by Vicki S. Davey, M.A., M.Ed.
I think the only way a teen can safely get through the challenging years of adolescence is by the grace of God, and with a good support system. We, as counselors and family therapists, can team up with parents to be part of that support system and also offer support to them in getting through this difficult time with their teens. We can help parents understand why their children are behaving in such contrasting ways -- from the sweet children they were as they were growing up to the “crazy” adolescent they became just a minute ago. Radical mood swings, the struggle for independence, and peer pressure can turn our teenagers into people their own parents don’t know or recognize -- and this can be a hurtful and confusing time for everyone.
It is physiologically harder for adolescents to make responsible decisions because not only are their bodies changing, but their brains are actually changing too -- neuro-connections are being refined along with a rapid growth of myelin (Feldman, R. 2011, p.358). Pairing those changes with flaring hormones makes it even harder for teens to reason and make responsible choices when something enticing comes along -- especially when you throw in lack of impulse control that is inherent to teenagers in general.
Adolescents cannot see beyond the immediate desire to be popular, to have fun, and to live in the moment. The future doesn’t mean a lot when you’re having fun, and choices can be very challenging for a teen who knows what is right, but has that other part tugging on them – that part we call desire. Trying to sort out who they are socially, dealing with peer pressure, and choices they face each day, makes teens completely vulnerable at this time in their lives. Wanting to fit in and be popular is such a draw for kids at this crucial time that turning down an adventure with their peers could be a deal-breaker – in their minds anyway. Everyone has an inherent wish to fit in and be popular, and sometimes that can throw everything else out the window when it comes to the values their parents have (hopefully) raised them with (Feldman, R. 2011).
Raging hormones, the desire for autonomy, the pull of peer pressure, and the joy of being a kid, along with the adrenaline rush of doing something risky can be the perfect recipe for disaster at this developmental stage of life. Additionally, if an adolescent has a genetic predisposition for addiction, their challenges will be far greater. Research demonstrates that as adolescents are trying to establish their personal and social identities through reference groups, teens with a strong foundation of faith, a belief system, or positive (and supervised) club/team connections are less likely to be drawn into conformity through peer pressure, and are in a much better place to make decisions as far as cliques and crowds go (Feldman, R. 2011, pp.364-65, 395, 400).
I have worked with adolescents from all walks of life and unique situations -- children of divorce or diverse family make-up; those battling eating disorders, self-injurious behaviors, and negative self-images; those who are bullied, or who are the bully; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists; school drop-outs or hard-working students on the path to college; and, those who have been in and out of the juvenile system or jail, living in therapeutic or correctional situations, or even kids who are living on the streets. As their teacher, counselor, or case manager, the one common denominator in their lives that has been obvious to me is that they all yearn to be accepted and loved. What we can do for them is to let them know that we won’t judge them, that we are there for them and accept them for who they are and where they are in their life, and that we will listen and offer support when they are ready to accept it (Feldman, R. 2011, pp. 328-329, 332-338, 356-358, 373).
Rebelliousness is another inherent trait during the adolescent stage of life, and although it is a challenge for us to deal with (as the parents and authority figures who are being rebelled against), it is actually a "good" thing because it demonstrates that your children are developing their own identity. I will address this issue further, along with tips for healthy communication, building respect, and setting boundaries and expectations with your kids in upcoming articles.
If you are a parent who is concerned about your teenager, “tween” or pre-teen, you are not alone. There are a lot of resources available to you through community centers, churches, temples or synagogues, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, Outreach programs, and through your local schools. For more serious situations, you may need to consider residential treatment programs or camps that focus on the specific issues your child or children are experiencing.
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to reach out and ask for support or help – there are trained professionals waiting for you to walk through their doors so they can get started helping you and your children through this difficult time in your lives.
Please feel free to write and ask me questions, offer comments, and provide feedback. If you have trouble finding a program, be sure to reach out and I will do my best to help you find a connection.
I’d like to give special thanks to my consultants and mentors, Liv Pertzoff, LICSW, and Deborah Pinkston, Ph.D.
Thanks for reading.
Feldman, R.S. (2011). Development across the lifespan. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Prentice Hall.