This blog has been a difficult one to write I have swayed backwards and forwards thinking which angle should I come from, should I think about identity, shall I start with anxiety, or anger, or the adolescents need to ‘act out’ often in quite destructive ways and then it struck me that my mind somewhat reflected the 14-17 year old’s task as they struggle with the task of moving from a dependant in a small family unit to an individual in a large world, with many choices. I have felt for some time that as well as thinking about the brain changes which creates a backdrop for the infants and adolescents landscape I also need to include in my blog something about social and emotional changes For the adolescent in these middle years social and emotional changes are related to the task of leaving the family and taking your place in the world.
During these middle years the adolescent is struggling with trying to master becoming an adult. To do this they must move from
- A child’s view and relationship with the world to an adult’s view and relationship.
- A sense of self which is more stable, coherent and organised
- A self-preoccupied latency (5-11 years) where facts will be seen from your own point of view to an adult view in which ideas can be thought about abstractly and include an interest and true concern for the viewpoints, ideas, thoughts, feelings and interests of others.
- A non- sexual to a sexual being.
To do this the adolescence must manage separation, loss, establishing new relationships of their own, including sexual relationships, choice and independence. It is a big task which can stir up huge amounts of anxiety in the teenager and frequently parents. If the young person has a fundamental difficulty managing their anxious and disturbing feelings then they are more likely to struggle with this adolescent task. They may do this in a number of ways: Firstly they may turn to the drama and excitement of drugs, alcohol or crime and I believe for some young people self-harm and suicidal threats rather than stick with the anxiety and distress of painful and difficult feelings or secondly they may miss the anxiety of the growing up stage and decide they are already grown up, embarking immediately on an exclusive sexual relationship, and their version of adult dress, including for girls full make up. Thirdly they may try and decide it is not happening, clinging to their childhood and refusing to take a step into adolescence.
In moderation this is essential as the adolescent explores who am I, where do I belong, what do I believe, what is important to me. They may metaphorically need to try on ‘different sets of clothes to see which one fits’ and need to be allowed to experiment. However parents also need to keep a watching brief as these difficulties can lead to more concerning way of managing adolescent anxieties, leading to behaviour which is much more worrying and becomes ultimately self-destructive.
The ability to manage the anxiety of this time depends on many factors. These factors include personality, constitution and the parenting received in infancy. If you stop for a moment and think about what a teenager has to do. They have to move from having feelings managed by someone else, mum, dad, grandparents and teachers to managing feelings themselves. The model they have for managing and thinking about feelings will be what they turn to. For example if feelings in the family have always been avoided or distracted away from this will be the only model the young person has. They may then find ways of avoiding the huge anxieties and frustrations of growing up by turning to the distraction of excitement, alcohol, drugs and maybe lawbreaking or self – harm. It also has an added bonus of leaving all the anxiety of the task with adults, usually parents, who are left with the worry and fear that their child is about to ruin their life.
Finally I am going to think about identity. Many psychoanalytic writers feel the purpose of adolescence is to establish identity as there is a shift from a child who mainly associates their identity as being in a family to the teenager who is struggling to find their identity as an individual. These middle years of adolescence are when the teenager is thinking who am I going to be when I become an adult – will I have my own family? Will I get a job? What kind of adult am I going to be? The changes to the adolescent brain mean that the adolescent can suddenly understand the world from a new and different point of view which can take into account the experience, thoughts and ideas of others. Suddenly you will see your child begin to take an interest in the world, in politics, in social justice and causes.
Watching your child grow into adolescence can also be disturbing to parents especially if they also had a difficult adolescence. Just the physical growth and sexual development can make you feel uncertain as to how to respond to them. Their increasing physical prowess will often outstrip their parents during this middle period of adolescence and increasing intellectual development with an ability to present logical argument as to why going to this party or having that new phone is a good idea, can throw parents off guard. Many adolescents have also perfected the art of contempt and huffiness which can leave you as a parent feeling uncomfortable and undermined. If you are a parent who does not like conflict or does not like to be disliked or thought ridiculous then you are going to have to find a strong backbone from somewhere. You will need it and your adolescent will need you to have it. If your teenager has the ability to reduce you to tears they are going to find this very disturbing. If you fold at the slightest whiff of a fight they are going to feel like they can get away with anything. You have to remember that there will be a part of your child who is just as terrified and disturbed at their new found powers and abilities as you are and good firm boundaries can be a welcome relief.
What to do as the parent of an adolescent?
- Teenagers would like to think they no longer need their parents; they often want to think they can do it all on their own. Don’t be fooled they do need you! It is sometimes helpful to remember that your toddler felt exactly the same; just because your child can now do it physically it does not mean they can do it emotionally.
- Do not let go of boundaries and limits all in one go, do it gradually, but do let go of them.
- Keep talking (not shouting) and listening to your child, even if they ignore you or mumble something back you can hardly hear. Keep offering to do the things with them that you know they like, make space for them to tell you things, car journeys with just them can be a great place to talk. If you have a teenage daughter, book a session with her at the local gym, or Spa. If a son, go to the football with him.
- ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. If they want you to drop them 2 streets away from the school gates or if they decide they will come in at 9.10pm rather than exactly on 9pm just let it go. Just a glance at the clock when they appear can let them know you have clocked their protest without any need for a full blown battle.
- Pick your battles; do not make it a battle for ultimate power and control. Think! The battle that is most important is one about real concerns – their safety, their future.
- Be there for them. They really do still need you. Try not to hang onto the fury that they were rude to you one minute to then be faced with a teenager who is sobbing and wants and needs to talk. They may have been rude because something was really upsetting them.
- I am sorry to say this but this is when early parenting in infancy and toddlerhood will show. If those early emotional milestones (More in a future blog) have been worked through successfully then adolescence can be relatively calm and manageable if not then you are probably in for a turbulent time.
- Sometimes it can be more difficult when parents and their children have been very close.
- If you as parent are the one preoccupied with a fear for your teenagers future when they seem to be not at all worried, something is very wrong – get help and quickly.
When to get help?
- If you are really struggling to make sense of your adolescent and/or losing your temper regularly.
- Your adolescent has become nearly paralysed or very unhappy by the changes they are going through.
- Mood swings are a part of adolescence but if they are very distressed by these or are becoming increasingly low in mood then it is time to get help.
- They are self – harming or expressing suicidal thoughts.
- They are losing interest in their future, eg. school work.
- There is increasing evidence that if a child starts their adolescence significantly earlier that their peers then they will find their adolescence more of a struggle.
Please get help from someone who has a training and experience of working with children and adolescents. Working with adolescents is not the same as working with adults. Practitioners who have either a clinical psychology qualification or are an ACP registered psychotherapist will both have had an in depth training in working with children and young people and with parents.