The stage of adolescence, between the ages of about 13 and 21, is perhaps the most difficult, challenging, confusing and dangerous. The adolescent is not only struggling with typical teenage challenges of identity but may also be wrestling with past needs which have not been fully satisfied, such as initiative, competence or even autonomy – developmental needs and “chores” from previous stages of development.
The primary task, the overriding need of the adolescent during the next decade, is the development of an individual identity. This is no small feat and actually may continue well into adulthood. Peers and peer groups are now far more important than parents or teachers. Ironically, the adolescent seeks an individual identity by striving for peer and peer group approval and affiliation. Belonging to a group or a set of like minded individuals is important. Sex and sexual relationships also become important. Adolescence is the time when most of us first experienced kissing, fondling and intercourse. Going steady and breaking up add to the mix of emotional turmoil so common in adolescence. Self absorption is common as is defiance of parents. The pressures that bear down on an adolescent can be significant and the task of defining an identity is not met without struggle.
Parents can help their adolescents meet the demands of their developmental needs by:
- Recognize that this stage of development requires the adolescent to make his or her own decisions. This is part of becoming an independent individual with a unique identity. Try to provide increasing opportunities for the adolescent to be on their own, responsible for their own actions. Make use of natural consequences for violations and natural rewards for compliance
- Honor the peer pressure that often regulates adolescent behavior. Again, let the adolescent make decisions and reap the consequences, positive or negative. This may be the most important point in helping the adolescent reach responsible adulthood. Although it may be a school of hard knocks, there is nothing like real experience to teach the way of the world.
- Make sure the household rules are established and firm. Also make sure the adolescent understands his or her limitations re: various freedoms such as bed time, weeknight and weekend curfew, homework, minimum grades, friends, activities, etc…Natural consequences can be set up for each. The adolescent needs to learn that his or her actions (or lack of actions) result in set pre-established consequences. Consequences can also be positive as in rewards for appropriate behavior. These parameters will change as the adolescent grows from early adolescence into late adolescence.
- Keep an eye open for signs of depression, anxiety, substance abuse or other behaviors which might indicate problems with meeting the demands of this development stage. If such signs are noted, be supportive and offer assistance and community resources but do not demand. Adolescents are notorious for self sabotage as a means of being independent and individualized. For some, a bad identity is better than no identity or a “used” identity. In our society, which has few ceremonial rites of passage, delinquent behavior often becomes that rite of passage. Being the “bad boy” or “loose girl” can become a badge of individuation and a way to gain identity.
- Try not to react emotionally to the adolescent’s behaviors. Simple, reasonable and rational responses based on enforceable natural consequences won’t escalate already tense situations.
- Be available for open, honest, heart-to-heart talks, but do not demand or require it. Adolescents are self centered and don’t necessarily care about how their parents are feeling. They can be very reluctant to self – disclose personal information. But, when the opportunity arises, such open, honest discussions can be quite rewarding.
- Maintain some kind of family activity such as camping, sports, playing board games, going out to dinner/movies etc…something which the adolescent can choose to join in on but may often refuse. This refusing family activity is part of his or her breaking away which is necessary and important.
- Help the adolescent move into later adolescence and adulthood by letting go of the past. Do not treat an adolescent as a child. Do not treat a 16 year old the same as a 13 year old. Treat the 18 year old as an adult. Teenagers value being treated as responsible individuals and generally they will live up to that expectation.,
- As a parent, seek guidance and assistance, read books, take classes. Communication and behavior management are topics which are interesting in and of themselves and also relevant to raising an adolescent. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” applies most appropriately to the adolescent and specifically to the needs of the adult/parent/caregiver in accessing the resources of the community to help ensure the adolescent is meeting the developmental challenges appropriately. This is especially true in our modern culture with an excessive amount of choices and diversions.
If an adolescent does not meet the development needs of acquiring a sense of identity, role confusion can give rise to fanaticism or repudiation. The fanatic zealously promotes rigid idealogic positions – kind of an over exaggerated identity. Such a person may join a cult or a gang. Repudiation is a rejection of society and its norms and such a position may give rise to criminal behavior or isolationism.
If all has gone reasonably well, the infant has grown up, reached adulthood and has become a responsible citizen in the larger world. But, that does not mean developmental needs have stopped. Higher needs will now beckon. Marriage, family, work, social contribution all becomes as important to the adult as initiative was to the toddler.