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© 2017 John DeMarco M.Ed., LPC. All rights reserved.

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You know you are the parent of a teenager when you feel like you are always wearing a sign on your back that says, “Debate me.” Another way to know is when your child’s bedroom has become the sock drawer.


All kidding aside, adolescence is a time of growing up fraught with change. It is a time of rapid physical growth and development, accompanied by hormonal changes that activate the development of secondary sex characteristics and bring on heightened sexuality and new emotions. As parents we stand a better chance of handling our children’s growing pains during this stage if we understand what is happening to them.


The central task during adolescence is acquiring more independence. At around age twelve or thirteen, a child begins to grasp an understanding of the larger world outside his family. He becomes sensitive to things that are going on elsewhere in the world and has an inner aching from the realization that one day he will stand in that world as an adult. This notion is both exciting and scary. It is exciting because of the anticipation of gaining adult privileges and scary because of self-doubts about handling adult responsibilities. This growing awareness along with the onset of puberty moves him to try to be more adult like. In order to achieve this he must feel confident and worthwhile about himself apart from his family. And in order to achieve this confidence he will have to gain the acceptance of others, especially those of his own age. It is not enough anymore that his family accepts and supports him. He is now desperate for acceptance by his peers. He will be working vigorously toward one of the major goals of adolescence—learning to be independent.


Early adolescents, those ages twelve to fourteen, characteristically argue more with their parents than older adolescents do. An early adolescent is trying to establish himself as an independent person in the family and can be quite pushy about doing it. Once his family begins to acknowledge this change, the number of arguments between him and his parents usually lessens.


For parents, this push for independence is often viewed as teen rebellion, which may cause parents to feel rejected and hurt by the behavior of their once-obedient child. The key to coping with our teenager is to understand that his behavior is driven by his sense that he can never grow into adulthood without assuming more control over his life. By challenging family rules and values he is seeking to establish his independence. We should not wrongly assume that every defiant gesture of his is proof that we somehow failed. Instead, we should recognize that the behavior is part of normal development and we should not view it as a personal attack. Without this understanding we might easily overreact and create resentment in our adolescent. Moreover, we should not view his struggle for independence as an ending in our relationship. Rather, he is learning to have a relationship with us as a more autonomous and self-governing person. The mutual love and caring between us will remain intact even though he will be making more of his own decisions and becoming less emotionally dependent on us. His relationship with us is changing from a dependent relationship to an adult relationship. This new way of relating is based upon the fact that adolescence is a time of transition from parent control to self-control.


Teenagers do not like being treated like children. Treating a teenager like a child makes him feel inferior, and is especially embarrassing if treated that way in front of his peers. As parents, we can help our teenager be his best by practicing a balanced approach—treating him neither like a child nor like an adult. If we do too much for him we are treating him like a child. If we are still waking him up in the morning, folding and putting away his laundry, packing his lunches, and picking up after him, we are treating him like a child. Doing these things was fine up to age eleven or twelve, but continuing to do these during his adolescence will hinder him from developing competence and responsibility. On the other hand, if we assume that he should be doing everything on his own we are treating him like an adult. Treating him this way is abandonment. There are still things that are difficult for him to do alone, and he will still need the help and support that only his parents can provide.


Adolescence is stressful for both parents and teenager because both love each other. For parents it is painful seeing the child who once would readily hold his parent’s hand now pulling away. Watching our child grow into an adult can make us feel sad and letting go is not easy. I think one reason for adolescent obnoxiousness is to help make separation between parent and teen easier—at least for the parent. The difficulty a teenager faces in becoming an adult is in trying to establish his independence while maintaining a loving relationship with his parents. His struggle seems risky because he fears losing his parent’s love as he pushes for more freedom than his parents are willing to give.


Teenagers typically show more anger towards parents and other family members during this stage. A lot of that anger stems from the frustration of being caught in between childhood and adulthood, where they can enjoy neither the advantages of being a child nor the privileges of an adult. It is aggravating for a teenager to face the dilemma of being too old and not old enough. Life can get pretty boring and seem unfair. Consequently, family members often bear the brunt of a teenager’s frustration for having an in-between status.


Adolescence is also a time of establishing a personal identity. The struggle for a teenager to define who he is, what his lifelong goals are, and how he will achieve those goals, is a critical developmental task, which if not successfully accomplished will cause him to be less self-sufficient in adulthood. As a child his identity was an extension of his parents. Now, having become a teenager he begins to recognize his uniqueness and separates from his parents. He begins figuring out who he is other than being a son and is reshaping himself as he works to answer the question, “What does it mean to be me?” The answer to this question encompasses every aspect of life—career, sexuality, social relations, values, and spirituality. He will be trying on and taking off different ideas and opinions in an attempt to define himself. One day he is interested in becoming a rock musician and the next day he wants to study architecture. His parents, other significant adults, and his friends will all have an influence on the formation of his identity. During his years as an adolescent he will be incorporating the opinions of these people into his own likes and dislikes. By the time he reaches nineteen years of age, his identity will solidify. As parents we can influence our teenager’s formation of a strong positive personal identity by helping him gain a sense of mastery—confidence of being able to do something well. We should not become frustrated if he frequently changes his mind about an interest. However, we should encourage him to stick with a project or activity long enough to establish some skills. Encouraging his involvement in meaningful activities and groups both within school and after-school will help him gain the mastery he needs to establish a positive personal identity.


Of paramount importance to an adolescent is peer acceptance. Peer acceptance does not mean striving to be popular or part of an “in-crowd.” Although these strivings are issues, they are not the same as the developmental need to be accepted by peers in the general sense. Peer acceptance for a teenager has more to do with knowing that he is capable of loving and being loved by new people in addition to his family. The need for peer acceptance is further accelerated by the emergence of sexual maturity during the teen years. Sexual attractiveness and interest in dating take on a major importance that make acceptance by peers even more demanding. The stress to fit in can be overwhelming at times.

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Understanding Adolescent Behavior