When you think about teenagers, what crosses your mind? Impulsive, moody, rebellious, stressed, hormonal, irrational? Those descriptors can be pretty accurate. Did creative, energetic, compassionate, funny, social, expressive, innovative, idealistic, or adventurous come to mind, too?
Adults often assume the worst when it comes to teenage behavior. It’s true, the teen years are not without struggle, and we have the neuroscience to explain what’s happening to the brain during this time which creates impulsivity, instability, insecurity, and intense emotions. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, self-control, and reasoning is famously elusive during adolescence.
Resources and conversations about working with and parenting teens are often problem-focused. Which is understandable, since the brain prioritizes negative information to keep us out of harm’s way and alive. However, in our relationships, a focus on perceived threats can result in interactions based on fear rather than connection and growth.
A Developmental Perspective
Parents are told to hang in there and wait out the teen years because eventually their teens will become adults and the conflicts of adolescence will disappear. I’ve said it myself. This can be a strategy to infuse hope during a particularly bleak week or month, but when overused, can undermine the importance of teenage troubles as they relate to becoming an effective adult. We don’t want to wish these critical years away.
When it comes time to move into a new developmental phase, we can’t simply decide to arrive. If we think of development like climbing a staircase, there’s some exertion needed to reach to the next step. In the process, muscles are built which enable you to keep climbing.
“Teens who have gone through challenges are often motivated to reach out to other hurting peers or advocating for social causes in the community.”
Adolescence is a time for teens to build the skills needed to be independent adults. Just like building muscle, skill building requires some pain and repetition. The growing pains of the brain aren’t manifest in an isolated Charlie-horse, but in arguments, pushing boundaries, and risk-taking, to name a few favorites.
What Are The “Muscles” Teens Are Building?
Through those growing pains, teens are establishing autonomy and their own voices, expressing complex emotions, exploring who they are and how they relate to others, testing out different identities and interests, developing a capacity for romantic connection, and learning how to think critically.
When they communicate a strong opinion, spend a lot of time with friends, express curiosity about sex, distance themselves from parents, and try three different styles a week, they are engaging in the normal developmental behavior.
This means that arguing is part of discovering their voices, self-absorption is part of identity development, and all the texting is part of learning how to handle complex social situations. It is a learning process for parents and teens; teens aren’t going to get things perfect and still need accountability through boundaries that keep them safe, hold them responsible for their actions, and promote respect for others. They will struggle and lose friends and maybe a phone or two.
Some days parenting a teen will feel like the hardest job you’ve ever had. Viewing the conflicts of the teen years as developmental milestones part of a greater learning process can bring some relief and compassion to the present moment. When your teen is begging for a later curfew, they are exactly where they need to be. These moments are important to your teen’s development while the brain is having one of its last major growth spurts.
When we view conflict as building developmental muscles, this creates an opportunity to take a supportive role in the learning process (choosing connection over fear).
Refining our problem-solving skills is a process of trial and error. While reasoning and higher-order thinking are gradually coming online for teens, they can benefit from non-directive prompts and open-ended questions that engage the part of the brain responsible for making decisions.
“Adolescence is a time for teens to build the skills needed to be independent adults. Just like building muscle, skill building requires some pain and repetition.”
The foundation for any problem-solving discussion is validation—letting your teen know you hear and value their experience, emotions, and perspective. Then you can move forward in asking questions that help teens identify the problem, generate solutions, evaluate possible outcomes and consequences, and decide on a course of action.
The Strengths of Teens
While the brain is still developing, it’s not all impulsivity and risky behavior. The unique developmental phase of adolescence has some perks, too. The intensity of emotions during adolescence can form powerful memories teens will cherish the rest of their lives.
We tend to remember the pop culture of our youth more vividly than in other seasons of life. Think of the songs, movies, and memories in your own teenage highlight real, or the summer you’ll never forget. Teens can be highly creative, as they explore and express these intense emotions—forming bands, writing poetry, creating art, and performing.
Because their identities are still taking shape, this is an opportune time to discover new passions and interests. Teens may form a strong connection with causes and ideas that will be a source of motivation as they pursue higher education and careers. Though they can be self-focused, their new emotional experiences help them to empathize and connect with others.
Teens who have gone through challenges are often motivated to reach out to other hurting peers or advocating for social causes in the community.
Next time you find yourself thinking how difficult today’s teens are, check the facts with this interactive tool from Vox. Turns out that teenagers born around the turn of the century are less likely to be using drugs and alcohol and having sex. You can check how your own birth year measures up to today’s teens and exhale. Some things aren’t getting worse.
Our perspective on the teen years doesn’t have to be all good or all bad; black-and-white thinking usually gets us stuck. A balance between setting boundaries in the face of impulsivity and instability, and celebrating developing skills and strengths is a sweet spot during the teen years. You can look forward to your teens future adult independence AND enjoy the teen years, which can be an exciting time to support their budding identity, dreams, and goals.