Adapt parenting to your teen's development

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen June 10, 2003
Original Title: The Adolescent Toolkit: Part 1

More than 80 per cent of adolescents do not experience stereotypical “hellion” lifestyle and behaviour. There is adolescent angst, but often there is an identifiable cause, such as parental strife, divorce, laissez-faire approaches to discipline, lack of parental involvement and support, lax enforcement of the rules of the house, poor sense of self and depressive illness. Sometimes there is no apparent explanation.

Some Citizen readers have asked about The Adolescent Toolkit. This open-source toolkit provides a foundation for discussion between parents and their teens by acting as a neutral bridging intermediary. It is a malleable framework designed for each family to use for their particular circumstance.

An understanding of adolescent developmental hurdles will help you get the most benefit from the toolkit. The responses to the kit’s questions and concepts depend on age. During the development cycle, adolescents migrate from more risky “what-were-you-thinking” behaviour to reasoned responses to problems.

Recent evidence indicates ongoing development of regions of the forebrain (responsible for abstract thought and reasoning) continues until about the age of sixteen.

Adolescents develop different areas of interest, life and educational goals, and a sense of self through the three stages of adolescence. A parent’s response and guidance strategies must adapt to keep apace with this development cycle:

In the early stage of adolescence (girls, 11 to 13, boys, 12 to 14 years of age), puberty’s rapid physical changes directly influence the teen’s concerns about body image and sexual changes in comparison to their peers. They have to adapt to new school environments and social structures. Given their stage of forebrain development, they are concrete thinkers, living for the moment with little belief in their own mortality. Their normal egocentricity leads then to think everyone is watching their every action and activity.

Their dependence upon their parents conflicts with?their desire to be independent. A battle rages within them between the safety of childhood and the need to enter the new adolescent world. Often parents lament, “Steve used to go out with us on family outings but now he wants to spend time with his friends. He can be like his old self at times and then be just impossible to deal with!”

– In the middle stage (girls, 13 to 16, boys, 14 to 17), there is consolidation of body image and sexual identity. Peer groups become their new family and safe haven and are a form of tribalism with all its rituals, markings and lingo. Peer pressure is the dominant behavioural influence. In their quest for independence, they test their limits and compare themselves to their friends. Paradoxically, they conform to their peer group in order to be more independent.

In the late stage (17 to independence), there is a crystallization of identity. Career choices and plans for the future become important. After graduation, friends head off in their own direction. Peer groups become less important as intimate one-on-one relationships develop. Leaving the tribe, they return to their family.

Adolescents face a myriad of challenges and experiences. Although dating and social interactions are an important element of adolescent development, for some it can become an all-consuming romanticized process. They can become stuck in a particular stage of development, progressing no further.

Drug use poses a similar threat. Some teens lose themselves within destructive relationships, ignoring friends and family. The actions and behaviour of their boyfriend/girlfriend may have a dominant influence upon their own moods and actions because of this singular focus.

So what do we do? Our children must inevitably break away from us. The challenge is to maintain a good relationship and avoiding festering conflicts. Teens need and want limits with well-defined consistent positive and negative consequences. Without these limits, they are adrift without direction. They usually test your rules. Nevertheless, rules that are reasonable, age-appropriate and consistently enforced have the best chance of guiding your teen through these times. They build upon this foundation on their path to adulthood.

Teens have many friends. Parents can not be their child’s friend. Inevitably, situations will arise when the parent who adopts the friendship role will have to switch hats. Friends do not tell friends when to go to bed. Your teen will let you know this in no uncertain terms.

If teens are willing to accept praise, then they must be prepared to face constructive criticism for negative or poor decisions. Expressions of angst, anger and sorrow from friends and family because of behaviour and actions are just as valid a response as elation and pride when they accomplish their goals. Welcome to the adult world.

[Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen]

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