The bumpy transition from childhood to adolescence
Adolescence (the phase of life from age 12 to 18) tends to be a fairly bumpy ride for us, as parents, and for our children as well.
But, it doesn't have to be hard work.
If we understand the changes that our children are experiencing, and some of the challenges that we will face as parents, we can work through our children's teen years with our relationships intact.
Our children are changing
Adolescence is one of the most outwardly dramatic times of development and change in our child's life, second only to the changes that occur from conception to around age two. There's one important difference between the changes in our child's early years and the changes in adolescence though - this time our child is a fully aware spectator to his or her own developmental process. Our kids are actually watching and experiencing what is happening to their 'self' and have to try to come to terms with it.
Here are some of the main changes to be aware of, and what they mean to you and to your child.
It's no surprise that the physical changes that our teens undergo are a big deal in their lives. Physical maturation can sometimes influence the degree to which our kids experience bumps in adolescence. Starting to mature earlier or later than peers can cause social awkwardness. And puberty, in general, can create some discomfort in relationships between parents and children.
Growth spurts, over- or under-developed body parts, girls having their first period, boys developing facial hair, and the enormous hormonal turbulence all have an impact on us and our children. Add to this, our kids worry about measuring up to an impossible physical ideal perpetuated by the media. They worry about being overweight, underweight, too hairy, not hairy enough, and so on.
Our children's brains are developing constantly, but important new areas of development begin to grow really fast from around the age of 12 years (although they won't finish their development spurt until around age 23). These developments mean that by around age 15-16, most teens can use logic and reason (and abstraction) at an adult level. However, the part of the brain responsible for forward planning and thinking about the future requires more development. This partially explains why so many teens make poor decisions in relation to alcohol use, risk-taking, sexual experimentation, and drug use. They understand the logic behind why something should or should not be done, but their ability to think through the consequences for their own lives seems limited. The cognitive changes our children experience can create some challenging bumps in the lives of teens and their parents.
During adolescence, our children start to develop a sense of who they really are. Psychologists have called this an 'identity crisis' (it's not a bad crisis - although it can create a lot of discomfort). Teens have to determine who they want to be, their life philosophy and morality, their temperament, the way they will display their gender, their sexuality, their politics, their social stances, a career identity, and so on. As part of all of this, there is often conflict for our teenager as she struggles to develop accordingly. As your teenager discovers him or herself, there can be lots of bumps in their life, your life, and your relationship with them.
While there are many, many social changes for our teens, the most substantial is the progression towards becoming independent from mum and dad. Some teens begin earlier than others, but almost all teens will want to spend less time with their folks, and will start to feel increasingly secure as part of a peer group.
The other significant social change occurs as couple relationships begin to form. Dating begins. Parents and family often begin to take a lower position on the hierarchy of important relationships, with a girl or boyfriend at the top, peers next, and then family. These changes can be difficult for parents, and can cause conflict between parents and children.
Accompanying these significant changes in the lives of our teens, there are two major challenges most parents struggle with during these years. The first is the push for independence from our children. The second is the challenge of communicating with children who often seem unwilling to communicate.
Research suggests that teenagers want to do most things about two years earlier than their parents think is appropriate. Everything from using makeup, owning a phone, curfews, going to the beach, shops, or movies, becomes a negotiation as adolescents assert their independence.
Parents must therefore work with their children in maintaining appropriate limits, while slowly releasing the reins and allowing their children the freedom they need to develop positively.
We cannot do this while we try to force them to do as they are told. This will only cause rebellion and push undesirable behaviour underground. And if we capitulate, we let them ride rough shod all over us.
Instead we should spend time understanding their quest for independence, and collaborate on ways that we can both be satisfied. Is there a way that they can get what they want in a way that you feel good about it? If they wish to be at a party, what time would they agree to be picked up? If they want to watch a movie, how can you both agree on what is appropriate to watch? Remember, though, that every time you make a concession, the ground will shift and negotiations will recommence for more freedom and independence.
Many teens try to avoid talking with their parents. They do not wish to discuss their lives. They don't want to be told what to do. Most parents find that the bulk of their teaching is done by the time their children reach the age of 12. From then on, their children seem resistant to parental influence and involvement.
As a parent, it is easy to feel rejected. We feel as though our children no longer love us, want us around, or even need us. We feel abused. We feel like our home is nothing more than a hotel where food and board are free and laundry is done. Our teens communicate through grunts (boys), tears (girls) or demands and frustrated angst.
Each family will find ways through this challenge, but it is important to remember that even though they do not show it, our teenagers still want us to be close, available, and a part of their lives. Their lives are confusing as the physical, cognitive, personality, and social changes that are part of adolescence hit them.
The following ideas may be helpful:
- Don't take it personally. They're going through lots of challenges and do need you.
- Spend less time instructing, and more time listening.
- Invite your children on walks, or out for ice-cream or coffee. These 'dates' can encourage talking.
- If limits need to be set, approach the topic in the same way you would if you were talking to a business colleague. Work together on solutions, rather than dictating. Describe your concerns and ask them what they perceive as a workable solution to satisfy both you and them.
- Allow your teen some leeway. If they make mistakes, be a safe place for them to come home to.
- Be flexible, be patient, be compassionate, be there.
Parents who find time to be with their teens, and be involved in their lives will find that, while still bumpy, their relationships with their children will grow and develop in positive ways through the turmoil of the adolescent years.
- This article was written for Kidspot by Justin Coulson, Ph. D. Justin is a relationships and parenting expert, author and father of five children. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at happyfamilies.com.au.
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