Adolescence is the stage of life that bridges the gap between childhood and adulthood. There are three main phases: early adolescence from age 10 to 13, middle adolescence from 14 to 17 and late adolescence from 18 to 21. In each of these phases, the brain and body undergo many changes which impact the way teens and young adults relate to the world.
Parenting a child while they go through this stage of life can be challenging. Understanding what they’re going through can help you to be the parental figure they need as they prepare for adulthood.
From around eight to 13 for girls and 10 to 15 for boys, children experience major growth spurts, and they continue until around age 15 for girls and 16 to 17 for boys. Girls develop breasts and boys may develop enlarged testicles. The growth of body hair begins, and other changes, like cracking voices, acne and menstruation, cause many teens and pre-teens to suddenly feel awkward in their own bodies. It’s common for them to demand increased privacy during this time.
At the same time, there are many changes taking place in the brain. Early adolescents tend to have black-and-white thinking — everything is awful or wonderful, perfect or completely ruined, and their ability to make complex decisions, consider choices and consequences and control impulses is a work-in-progress. Their frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for logic and reasoning, continues to develop until around age 25, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Adolescents are often uncertain about social expectations. Some people treat them more like adults, while others treat them more like children, causing confusion and stress. Moreover, adolescents go through puberty different rates, and comparing themselves to other adolescents can cause anxiety and embarrassment.
Combined with increased responsibilities, it’s normal for adolescents to be nostalgic for earlier life stages when they had fewer responsibilities. They may even engage in activities that seem immature to adults. However, it’s all part of the process of growing up. While you should offer guidance to your adolescent, you also shouldn’t expect them to become an adult overnight.
As adolescents mature, they must make their own decisions more and more without the influence of their parents. They're also increasingly required to interpret social cues and control their impulses. As the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology notes, however, they’re not always cognitively mature enough to be successful in those things.
Adolescents have to navigate everything from first jobs and increasingly difficult schoolwork to sex, romance and friendship. Additionally, many teens experience an increase in peer pressure. As they grow their social connections, they also have to keep up with what their friends are doing and may be faced with tough choices about whether to drink, try drugs or engage in sexual behavior.
The Search for Self
The exploration of identity can extend for a lifetime. During adolescence, many teens start establishing their priorities, creating norms and trying to figure out who they are. Adolescents commonly work through their search for identity by rebelling against authority, identifying with idols they want to be more like, joining cliques, engaging in taboo behaviors that make them feel more adult and using status symbols to express their identity.
Ironically, the tendency for teenagers to be hyper-concerned about what others think of them is actually a key part of the formation of personal identity, according to Scientific American. Even if they end up rebelling against what their peers think, understanding how they’re perceived first gives them the context they need to define themselves.
How Parents Can Support Adolescents
Helping a teen navigate through the sometimes choppy waters of adolescents isn’t always easy. However, providing support through the transition can strengthen the parent-child bond and help your adolescent become a confident and healthy adult.
The Cleveland Clinic recommends giving adolescents undivided attention when they want to speak. It can be tempting to dismiss teenage concerns; after all, they absolutely do tend to be dramatic. However, you should recognize that what may seem trivial to you is nonetheless often a true dilemma for your child, and they need support and compassion in facing it. That’s also why it’s important to avoid making judgements about your adolescent. While they will no doubt make dumb mistakes you wouldn’t have, you probably did the same compared to your parents. The way to help them is to provide the guidance and unconditional love necessary for your adolescent to forge their own identity and solve their own problems.
On a day-to-day basis, that means encouraging your adolescent to pursue their own interests, praising them when they’ve achieved something, sharing your thoughts openly while respecting theirs and letting them know that they discuss any topic with you. Adolescence is never easy, but with a bit of patience, compassion and guidance from parents, it can be a stepping stone to a full and satisfying life.