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Navigating Adolescents: The Paradox

By Connie Meyerowitz, LCSW-C

How many adults do you know that, if given the choice, would voluntarily return to high school and become a teenager again? Ask yourself this question before reading on. My guess is your answer mirrors the sentiments of many whom I’ve asked this question to: a resounding NO WAY! What about adolescence is so challenging that we are happy to be past it?

According to Eric Erikson (1902 – 1994), one of the founders of modern day psychology, the age of adolescence is the period of finding one’s identity. An adolescent is looking inward and outward to figure out who and what she identifies with, what she wants to make a part of herself, what she will reject and how that may affect the future. Values, morals, and rules are no longer givens. An adolescent is asking her own questions, and searching for the answers that resonate with her. She is testing the boundaries and limits of those in authority to help her identify her own boundaries and limits. She is not willing to take what is spoon-fed to her for fear that it might taint the person she wishes to become. She is looking to her peers for approval and acceptance so that she can have the courage to accept herself. Finding one’s identity is not an easy process.

To compound this challenge, according to research compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health, the brain of an adolescent is not yet fully developed into that of an adult brain. Brain scans have shown an increase in gray matter in early adolescence as compared to late childhood. This gray matter indicates a regression in brain maturity. The gray matter increase, researchers say, is the reason why teenagers take greater risks, have poor impulse control, and fail to plan responsibly. The process of brain development is not fully complete until one’s early 20s.

To add one more challenge to the mix, the adolescent body is undergoing many changes as it enters puberty. Through the release of hormones, children go through a tremendous growth spurt in a relatively short amount of time. Adolescents gain weight, grow taller, and their masculinity/femininity becomes much more pronounced. These rapid changes as well as hormone increases lend to mood swings and feelings of discomfort and insecurity in one’s own skin. This only adds more stress and uncertainty to the life of a teenager.

At baseline, the reality of adolescence is difficult to navigate, but when there are additional stressors present in the child’s life, the challenges of adolescence are only compounded. If a child is experiencing difficulty with bullying, academic performance, medical issues, instability at home, or any other challenge, it will make the search for one’s identity that much more tough.

Parents, if you are constantly asking yourself “Where has my sweet child gone?” and are puzzled by the idea that no matter what you do, it is “wrong” in the eyes of your teenage child, you are not alone. For many generations parents have been asking themselves the same question. Your parents probably scratched their heads, and were puzzled by you as a teenager as well!

However, there is hope – believe it or not, you can make the teen years tolerable, and even enjoyable for both you and your child. Just the awareness of what your child is going through during this time in their life, psychologically and physiologically, allows you to put things into context and hopefully become more accepting. Below are a few more tips that may be helpful in creating a harmonious relationship with your teen.

1) Show them that you trust them. Give them freedom to make decisions they are capable of.

2) Listen to them when they want to talk. Show you’re engaged and want to hear what they have to say.

3) Value their opinions and thoughts. Let them see that what they think is important to you.

4) Give them space. If you were always a present parent, they know you are there for them, when they are ready they will seek you out.

5) Set appropriate limits and boundaries. As much as teens want freedom, they need to know that someone cares about their safety, even if they “hate” you for it.

6) Show love, affection, and acceptance. Even though they push you away, they need constant reminders that they are loved and accepted by you, no matter what.

While parenting an adolescent is challenging, it can also be rewarding. There will likely never be another time of such great influence and imprint on your child. Your teen is looking for answers; she is a blank slate waiting to be filled. She is looking for positive influence and role models. With the right guidance she can make drastic, everlasting positive changes in her life. These years can be the greatest gift for your child when channeled correctly.

I wish you much success on this journey!

About the author
Connie Meyerowitz, MSW, LCSW-C is a clinical social worker.

Learn more about her HERE [1]; Schedule a consultation HERE [2]