What is Adolescence?
The term ‘adolescence’ refers to the developmental or transitional stage between childhood and adulthood. Dramatic changes occur from being a child to becoming an adult. Each child will begin adolescence at different ages; however, it is generally defined as the period between 10-19 years of age. Children will start showing signs of moving into adolescence anywhere between the ages of 10-13 years and coincides with the onset of puberty.
This stage can be an intense time for both parents and teenagers as they attempt to navigate life, their emotions and relationships during this transition. Teenagers experience a wide range of emotions including insecurity, self-consciousness, anger, embarrassment, confusion and even sadness, as they negotiate their transforming identity. These emotions can be experienced very intensely and may even come on and off quickly.
During adolescence, the desire to belong and ‘fit in’ with peers becomes even more heightened and important. Teenagers can be very self-conscience about their behaviour and the changes in their bodies as they compare themselves with their peers. This developmental stage can be a time of great stress and concern, so it is good for them to know that what they are going through is ‘normal’, and you can help by reassuring them of this. However, they may pay less attention to your advice as a parent and more attention to their peers’ behaviours and comments. It is likely that they will want more privacy, perhaps wanting the door closed on their bedroom and wanting you to knock before entering and/or having secrets and not wanting to share everything with you. They may also take risks without thinking things through rationally or about the consequences.
Parents Also Experience Adolescence
Just as teens experience adolescence, parents also experience the change in their child, which can be a difficult adjustment and one that takes courage and patience. As a parent, some days can seem like things are just how they’ve always been with the little boy or girl you’ve known for years. Whereas, other days, they can behave quite differently, leaving you confused and without any idea of how to approach them. It is helpful to know that these changes are confusing for your teenager as well.
During adolescence, a teenager will gradually detach themselves from their parents as they seek more independence. This process of separation will have already begun in smaller ways throughout their younger life, but during this stage, it occurs to a much greater extent. Sometimes this can leave parents confused and even upset, as their teenager pushes them away to create space, wanting to find their own way and their own sense of self.
Navigating the new relationship with your Adolescent
It is very common for teenagers to have the impression that parents just ‘don’t understand’ through this time. As each generation is different over time, it is worth acknowledging that your child will have a different experience of adolescence than you did and even your own parents. However, there may be some experiences that remind you of your own adolescence and this can be helpful as the more a parent can empathise and understand the struggles of their teenager, the more you can support them through this stage.
Just as it is important to set boundaries through childhood, it is also important to set and maintain appropriate boundaries through this new stage of their life. Parents can be tempted to ‘stay close’ with their son or daughter through becoming more of a ‘friend’ rather than their parent or to let them do what they want as it can feel easier than having an argument, or even be overly anxious and very strict. Each of these ways can be dangerous territory, as appropriate boundaries are important for healthy teenage development as well as giving some independence. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your child means setting limits and boundaries they require, even though they may not want it and may fight against it.
Consistency between parents is key during this time, even with separated parents (if possible), so speak with your partner and discuss what boundaries and consequences you both feel are appropriate. It can also be helpful to include your adolescent in discussing and making these limits and consequences because when they are part of the decision making they are often more likely to stick with them. Also, it is important to re-negotiate the boundaries over the course of these years as trust builds and their independent needs develop.
Some key points that will help you as a parent through this time:
Remember what it was like going through adolescence yourself– If you can remember the feelings that you went through, you may be able to empathise more with your teenager and therefore, help them navigate this time.
Discuss the physical and emotional changes – You can have these discussions prior to adolescence as it is helpful for children to know what they are likely to experience. Aim to discuss the physical and emotional changes that adolescence face when your child is between 10-12. This will ensure that as they begin to experience these changes, they are more aware of them, which will be reassuring. If your child is already an adolescent, these changes can still be discussed to ensure they understand the processes they are going through.
Give them space where needed – As mentioned, adolescence is a difficult time, and it is very helpful for teenagers to have the space they need to process their emotions. Give them this space and privacy, even if you do miss them around more, they will thank you for it later.
Have open and honest conversations – Be open and honest about how you are feeling in a calm and constructive way, and they will be more encouraged to be honest with you. Keep in mind that not everything needs to be an argument, so even though your teenager might express something in an angry or frustrated tone, or retaliate against a limit, it’s helpful to just listen and acknowledge what they have to say. Remember they are still learning to regulate their emotions so they can become escalated quickly. They may also have a good point, in which case, it can be great to simply understand and agree!
Maintain Boundaries & Set New Rules Where Needed – As your child transitions to a teenager, some rules will need to change. For example, bedtimes and time spent out with friends may be extended. However, there are some rules that are important to be maintained. For example, communicating in a respectful way, particularly to you as parents. Keep in mind though, it is very likely these boundaries will be tested, but calm and empathic reminders of these rules is very helpful for the healthy development of your teenager. But, it is also important not to be completely rigid around things, ‘choose your battles’ as well as when/how to bring things up and in what circumstances.
Help them to understand their emotions – Teenagers can often experience heightened and intense emotions that they may never have had before. It is helpful during this time to sit down and talk to them about their feelings, asking what they are experiencing and try and understand together why they might be feeling what they are, and work out solutions together. In addition, reassure them that they are ‘normal’ and explain their developmental stage.
If you would like support and/or guidance through this adolescent stage with your child, Karen Potter can assist. Karen specialises in adolescent behaviour from both a teenager and parent perspective. Karen can ensure that this challenging time is easier to navigate for all involved.