Understanding Teens: A Guide for Parents

stressed out girlBeing the parent of a teenager is a difficult job. Many parents find themselves wondering what happened to their sweet child.  The truth is adolescence is a time of great change.  As soon as you think you have a handle on things, it changes again.

Teens aren’t sure where or how they fit in. Peer influences and relationships during this time can cause you and your child stress. As a parent, being able to understand the difference between typical teenage behaviors and when your teen may be in “trouble” can be a challenge. As society and the world changes, it’s not enough to simply think back to when you were a teen.  For example, technological advances make everything available at the touch of a button. While this can be helpful, it makes it hard for your teen to unplug and get away from the “noise”.

To help sort some of this out, let’s take a brief look at teen development.

At a basic level, the teen years are very complex. The period of adolescence is characterized by changes in physical, physiological, and cognitive development.  The teen brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-twenties. The last area to develop is tied to sensation seeking, impulse control, and judgement.  This helps us understand that to some extent, all teens sometimes struggle with decision making, being impulsive, and the desire to try new things.

It is also helpful to know that there are three developmental tasks that teens navigate during the adolescent period:

  • Individuation – Developing their own personal identity and becoming their own unique person (not just their parent’s child). This is a time when relationships with friends and peers become very important.
  • Separation – Learning to think for themselves without adult influence. This can be difficult because teens want to make decisions for themselves and will rebel against what they are “told” by adults.
  • Autonomy – Right to self-govern. Beginning to challenge parental values and instead listening to friends and peers to see where and how they fit in.

Given these developmental tasks, it is no surprise that as a parent you might be confused. One of the most perplexing issues a parent may face is how to determine if their child is at risk for such behaviors as drug/alcohol abuse, school failure, violence, depression, self-destructive behavior or suicide.

So, what is typical teen behavior? How do you know if your teen is in trouble vs. “normal” growing up problems? The key is to pay close attention to your teen.  How frequently are they showing signs of distress?  Warning signs don’t usually show up at once.  You know your teen may be in trouble if the signs are lasting a couple of weeks and don’t go away. Also, consider how extreme is the behavior? If it is extreme or vastly different from their usual behavior then it might be a sign that your teen needs help.

 Here are some concerning behaviors to consider:

  • Decrease in enjoyment and time spent with friends and family
  • Significant decrease in school performance
  • Strong resistance to attending school or absenteeism
  • Problems with memory, attention, or concentration
  • Big changes in energy levels, eating, or sleeping patterns
  • Physical symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, etc.)
  • Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, or crying often
  • Frequent aggression, disobedience, or lashing out verbally
  • Excessive neglect of personal appearance or hygiene
  • Substance abuse
  • Dangerous or illegal thrill-seeking behavior
  • Is overly suspicious of others
  • Sees or hears things that others do not

22960006_sIt’s important to remember that no one sign means there is a problem. Examine the nature, intensity, severity and duration of a problem.

Although your child is growing up and changing rapidly, YOU are in the best position to know your child. You have raised your child and you know when they are acting out of character or when they are having difficulty. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to act on them.

The key to getting through the teen years starts with open and honest communication, helping your child to develop positive coping skills, and having a strong support system.

Watch and Listen:  Sometimes the most important part of communication is to listen. Keep a close eye on a teen who seems depressed, withdrawn, or highly agitated. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love.  If your teen confides in you, show that you take those concerns seriously. A fight with a friend might not seem like a big deal to you, but for a teen it can feel immense and all consuming. It’s important not to minimize or discount what your teen is going through. Even though your teenager may give you attitude when you ask him or her what’s wrong, asking on occasion lets him or her know that you care and that if he or she wants to talk, you are open to it.

Model Appropriate Coping Skills: Your teen is watching to see how you handle stress. Because children don’t have the coping skills that the typical adult has taken a lifetime to develop, helping children develop coping skills for dealing with stressors is an important strategy to help your teen.

Empower your teen to make healthy decisions. Don’t rescue or try to step in and “save the day”. Some struggle is normal and healthy. Support your teens by helping them focus on their individual strengths and talents, looking outside the box for new coping strategies, and recognizing what does work for your teen. Above all, remember that you may not be able to change all of the circumstances they face. You can empower them with coping skills and help them navigate what they face while sharpening your own coping skills at the same time!

19124949_sHelp Them Build a Strong Support System: It is important to realize that your teen has the same needs they did when they were a young child. When your teen was young, your role was to nurture and guide them. Now you might be finding that your relationship with your child is becoming more equal or they may seem as if they don’t want or need your support. This can be really hard for some parents.

Helping them identify outside supports that you trust will be crucial during this transition time. If you don’t help with this process, your teen will find their own support whether you think it is good or not. Help them identify people who love and care about them and who will provide them with the kind of support they need when they are struggling. There will be times your teen doesn’t feel comfortable talking with you, sometimes suggesting a more neutral person, such as another relative, a clergy member, a coach, or a school counselor/teacher can be effective.

This is also where Teen Lifeline fits as a Resource.

Part of what makes Teen Lifeline unique and incredibly successful is our Peer Counselors. We understand that when a teen wants to talk, they are more comfortable talking to a friend or peer instead of an adult. Teen Lifeline can help bridge the gap.  Part of our philosophy is built on not giving advice and instead empowering teens to help other teens make healthy decisions together.

If you or your teen need to talk to someone about how to get help or if your teen is in a crisis situation, please call Teen Lifeline, 602-248-8336. You and your teen are not alone.