Understanding Development During The Teens Years

“Just wait until they’re teenagers!” is a phrase often uttered by parents, usually with some degree of dread.  People often talk about “having teenagers” like it’s the worst thing that can happen to a person, akin to “having the plague.”  The good news is that no one is going to just drop a teenager off at your doorstep one day, complete with a bad attitude and the music you hate.  Your teenager is still your child, your helpless newborn whose toes you counted and kissed the day they were born.  And they are also the same person who will grow into the adult who invites you over for Thanksgiving dinner and has their own mortgage. It’s the parents’ job to bridge the gap, and this can be done with minimal strife, if we keep in mind certain points about teen development.

Some teen behavior can be quite frustrating for parents, but this may have to do with their not-yet-fully-developed brains.  Studies by the National Institute of Mental Health show that our brain’s frontal lobe doesn’t finish developing until about age 25.  This is the area in charge of impulse control, planning, and controlling social responses.  It is also a reward center of the brain.  Teenagers can be quite drawn to the instant gratification that sex, drugs, alcohol, and fast driving can bring. Unfortunately, due to this part of the brain governing the understanding of future outcomes based on present behavior, the lack of development in this area causes most teens not to recognize the full extent of the risks they are taking, which can be problematic to say the least.  This realization may cause some parents to at least understand their teen’s behavior a little more, even if it’s still frustrating to live with.

It’s also important to recognize teenagers’ needs for independence.  They test out ways to find it by pulling away from parents and family activities and testing out new social circles.  Parents tend to either tighten the reins and enforce new, stricter rules, or become frustrated and step away from their teen, allowing them too much freedom too soon.  Either extreme is detrimental.  They don’t want to feel smothered, but they certainly don’t want to feel abandoned, either.  They’re not out of the house yet, and teens do still need parental guidance, even if they seem resistant to it at times.  Staying involved, maintaining firm and fair boundaries, as well as open communication is crucial.  Yet they do need a lot of room to make decisions on their own.  Decision making is something that requires practice, and it’s important that parents give their teens appropriate space to cultivate this skill.

How you view your child will affect how you treat them, so view your teen for the burgeoning young adults they are – curious and excited about the world, learning new skills, and readying themselves for the next stage of their life, which in this case, is adulthood.  Let go a little, hard as that may be, especially on parents who aren’t sure if they’re ready to see their “babies” growing up.  Trust them to rely on the guidance you’ve provided thus far, while still offering guidance in the present.  Ask them specific questions about their lives that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer.  Take an interest in what they like, even if you hate it.  Remember that your parents probably hated your new gadgets and your rock n’ roll.  Have faith that after you get through this, and they are adults, they will still call you for advice, because you’re their parent, and that will never change.  Enjoy this last stage of childhood.  It can be a challenging, but with the right attitude and tools, it doesn’t have to be torturous.

About Meghan Toledo

Meghan Toledo holds a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She loves interacting with both animals and children, and she worked with abused horses rejuvenating their spirits with love and carrots. She spent time in Los Angeles and San Francisco as a zookeeper and educator, allowing her to care for animals while fostering a love in children of the natural world. These days she is enjoying the adventure of being a new mother and the joy of that experience. In her spare time, she is freelance writer and a proponent of natural childbirth and attachment parenting.

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