Adolescence is an adventure for teens and the adults who love them – a wonderful, messy, confusing, beautiful, crazy adventure. Hormones are commonly blamed for the vast ups and downs of adolescence, but though there are hormonal changes, the changes in teens are primarily because of changes in the brain. Understanding these changes will help make the path through adolescence easier for everyone.
Adolescence is a time a discovery. Teens will discover fears, self-doubt and heartache they’ve never known before. They will discover creativity, strength and courage they never knew they had. They will find a depth of emotion they never thought possible and they will find within themselves the richness of their capacity to connect, a mind that is beautiful, bold, independent and curious and the power of their own presence and voice. They will explore and challenge their view of the world and their place in it.
All of this is normal – so normal that pushing against it will be the surest way to unravel your connection with your teen. It will lead to secrecy, arguing, disrespect and feelings of isolation. You’ll be just another one who ‘doesn’t get it’ and that’s the last thing they need. What they need more than anything is the connection with you, even if they don’t let you know it. They need your wisdom, your guidance and your loving, open presence when the world disappoints them, which at times, it will. Here are some ways to strengthen that connection:
Understand what’s driving them.
Their behaviour, as baffling and as messy as it might be sometimes, is being driven by the changes in their brain, not by their desire to be difficult. They are being rolled around by impulse and instinct and they don’t want to be disconnected from you, even though that’s sometimes where things end up. From ages 12-24, the brain is developing faster than ever before. There are for main changes that are driven by the way their brain grows through adolescence:
• greater emotional intensity (they might swing between being moody, reactive or impulsive and being warm, loving, emotionally generous and wonderful to be with);
• the need for connection and relationship (they’ll be driven to form new and deeper connections with others – friendships will become a priority),
• the need for a novel ‘high’ (they will be more driven to seek out new experiences and they will find creative, courageous ways of experiencing life. The negative though is that they might open themselves up to dangerous situations and risky behaviour).
• the need for creative exploration (they’ll have a greater capacity for creative thinking and abstract reasoning, they might be funnier and more creative and more challenging of the status quo, they will experiment with new ways of seeing and being in the world).
All of these behaviours are completely normal and it’s important to remember this, because it can be daunting when you’re standing by and watching them unfold. They’ll do things that are unfamiliar to you and unexpected. If you can remember what’s driving your teen, it will be easier to give them the space to do what they need to do while being available for them when they need you – it can make all the difference to them and to you.
Understand that separating from you is a need, not a want.
One of the most important developmental goals for adolescents is to separate from their parents and to establish their own identity. This isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s so important. Sometimes, for parents who have always felt close to their children, it will be difficult not to take the separation personally. In fact, the closer they have been to you, the more they might have to push against you to find the edges of themselves. This is normal, and completely okay. Keep being a steady, strong, loving presence and wait for them to find their way back to you, which they will.
Ask what, not why.
Everything we do is to meet a need and teens are no different. The need they are meeting is always a valid one, even if they have chosen a spectacularly messy way to meet it. If you can understand the need they’re meeting, even their most baffling behaviour will start to make sense. The need won’t always be easy to identify, by you’ll have more chance of uncovering it if you start by asking ‘what’ rather than ‘why’. ‘Why’ will probably give you an ‘I don’t know’ – because they probably don’t even know themselves. Instead, ask (or look for): What happens to them or for them when they do what they do? What stops or goes away when they do what they do? What do they need? What can you do to help them?
Respect their privacy.
Resist the temptation to check their social media or do anything else that they might see as an invasion of their privacy. One of the biggest things they want from you is trust and freedom. Let them know that they can have both, but in return they have to show you that they can be trusted with that freedom. They’ll know that your trust is a big thing for them to lose, so that in itself will work to keep them on track. They’ll be experimenting with self-disclosure, but perhaps not with you. Respect that part of their job is to separate from you and find their own identity so don’t chase them to talk if they don’t want to. Be available, and open and ready for them when and if they need you – it will be on their terms, and that’s okay.
Support their friendships.
Support their friendships. If you don’t like who they’re spending time with, gently guide them and offer your advice when they ask for it but be careful giving too much of it when it’s not asked for. Friendships are a priority remember, so the more you push against their friends, the harder they’ll push against you in protection of them.
Give them space to experiment.
The more space and support you can give them to experiment safely, the less need they’ll have to put themselves at risk. Of course, they may still be driven towards risky behaviour anyway, in which case there won’t be much you can do except talk to them about it. Do your best to support them in finding a safer outlet, but understand that if you suggest croquet, you’re probably going to lose them. The changes in the reward circuitry of the brain that happens during adolescence will mean they’ll be hungry for the high that risk and new things can bring, but novelty doesn’t always have to be risky. There are plenty of things they might try to experience the world in a new way or themselves in a new way. This might come through sport, groups, clubs, hobbies, or reaching new heights in something they’ve been doing for a while. Whatever it is, understand their need to try new things and experiment with themselves and world, and give them the space to do that. The best way to do that is to hold back from judging, criticising or trying to change them.
