When you peer, infuriated, over the mountain of washing at a snoring mass of limbs on your sofa, spare a thought for the poor creature. It’s not all their fault; nor is it yours. The teenage years are unpredictable, often unrecognizable to parents. Adolescence itself is a time of transition; physical, mental and emotional. A period of increased risk-taking and novelty-seeking, it is a testing time for all. At school, home and in the wider world, teens are testing their own capacities in all aspects of life – which often tests the patience of their parents. The adolescent brain – yes there is one in there somewhere – is actually becoming more efficient. A final period of ‘pruning’, selection of the necessary brain cells, takes place in the late teens. It is developing and sharpening the senses and coordination but the slowest part to grow up is the capacity for decision-making. That’s where you come in – after all, you know best.
Adolescents are looking for the walls, the boundaries, the things to bounce off of. They will turn to their peers more than you, since these are now the sources of their sense of identity. But don’t worry, they’ll be back when they need you. Adolescents often feel lost within themselves, as if their over-sized clothes have consumed them and they don’t know who they are anymore. Yet they also feel like they could do anything; powerful and unbound. Teenagers are regularly attracted to popular culture’s superheroes, magicians and vampires – creatures with enlarged capacities, perpetually changing themselves or others. What’s more, their parents may look at them with disbelieving eyes, as if they were someone else’s children. But they are still yours and you can help them remember that.
An old but very interesting book on counselling young people reminded me recently that adolescence is a period of loss and gain. ‘Personal maturation requires some things to be yielded to make way for new ones.’ (p.19, Noonan. 1984) It’s a time of letting go of things and getting hold of others. Teens are required to mourn the loss of their childhood selves, not to dispose of them but to internalise them; to keep the memory of their childhood alive and within as they mature. But this work is not theirs to do alone. It’s yours too.
In the transfer of responsibilities which growing-up involves, parents are there both to protect and release their kids. It is a contradiction similar to those faced by the teenager; you provide the walls of safety and the gateway to the wider world. You, through your constant interest and consistent structures, will help usher your child into the world of the adult, through the tunnel of the teenage years. Some conflict will inevitably take place but your role is to stand your ground; this not only helps your teenager to know their own boundaries but also to develop a positive sense of what it is to be an adult. You are, much as you were with your young child, there to filter life experience, to help your teen feed themselves in digestible ways so that they can grow. But it requires you to stand a little further back, to allow their own opinions room. Through this, you will help grant them ‘psychological autonomy’ (p.8, Steinberg. 2001). It’s no accident that as the demands on teenagers grow (from social media in particular), there is increased reporting and recording of eating disorders, self-harm, and other struggles between body and mind. It’s harder with adolescents because they are bigger, stronger, and even needier than the kids.
So don’t try it alone. Share the burden with partners, friends and family. Between you, you will keep this low-voiced, poorly dressed eating-machine on track. Your teenager needs to be loved just as your child was, but perhaps forgiven more freely after more intense negotiations. They still need the boundaries too, yet like the re-drawing of a map after a war, these need to be agreed on by all parties. Hopefully, by providing them with a life more ordinary, they will discover their own extraordinary selves along the way.
Psychotherapist & Counsellor (TSP, BPC)
Music, G. (2010) Moving Towards Adulthood. In Music, G. ‘Nurturing Natures. Attachment and Children’s Emotional, Sociocultural and Brain Development’, Hove, Psychology Press, pp.185-197
Noonan, E. (1984) ‘Counselling Young People’, Methuan, London/NY
Steinberg, L (2001) We Know Some Things; Parent-Adolescent Relationships in Retrospect and Prospect. ‘Journal of Research on Adolescence’, 11, (1), 1-19
Wallis, C. (2008) What Makes Teens Tick? ‘Time Magazine’