Evolution has prepared our 13-year-old children to leave our house and leave behind the safety and security we're programmed to provide. As relationship expert Pepper Schwartz puts it: "If we were in a tribe, there would be a ritual where they go on a lion hunt."
The big problem is, we don't let them depart this young. Our culture dictates that the hormone-riddled and increasingly stubborn youngsters stay cooped up and under our protection for at least five more years, placing a strain on the best of marriages.
"Making decisions about what to let them do is very hard work," explains Schwartz, a nationally known sociologist and professor at the University of Washington. Besides her academic standing, she has stepped outside the ivory tower to appear on television, and has written a column for Glamour magazine.
Using body piercing as an example, Schwartz imagines that a husband and wife are both asked by their 14-year-old daughter, "Can I get my navel pierced at the mall with Susan? She's leaving in 30 minutes."
The mother hates navel piercings, although she couldn't tell you exactly why. The father leans the other way. He has no emotional issue about a pierced belly button, and figures his daughter could do many more dangerous things.
"Suddenly, there is a problem between you and him," Schwartz says, noting that the scenario demonstrates how teen turbulence can create ripe conditions for anger in a marriage.
Teens' constant questions -- about whether they can go to parties, drive with others to events or dress in provocative ways, for example -- all require careful thought. There are serious consequences to some of the decisions, and some of them also raise moral questions that parents may be asking themselves for the first time.
To make matters worse, "You are rarely given fair time to make a decision," Schwartz says. So parents need to ask for more time. One can truthfully say to a son or daughter, "I have lots of strong feelings about this and I need to examine them and get back to you."
Now, this may mean that Susan goes to the mall alone or that your daughter goes and just watches -- with the promise that at some future date you will give her a firm answer.
Meanwhile, if you've promised to think hard about the belly button ring, you have to keep your part of the bargain and truly look inside.
Exploring our own beliefs about everything from miniskirts to masturbation is hard work. But that examination, and sharing those honest feelings with a spouse, are key to being able to reach a consensus answer that will stand up to wheedling and negotiation.
Instead of being irritated or pleading with your middle- or high-school age child not to do something, Schwartz suggests coming up with a "robust" reason why it isn't a good idea.
In the case of the belly button ring, maybe you can find some information about infections that would convince your teen that piercing isn't a great idea from a health perspective. Perhaps you could tell her that you and your spouse have a family rule against body changes that are permanent before age 18, which would also take care of tattoos.
A middle- or high-school age child's job is to break away from our control. It is the job nature has given to her or him. When the little darlings were 2 years old, they broke out of our arms and tried to rush into busy streets. We were upset and overpowered them, but we didn't take it personally that they were making a bad decision. When the same darlings are 14, and choose to smoke marijuana and drive friends around in our family station wagon, we take that very seriously.
"The truth is, they had no more agreement with your values when they were 2... but now they have the power to do things against your will, knowledgably," Schwartz says.
Parents take rebellion personally, as an attack on their own values, she adds. One spouse may not see rebellious behavior as an attack, and seem indifferent to his or her partner's feelings. The lack of support feels like disloyalty, and once again, the two adults are arguing.
Beyond the immediate toxic atmosphere of argument, there are other problems for a family if teens are constantly setting up a pattern where parents argue over the rules, Schwartz says. "When you think your wheels are just spinning and you haven't any traction," then it is time to seek a family therapist, psychologist or other counselor, she adds.
Remembering your sense of humor can help a marriage weather many storms. Take this joke, for example: A priest, a lawyer and a rabbi were discussing when life begins. The priest said, "At conception." The lawyer said, "At birth." The rabbi said, "When your last kid goes off to college."
Sally James is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three.