What they don’t get from you …
What they don’t get from you, they’ll look to find somewhere else. Of course, there will always be some things you just can’t give them that they will seek somewhere else anyway. Know that you won’t be able to give them everything they need – and that’s okay. The main things they’ll be looking for are approval and validation and confirmation that they’re doing okay. Give them plenty of everything. Even if they act like it doesn’t mean anything to them – it does. Praise them, validate them (‘I get why that’s important to you’), and give them truckloads of approval (even if you don’t approve of their behaviour, always let them know you approve of them.
Let them feel what they’re feeling.
Give them the space to feel what their feeling, even if it’s intense. If it’s disrespectful, challenging or angry hold firm and let it wash over you. Don’t even try to reason with them when their in the thick of high emotion. You won’t be heard and it will likely just disconnect you. Walk away until it has passed and then discuss it with them. Their brain is changing – they’re being steered by impulse and instinct and they’re being barrelled by deep, intense emotions. It can be so difficult to walk away when they’re yelling or arguing with you as though it’s for their survival (trust me, I know!), but understand what’s happening inside the and know that they’re trying to deal with it as best they can. This doesn’t mean you don’t have boundaries with them – absolutely you need boundaries, around what they do and the way they treat you – just remember to pick your battles and your timing, and know that you’ll always have more influence if you have a connection with them first. There’s a lot during adolescence you can’t control but one thing you can control is what you’re able to do to maintain a connection with them.
Listen to them.
Listen to them and validate their opinion if they push against the status quo. A big part of adolescence is questioning what they believe about themselves, their world and their position in it. It’s a healthy and important part of their creative exploration, and what they need to do to work out who they are and where they fit in. Let them challenge your views and the way you’ve always done things – it’s part of establishing themselves as separate to you. Even if you don’t agree with them, validate them by letting them know that you understand.
Make it okay for them to get it wrong.
They’ll be having to make adult decisions with long before they have their adult mind. They will make mistakes and so will you – it’s an unavoidable part of growth. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps them make decisions and solve problems – and the kicker is that it’s the last to mature. Until that happens, a more instinctive part of the brain – the amygdala – will have a heavy hand in their impulse control and decision-making. The amygdala is primitive, instinctive, reactive and geared towards quick action without taking the time for a lot of thought. This is why when it comes to teen behaviour, a lot of it won’t make any sense at all – they will be acting more from instinct than anything – as will their friends, and as you were at their age. Keep this in mind when they do those things that baffle you. At times they will baffle them too.
Teens can be the funniest humans on the planet. Embracing and sharing their sense of humour is a wonderful way to connect. Ask them to show you something funny from YouTube or social media – they’ll have plenty. If they’re reluctant to show you, wait until they do something that lands them in a bit of trouble with you – you probably won’t need to wait long – and let them know that the consequence is that they have to find you something to laugh at to bring things back to good.
Involve them in problem solving.
They’re starting to explore new ways of looking at things and thinking about things. They’ll be creative, brave and will show you unexpected paths. You will be surprised at what they can teach you.
Take the shame away.
Adolescence is a time when shame seems to tag along like it has nowhere else to be. There are plenty of places it can come from:
• social (‘People don’t really like me.’ ‘I’m not as popular as other people.’);
• self-image (‘I hate my body/eyes/hair/the way I breathe.’ ‘I’m not good at anything.’);
• self-identity (‘I’m the only one who doesn’t have it figured out.’ ‘I don’t know where I fit in.’);
• school (‘I’m not smart enough.’ ‘I don’t understand the work.’) ;
• family (‘I’m not like them.’ ‘I disappoint them.’)
The more you can build them up, point out the great things about them and let them know they’re doing absolutely fine, the more protected they’ll be from the shame that could hurt them.
They might not always let you know, but what you think of them really matters plays a huge role in buffering them from the shame that could potentially break them.
And whatever you do – don’t take away their social media.
When it comes to teens and social media, have limits if you want to, put boundaries around it if you need to, but don’t take it away completely. It’s their lifeline to the world – don’t cut off their oxygen supply.
The changes in behaviour and personality during adolescence are normal, healthy and important. By understanding the need they’re meeting or the reasons they’re doing what they’re doing, it’s easier to support them in finding a better way to meet the need. Otherwise, it will make it easier for you to allow yourself an almighty deep breath while you give them the time and space to do what they need to do by themselves.
Adolescence is a time of discovery, growth and learning – for both of you. The more we can support them through the changes as they unfold, without judgement, criticism or any attempts to push against them, the more they will be open to our direction, guidance and influence.