The teenage years can be an emotional assault course for all concerned. A gulf can grow between parents and their children during adolescence. One of the reasons many of us find it so hard is because it's a time of rapid physical development and deep emotional changes. These are exciting, but can also be confusing and uncomfortable for child and parent alike.
Rapid changes can occur physically and emotionally. There are also changes socially (attending secondary school, spending more time with peers) which can present with new challenges like using drugs/alcohol and sexual relationships.
Below we describe the various changes which happen
It is not surprising that, with the speed of these changes, some adolescents become very concerned about their appearance. They may feel worried, especially if these changes happen earlier or later than their peers. It’s important to remember that there’s a lot of difference in the ages at which these changes occur and adolescents need to be reassured about this.
Growth and development uses a lot of energy, and this may be why teenagers often seem to need so much sleep. Their getting-up late may be irritating, but it may well not be just laziness.
As well as growing taller, starting to shave or having periods, people of this age start to think and feel differently. They make close relationships outside the family, with friends of their own age. Relationships within the family also change. Parents become less important in their children's eyes as their life outside the family develops.
Real disagreements emerge for the first time as young people develop views of their own that are often not shared by their parents. As everybody knows, adolescents spend a lot of time in each other's company, or on the telephone or internet to each other. Although this can be irritating to parents, it is an important way of becoming more independent. These friendships are part of learning how to get on with other people and gaining a sense of identity that is distinct from that of the family. Clothes and appearance are a way of expressing solidarity with friends, although teenage children are still more likely to get their values from the family.
Parents often feel rejected, and in a sense they are. But this is often necessary for young people to develop their own identity. Even if you have rows and arguments, your children will usually think a lot of you. The rejections and conflicts are often not to do with your personalities, but simply with the fact that you are parents, from whom your children must become independent if they are to have their own life.
As they become more independent, young people want to try out new things, but often recognise that they have little experience to fall back on when things get difficult. This may produce rapid changes in self-confidence and behaviour - feeling very adult one minute, very young and inexperienced the next.
Being upset, feeling ill or lacking confidence can make them feel vulnerable. They may show this with sulky behaviour rather than obvious distress. Parents have to be pretty flexible to deal with all this, and may feel under considerable strain themselves.
Adolescence is the time when people first start in earnest to learn about the world and to find their place in it. This involves trying out new experiences, some of which may be risky or even dangerous.
It’s important to note that despite the popular myth of ‘difficult teenager’, the majority of adolescents do not have significant or severe difficulties.
It can be surprisingly upsetting when your child has their first serious relationship, or you find out that they have started to have sex. For the first time in your life together, you are not the most important person to them. The sense of shock will pass, but you may need a while to adjust to the new state of affairs.
Refusal to go to school can be due to:
Much less often, changes in behaviour and mood can mark the beginning of more serious psychiatric disorders. Although uncommon, bipolar disorder (manic depression) and schizophrenia may emerge for the first time during adolescence.
The Good News for parents
Adolescence has had a bad press. However, recent studies have shown that most teenagers actually like their parents and feel that they get on well with them. It is a time when the process of growing up can help people to make positive changes, and to put the problems of the past behind them.
It is not just a difficult stage, although it can feel very much like it at times. The anxiety experienced by parents is more than matched by the periods of uncertainty, turmoil and unhappiness experienced by the adolescent.
Difficult times come and go, but most adolescents don't develop serious problems. It's worth remembering this when things are difficult.
Parents may sometimes start to feel that they have failed. However, whatever may be said in the heat of the moment, they play a crucial part in their children's lives. Helping your children grow through adolescence can be profoundly satisfying.
You can't (and shouldn't) have rules for everything. While some issues will not be negotiable, there should be room for bargaining on others.
Sanctions, such as grounding or loss of pocket money, will only work if they are established in advance. Don't threaten these if you are not willing to carry them out.
Rewards for behaving well are just as important - probably more important, in fact.
Involve your children in making family rules - like all of us, they are more likely to stick to rules if they can see some logic to them and have helped to make them. If a teenager is reluctant to discuss rules for him or herself, they may still do this if they can see that it might be helpful for younger brothers or sisters. If they don't want to get involved, they will just have to put up with the rules you decide on.
Parents should pick their battles. A lot of things adolescents do are irritating (as you probably irritate them), but not all are worth an argument. It's usually better to spend time on praising good decisions or behaviour. Most annoying habits will burn themselves out once parents stop reacting to them.
Although it is now viewed as unhelpful, many people still occasionally smack younger children. If you do this with adolescent children:
Although they are becoming more independent, your children will still learn a lot about how to behave from you. If you don't want them to swear, don't swear yourself. If you don't want them to get drunk, don't get drunk yourself. If you don't want them to be violent, don't use violence yourself. If you want them to be kind and generous to other people ….. try to be like this yourself. “Do as I say, not as I do” just won't work.
Don't worry if your children aren't as grateful as you would like. It's great if they are, but they may not be until they have children of their own and realise how demanding it can be.
Adolescents who experience turmoil or distress for more than a few months - persistent depression, anxiety, serious eating disorders or difficult behaviour - generally require outside help. Counselling agencies may be suitable if things have not gone too far. They exist for young people and for parents and some contact addresses are listed below.