Help, my teenager is driving me crazy!

Adolescence is a transitional period in the human life span, linking childhood and adulthood. Numerous changes are happening between 12 and 18 years of age. Sometimes these changes begin as early as 10 years old. Often competent parents who have enjoyed the job of parenting become unhinged during their child’s adolescent years. I often hear questions like,

  • What is going on with my teen?
  • Why is he/she so impulsive?
  • Why can’t he/she see the importance of studying, respecting adults, and showing appreciation or gratitude?
  • Why is my teen so moody? She/he is isolating himself/herself or they only want to spend time with their peers, refusing to participate in family outings.

Early adolescence is a time when conflict with parents escalates beyond childhood levels. This increase may be due to a number of factors: the biological changes of puberty, cognitive changes, and social changes focused on independence and identity.

Biological Changes

One of the most obvious changes in adolescence is rapid physical maturation, including hormonal and body changes. However, the rate and type of these changes varies widely among individual teens. Whether your child experiences early or late maturation, the timing of these physical changes can influence their focus during these years.
Early maturing girls are more likely to smoke, drink, be depressed, have an eating disorder, request earlier independence from their parents and have older friends; and their bodies are more likely to elicit responses from males that lead to earlier dating and sexual experiences. Interestingly early maturing girls have a higher body image in 6th grade, but by 10th grade studies have shown that late-maturing girls are the ones on average with a greater positive body image.

Early-maturing boys have a higher self image and better peer relationships during adolescence but by 30 years of age late-maturing boys have a greater sense of identity when compared to their early developing peers. This may be because studies have shown that early maturing boys continue to focus on their advantageous physical status instead of career development and achievement.

As a parent it is important to understand both the positive and negative emotions and pressures your individual child is feeling about their physical development and to realize that you can help mentor them through these rough years once you can empathize with what they are experiencing.

Cognitive Changes

What we know about brain development during adolescence is really in its infancy. However, recent fascinating discoveries have focused on the changes that happen in the emotional center, the amygdala and the higher-level cognitive functioning center, the prefrontal cortex. Researchers have determined that the amygdala, which is responsible for processing information about emotion, matures earlier than the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for making decisions and other higher-order cognitive functions. These findings seem to suggest that an adolescent might be more likely to respond with a “gut” reaction to emotional stimuli, whereas adults might be more likely to respond with a rational, reasoned response. In fact the prefrontal cortex is the very last part of the brain to mature. It is here where planning, setting priorities, suppressing impulses and weighing the consequences of one’s actions take place. This means that the brain region for putting the brakes on risky, impulsive behavior and thinking before acting is still under construction during adolescence.

The healthy, balanced viewpoint for the parent of an adolescent would be to find a flexible position that would provide structure for a teen whose prefrontal cortex is still developing and freedom to explore and develop their individual self-identity.

Social Changes focusing on Identity Development

It is healthy and expected that during the adolescence years teens explore and develop their individual self-identity. During this time they may experiment with many different roles and worldviews. Identity development is a long process that happens in starts and stops and consists of all areas of a teen’s worldview including but not limited to: interests, values, faith, relationships, personality, sexuality, gender, cultural, political and vocational. Those teens that successfully navigate this stage emerge with a strong and acceptable sense of themselves and where they are headed in life. Those who do not work through this stage are stuck in what is called “identity confusion”. Teens who experience identity confusion most often have parents who are either permissive, providing little guidance, or autocratic controlling the teen without giving them an opportunity to express themselves. Teens experiencing identity confusion will either isolate themselves and withdraw from family and friends or lose their identity in the crowd. Parents can help their teens navigate this identity development by understanding this is a time for teens to question and explore many roles and ideas. Parents are most effective when they listen and discuss ideas and decisions with their teens while giving them room to make some of their own decisions.

During adolescence many parents see their teen changing from a compliant child to someone who is non-compliant, oppositional and resistant to parental standards. When this happens parents tend to clamp down and put pressure on the adolescent to conform to parental standards. Parents often expect their teen to become mature adults overnight, instead of understanding that the journey takes 10-15 years. Parents who recognize that this transition takes time handle their youth more competently and calmly than those who demand immediate conformity to adult standards. The opposite tactic – letting adolescents do as they please without supervision – is also unwise.

Competent adolescent development is most likely to happen when adolescents have parents whom:

  • Show them warmth and respect
  • Demonstrate sustained interest in their lives
  • Recognize and adapt to their cognitive and socio-emotional development
  • Communicate expectations for high standards of conduct and achievement and
  • Model constructive ways of dealing with problems and conflict

These can be difficult but rewarding years. Be kind to yourself and your teen and remember this is a marathon, not a sprint!