Untangling Adolescent Development: When They're Just Normal Teens, and When to Worry
Parenting an adolescent is hard work. Anyone who’s done it can tell you that. Actually, anyone who’s been a teenager can probably tell you that, because being an adolescent is hard work. What, with the mood swings, the hormonal imbalances, the identity anxieties, and the seductive pull of potentially bad decisions around every corner, there’s an awful lot going on during those years for everyone involved!
And we parents worry about our teens when things don’t seem to be quite right. We worry about their friends. We worry about their grades. We worry about how much sleep they’re getting. We worry about their choices. And, of course, we worry about their future. That’s all part of the gig.
Sometimes, we end up worrying about stuff that turns out to be absolutely normal. We might spend weeks stressed out about it, reading articles online and talking with friends, only to find out later that all kids do that thing we were worried about, and that our kid is just going through something, that it’s another storm that we parents just have to weather. Meanwhile, we are all aware that there are behaviors that kids can exhibit that point to larger problems, issues that might suggest that there’s a deeper, more serious issue that needs to be addressed.
How do we know the difference?! We don’t want to miss something serious, but we also don’t want to be overreacting to every seemingly weird thing the kid does.
In her book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, psychologist Lisa Darmour has identified seven tasks that adolescents are all trying to work through in order to reach adulthood. She says that adolescence is a period characterized by rapid and uneven development. When one or more of these tasks get interrupted, it may suggest that this is a child who needs a little more attention, and could possibly use some formal intervention. Understanding these seven tasks can help parents know what kids are going through, to know when kids are being normal and need our support as they do their job of becoming an adult, and to know when it really is time to worry.
For the next few months, I will be writing an article describing each one of these tasks; what a child looks like as they are moving through the tasks; why the task is so important; and what kinds of behaviors might suggest that a child is really struggling with a task, and what a parent might need to do about it.
TASK 1: Parting with Childhood
One of the primary functions of adolescence is to begin to move away from childhood and into a more adult-oriented way of approaching the world around them. This is often a hard one for parents, since it means that kids will begin to separate from their parents and start to want to make their own decisions in the world like an adult, but still expect some of the privileges of being a kid. As a result, teens will want their relationship with their parents to be more utilitarian, for parents to be there when they need something, and otherwise to be left to figure things out on their own.
My 17 year old daughter came home from school a few months ago and clearly was stressed about something. She stormed through the door, her brow furled and her jaw clenched as she sat down at the dining room table, pulled out her math notebook and started furiously writing. I was making dinner at the time, and when I saw her she looked like she might need a hand with something. But when I gently asked her what was wrong and if I could do anything to help, she just glanced at me with a look of annoyance and tersely said, “I’m fine.” I decided that she hadn’t been blatantly rude to me, but that tone was on the edge of abrasive. I gave it a pass, but thought I’d just pay attention and see what might happen next. Within an hour, her phone buzzed, and after glancing at it for a moment, she got up and, as if nothing had happened earlier, bopped in the kitchen in a great mood and sweetly asked me, “Hey, Dad, can I take the car to Tasty Twist to meet my friends?”
That’s a classic example that many parents can relate to. My daughter had some kind of thing she was stressed out about, and in the past if I had asked her what was wrong, she would have likely given me some information about her upset. And then, I would have been able to dole out some awesome dad advice or helped her sort out what she needed to sort out. But now, all of the sudden, she didn’t want that from me. She was upset about something, but didn’t want my input… at least at this point. But, an hour later, what she did want from me was permission to use the car. So, when being relational with me benefited what she wanted in a moment, she shifted her tone and asked me if she could go with her friends to get ice cream. Kids sorting this task out want less advice or fixing from their parents, and they want more freedom to try things on their own. But they may also appear demanding and self-centered when they expect their parents to provide them with what they need to
As you might imagine, there’s a fair amount of push-pull in this arena, and this comes from how much the roles of both parent and child are shifting during this time. Kids are shifting from being dependent on their parents for practically everything, to beginning to take charge of their own decisions and accept the consequences of those decisions. Parents are shifting from being the problem solvers for their children, to being a “soft place to land” if the world gets too tough or they make some mistakes out there. Our role moves from doing it for our kids, to doing with with them, to standing by them while they do it, and finally letting them do it alone. It’s hard to watch our kids make some of these decisions when it’s so easy to see how it could be done better, more efficiently, or with fewer mistakes. But when our kids push back and tell us that they don’t want our help, it’s really not them being unappreciative of our help; it’s them trying to figure out how to do this stuff on their own.
When to worry:
A teen’s behavior during this task is expected to be all over the map, with them making demands to solve their own problems one minute, and then switching to wanting their mom to make them a sandwich the next because they’ve had such a hard day. That’s normal (annoying, but normal).
But, when a teen is very childlike and reluctant to grow up; or if they are too adult-like and want nothing to do with being a kid (the pseudo-adult), that may be a sign of a more significant problem.
For example, a child that doesn’t want to grow up might be one who is outwardly a great kid -- helpful, engaged with his parents, never curses, doesn’t seem interested in dating or sex. While this could just mean that this kid is developing slowly, it might also be a sign that they are terrified of their impulses to be defiant, to be curious about sex, to be rejecting of their parents, or to make their own decisions. That teen might actively avoid spending time with friends who might be engaged in somewhat inappropriate, but developmentally normal, behavior because it scares them that they might want to do this, too, but that in doing so they might get in trouble, or they might lose their parents’ love. This could become a source of considerable anxiety for a child, who then may desperately cling to childish behaviors and roles in an attempt to avoid the consequences of growing up, which could impact their social and emotional development.
The other side of this concern is the child that wants nothing to do with childhood. These are kids who reject all help from adults, and may even see adults as in their way of getting what they want. They may have very high and unrealistic expectations for themselves, and feel that they should be able to do things on their own and never seek help. They may also be kids who actively engage in very adult-like behavior before they are ready, such as having sexual relationships with much older people or constantly dressing in very provocative ways that seems very different from their peers.
If you are concerned about your teen and would like to have a conversation with someone to sort out whether your teen is engaging in behaviors that you need to worry about, feel free to contact MSU’s Employee Assistance Program. You can set up an appointment to talk with a licensed counselor about your concerns, who will be able to help you sort out whether or not this is something to worry about, and if so what options you have to get your child the help that they need. Contact MSU’s EAP at 517-355-4506, or email@example.com.