also be communicated to your children through encouragement to participate in school co-curricular as well as age-appropriate personal interest activities outside the home and school.

#2: We believe in you

Closely tied to the first, this message reflects parents’ confidence in the adolescent’s ability to succeed while enjoying varying degrees of independence. Every time, after some brainstorming and discussion, parents allow their teenagers to problem-solve their way through challenges and negotiate with their peers and teachers on their own; the teenagers ‘hear’ that their parents know they can succeed on their own. With this in mind, one can see how the ‘helicopter parent’ (Somers and Settle, 2010) — who rushes in to rescue rather than empower — can interrupt this message and concomitantly communicate ‘we don’t believe you can cope’. The most important reason adolescents need to hear ‘we believe in you’ is that this not only helps ‘define them as competent, secure and optimistic’, it also provides them with an internal voice — a cheer squad — which will travel with them through life, helping them overcome difficult times (Ward, 2009, p. 50).

#3: We will miss you

In contrast to the confidence and self-reliance inherent in message #2, this third message is more emotive. It balances attachment and individuation by recognising that, despite geographical distance, absent young adults will always be part of the family and that their absence will be noted. If communicated too enthusiastically, this message is at risk of being transformed into anxiety that the family cannot cope without them. However, if the message isn’t communicated clearly enough, it can indicate a lack of connection which may result in emotional cut-off. It is therefore crucial to get the balance right as ‘such entrances and exits in family systems are always of critical importance and evoke deep emotions’ (Ward, 2009, p. 50).

#4: We will cope without you

Effective delivery of messages three and four are needed to ensure the successful launching of the adolescent into adulthood and this ultimately helps maintain the warmth and nurturing connections of the family unit. When adolescents are reassured that they need not worry about their family — that they will indeed cope fine without them — they are free to explore their world without guilt or anxiety (a precious gift). This message also demonstrates ‘a solid [parental] hierarchy with firm boundaries’ (Ward, 2009, p. 50).

#5: Let’s keep in touch

This final message usually takes place over a number of years and, if delivered well, balances the ‘connection / separation tension’ (Ward, 2009, p. 51). Over time, the parents and young adults renegotiate their relationship to one of equality and mutual respect.

It is important to note that the family is not the only system responsible for communicating these messages; schools can and should assist as well. For example, during the girls’ time at Brisbane Girls Grammar, the ‘you can be’ message is communicated as each student’s strengths, talents and interests are recognised and encouraged. Whether she is a talented musician, artist, actor, athlete, or academic, there are resources available to help her flourish.

In addition, great care and thought is put into the girls’ last weeks of Year 12 in order to help communicate the ‘you can go’ message while ensuring, through ‘let’s keep in touch’ messages, that they know they are welcome back in the future to community events such as Open Day. Heads of House, Directors and teachers all convey the ‘we believe in you’ message by encouraging our students to increasingly take more responsibility for their learning, to initiate conferencing, to determine how friendship problems are resolved and to recover from academic set-backs.

We also invite girls to represent the School in initiatives including the Lord Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, the International Youth Leaders Conference and international study trips, and in leadership positions such as House Prefects. The close bond that the students develop with their teachers, Buddies and Houses, allows the message ‘we will miss you’ to resonate in House Farewells, the Valedictory Dinner and the final traditions of Year 12 graduation. Additionally, while the Year 12 students play an integral role in the running of community events, they also know that ‘we will cope without them’ as next year’s leaders are elected in time to allow for official handovers. Finally, we invite the girls to ‘stay in touch’ through formal channels such as the Old Girls Association.

Each message is important and they all work together, balancing each other harmoniously. Sometimes the messages will be mixed or even incongruent. However, do not fear. As with psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s conclusion that mothers do not need to – and in fact should not – be perfect but rather ‘good enough’, so too, Ward (2009) reassures parents in his article that if they are able to communicate these messages in a ‘good enough’ manner then adolescents will be able to successfully renegotiate their relationships within the family system and enjoy a healthy adulthood.


Bell, L., & Bell, D. (2009). Effects of family connection and family individuation. Attachment and Human Development, 11(5), 471–490.

Somers, P., & Settle, J. (2010). The helicopter parent. College and University, 86(2), 2–9.

Ward, D. (2009). Five messages every adolescent needs to hear. Psychotherapy in Australia, 15(3), 48–54.