A Publication of WTVP

Any parent of a teenager knows that these years are the best of times and, indeed, the worst of times. Teenagers often appear to develop an allergy to their parents overnight—they change from the once loving and caring child to the unruly, seemingly uncaring young adult who, nonetheless, acts more like a child than his or her 10-year-old sister. Understanding this stage of development will not only make parents more effective, but will also assist in helping our children understand themselves and their often turbulent lives.

First of all, adolescence is the time when identity and intimacy are the key developmental issues. The teenagers’ constant struggle to discover who they are and how they fit in the world is often based on several factors, including:

  1. A strong sense of self. Adolescents need to feel secure in who they are and what they are capable of.
  2. Independence. Teens strive to be independent from their parents’ control and want the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of trust and less supervision. They want to make their own decisions, have their own friends, choose their own way, keep things to themselves and, at times, test the beliefs and values of their parents and their upbringing.
  3. Sexuality and relationships. This maze of anatomical, hormonal, emotional and relational changes can be quite confusing.
  4. Purpose and competency. Adolescents are searching for significance and meaning. They want to feel “competent” in all aspects of their life, and any sign of incompetence can be met with extreme emotional reactions. Teens can also begin to question key aspects of life, such as religion, family relationships and social/political arenas.

These factors profoundly influence adolescents as they face daily temptations and decisions that have the ability to shape their identities. “Should I cheat on this test? What will I do after school? What should I do with my life? Is it okay to experiment with drugs? What about church?” The resources, systems and community of persons upon which adolescents draw in order to answer their questions become a layer of their identity and have far greater influence than many people realize.

Secondly, this stage of development is so critical because it is during this phase that the human brain undergoes the second major developmental spurt since childhood. Researchers have shown that the Prefrontal Cortex, or “CEO” of the brain, is the last part to mature. This area of the brain is responsible for what are called executive functions—planning, setting priorities, organizing thoughts, suppressing impulses and weighing the consequences of one’s actions. Basically, it’s the part of the brain that says “I should do my homework, wash the dishes and take out the garbage—then I’ll turn on the television.” This is not meant to excuse certain behaviors in adolescents, but to help explain their seemingly irresponsible and uncharacteristic actions.

With all of this in mind, our focus now turns to the question of how to be more effective parents when it comes to teenagers. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Do NOT take things personally. Teenagers often say very hurtful things in a fit of anger. These statements are often meant to either voice their own internal pain and/or confusion, or to make a parent mad enough to leave them alone. By taking these comments personally, it will result in a parent responding quite harshly in self-defense or overreacting in general.
  2. Understanding your child’s point of view is harder than you think. Although we were all teenagers once, most parents cannot truly understand the pressures and dilemmas faced by teenagers in the 21st century. Likewise, teenagers cannot understand or grasp a parent’s point of view simply because they are not parents yet. This mutual “misunderstanding” often leads to misperceptions and arguments that can be avoided. One way to avoid such situations is by working to gain a better understanding of each other’s viewpoint, even if you do not necessarily agree. The way people view a particular situation will drive their behaviors, thus making their views “their reality.” Understanding their reality will allow for greater, more meaningful communication and a sense of mutual respect, and should decrease the amount of arguing and feelings of disconnection between parents and teenagers.
  3. Use positive reinforcement whenever possible. The best way to get a person to repeat a positive behavior is by reinforcing it whenever the behavior is demonstrated. If you ask your 16-year-old son to call before he leaves to drive home from work, be sure you let him know how much you appreciate the phone call. If punishment becomes necessary, consider punishing in a manner in which much of the corporate world does. If a person is late for work, the boss does not take his car away; he expects the time to be made up. If your daughter is 20 minutes late for curfew, she then owes you 20 minutes of time as you see fit. This type of punishment will prepare your child for real-life consequences and will actually make more sense to them.
  4. Lead by example. Children learn a majority of life’s lessons by watching how their parents respond to certain situations. Remember that your actions are being recorded in the minds of your children and can be replayed at any time.
  5. Remember that your role is parent, not friend. Parenting is not a popularity contest and often requires unpopular decisions. Most teenagers will not thank their parents for setting boundaries on their behalf, but, in time, your thanks will come in the form of their success and happiness throughout their adult lives. TPW