Entering Neither World

My teen son announced, “I’m taking a road trip.”

I faced him and said, “You are?”

“Yeah,” he said, “but I’ll need gas money.” This fledgling adult wanted to make his own decisions. However, the lingering child expected his father and me to finance his trip.

His words reflected the perspective of many teens who are caught in the uncomfortable middle ground between childhood and adulthood. According to therapist Rebecca Dowden, this stage of development is called “individuation.” She says the details differ for every teen, but the common denominator is that they are all learning to view themselves as separate from their parents.

My son’s desire to be a carefree child while striking out on his own indicated that he didn’t understand his stage of life. Although he felt like an adult, he wasn’t one because the perks of adulthood carry responsibilities that he hadn’t yet assumed.

Yet he was no longer a child. He had a foot in both worlds but lived fully in neither world. I’ve started referring to this stage of my kids’ lives as “Neither World,” a concept that I’ve since used to help guide my teens into seeing opposing perspectives: childhood whims versus adult responsibilities. I’m finding that it helps my teens recognize the consistency and logic of parental decision making.

Entering Neither World

Neither World is a concept that makes teens more aware of why they feel the way they do. Despite their adolescent desires for adulthood, they often find it hard to say goodbye to the unburdened life they’ve known. Their parents have shouldered the responsibilities of meeting their basic needs — food, clothing and shelter.

Teens have been expected to follow house rules and respect parental authority. This includes the understanding that parents have the final decision regarding church attendance, friends, activities and finances. But independence is a fact of a teen’s future, and the Neither World concept helps parents gradually and carefully expose their kids to the adult world they’ll need to live in.

The teen years can be ambiguous for both parents and child, Dowden says. “If the child is restricted too much or given too much freedom, his individuation can be negatively affected.” For children to develop a healthy view of adulthood, they can’t be given too many adult perks without also shouldering adult responsibilities. If they are, their desire to step fully into adulthood can be stunted.

Neither World perspectives

In my son’s road-trip scenario, we talked about his decision from a child’s perspective and from an adult’s perspective. He wanted to make the decision to take a road trip but did not have the funds to finance his trip. He wanted the perks of adulthood without the responsibility. To hand him money, as if he were a child, in order for him to fulfill his adult decision, would have been irresponsible.

So my husband and I pointed out which parts of his plan existed in childhood and which in adulthood. He couldn’t have the best of both worlds. We considered his personality, the friends who were going with him, the weather, hotels, finances, etc., in our effort to help him understand that a road-trip decision required weighing several factors.

Although all of those areas had to be reviewed, the financial side of the trip simplistically demonstrates how Neither World works. In this area, we asked our son to choose between financing the road trip himself and continuing to receive gas money by not going on the road trip. Once everything was considered, he was given the parameters of each world and was asked to choose whether he would be a child or an adult in this situation. He chose not to go on the road trip. Neither World helped us strike a healthy balance between the dependent part of our son’s reality and his dream for independence.

Neither World’s purpose

As my son accepted his place in Neither World, on many occasions life didn’t seem fair to him. He observed his peers being allowed to make adult decisions while enjoying the carefree life of childhood. Some had access to unlimited funds and luxury items, along with vacations and activities that they didn’t earn.

Pam Russom, president of Flyline Search Marketing, suggests that today’s teens already have a measure of freedom that past teen generations haven’t because of their cell phone usage and Internet access. She says, “They can make decisions, judgments and purchases without your knowledge.” Unfortunately, teens seldom have the maturity or financial responsibility to match this illusion of being their own person in other areas of their life.

To balance peer and technological influences, my son and I talked honestly about the freedom his peers enjoyed, and we discussed the failure to launch stories of young adults who hadn’t been given Neither World boundaries. Because acceptance of adult responsibilities is not easy, teens often must be encouraged to examine how they make decisions. When parents use Neither World as a basis, teens are given the opportunity to make decisions that help them slowly move out of childhood and embrace adulthood.

A Snapshot of Neither World

Here are a few of the day-to-day situations in which we’ve used Neither World to help my family come to decisions:

Curfew: As a child, my son was given a curfew time. But as an adult, he was allowed to call if plans changed, and times could be adjusted if we felt the change was valid. This small negotiation moved our son gradually into the adult arena where his decisions were based on a consideration for others and for those his actions affected. But if curfew was missed without a negotiation, our teen was placed back into his childhood world and lost privileges — which meant his curfew was adjusted.

Automobiles: My son was expected to keep $500 in a savings account if he wanted us to provide a car for his transportation needs. He was given the adult responsibility of having money available in case he wrecked the car. But at the same time, we treated him as a child and provided him with a vehicle, gave him a gas budget and paid for the car’s insurance, maintenance and repairs.

Clothing choices: As my son took on the adult responsibility of buying his own clothes, he was allowed more freedom in his wardrobe selection. But at the same time, because his father and I were still training him in his moral development, he was not allowed to wear anything that violated the family’s standards.

The years when children are caught between two worlds don’t last forever, but allowing them to live the adult life under the carefree banner of childhood often kills their desire for independence. Neither World establishes enough freedom, mingled with boundaries, to keep children aiming for total independence. In a person’s early teen years, decisions and negotiations often end up in the childhood arena. As the teen matures and demonstrates good decision-making skills, he is given more adult responsibilities. In this way, parents can walk alongside their teens, guiding them on their journey to adulthood.

Shona Neff is a freelance author and a client advocate/mentor for the HOPE Pregnancy Center.

Use this tool to begin a Neither World discussion with your teen: “Parent-Teen Negotiations.” 

Neither World Teens
As teens transition from childhood to adulthood, their responsibilities consist of:
• Honoring parents
• Accepting parental boundaries
• Understanding that parents have their best interests at heart
• Asking questions when they don’t understand something
• Submitting to parents when necessary
• Being willing to make daily decisions on their own
• Thinking through decisions
• Asking for parental guidance when faced with difficult decisions
• Acting responsibly in their pursuits
• Dreaming of the day they will launch into a life of independence

Neither World Parents
As you help launch your teens into adulthood, your responsibilities consist of:
• Praying for your maturing teens
• Inviting God into the process
• Walking alongside your teens
• Understanding and, within reason, validating your teens’ frustrations in Neither World
• Not expecting all your teens’ decisions to mirror those you would make
• Allowing teens to make small mistakes so they can learn
• Standing firm when big mistakes are at stake
• Having reasonable expectations for adult decision-making success, especially in the early years of Neither World
• Practicing letting go as your teens launch into independence

This article appeared in the October/November 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2012 by Shona Neff. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.