Decoding adolescence

During the teen years, children experience emotional turmoil, highs and lows and are particularly vulnerable to peer and parental pressure. Parents need to exercise patience and perseverance and support children through this stormy period of emotional stress – Aarti C. Rajaratnam

Adolescence is a period of intense physical, psychological and emotional changes. During the teen years, children experience emotional turmoil, highs and lows and are particularly vulnerable to peer and parental pressure. A research study conducted by the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University, USA, says adolescence is “fraught with changes in emotion, cognition, relationships with parents, peers, and society”. It is a transition from childhood to adulthood — a period wherein your child is moving towards independence and carving out her own identity and personality. But in pursuit of creating a new identity and achieving independence, young people often develop what parents and teachers consider “problem behaviours”. This affects parents very deeply with many of them experiencing helplessness, frustration and anger because they are unable to guide their teens through this turbulent phase. Parents need to exercise patience and perseverance and support children through this stormy period of emotional stress.

What happens in adolescence?

An adolescent experiences bodily changes externally as well as emerging secondary sexual characteristics. Internally she experiences hormonal fluctuations. These physical changes combined with constant messages from popular media about the “perfect body” and peer pressure lead to many teenagers experiencing poor self-worth and body image issues. 

Consequently, it’s normative for teenagers to spend hours before a mirror trying to perfect an acceptable image to impress others, while at the other end of the spectrum some develop eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. It is essential that parents and teachers don’t body shame teenagers with thoughtless remarks and unfair or derogatory comparisons that can aggravate feelings of helplessness, resentment and worsen the communication gap. A well-balanced diet and optimal exercise (250 minutes per week for girls and 350 for boys) helps to regulate hormones and behaviour. 

The adolescent brain undergoes tremendous changes at tremendous speed, as in early infancy. The only difference is that a toddler cries incessantly while an adolescent will question and/or defy authority. 

Risk as reward

The teen brain equates risk with reward and this often leads to action without heeding consequences such as speeding and road rage, the foolish selfie in front of a moving train or doing things forbidden in school or at home. This is the time when adolescents frequently clash with authority figures. They also tend to disrespect rules, changing them to accommodate their whims, pitting them against parents and teachers who expect discipline and balance. In such circumstances, it’s advisable for adults to refrain from reacting impulsively with punitive correction but to respond empathetically. Help your teenager gain confidence and engage in problem solving without resorting to lecturing.

Socially, teens gravitate towards peers. There will be “gang behaviour” even in the most normal teenagers. Forming, and participating in exclusive cliques, is very important for adolescents — teenagers who are isolated or expelled from admired groups experience high levels of stress. Forming new relationships is tricky and stressful. So, it is essential for adults to ensure that teenagers have sufficient time to bond with peers. Allow them to explore relationships and boundaries. Given the changes in the amygdala (in the brain), most teenagers struggle with emotional regulation resulting in angry outbursts, impulsive crying, inability to move on from situations that upset them, getting into fights with peers and adults and inability to accept rational solutions. 

Pressure and expectations

Adolescents also experience great environmental stress. This includes academic pressure and pressure from parents and schools to conform to societal norms, while making critical career choices. Parents need to be the safe haven for venting emotions that teens struggle to regulate. If a teenager doesn’t have this safe space and instead is reprimanded for emotional outbursts, some withdraw into a shell, communication with parents decreases, and risky behaviour increases, as a form of retaliation in the power struggle with uncaring adults.
To best understand and manage these issues, spend quality time with your teenager. This is vital for healthy two-way communication. If parents rush judgement, label, advise or condemn, adolescents are likely to hide or distort incidents to feel accepted. Parents need to be involved and observant to be able to ascertain the difference between a developmental challenge and behavioural problem. Sometimes a one-off incident is the outcome of exploration and if a teen receives parental support, she will stop indulging in potentially harmful behaviour. 

Where help is needed

Repeated violence, truancy, mendacity, relationship conflicts and sharp fall in academic performance require redressal and counselling. Moreover, children who have experienced prolonged academic stress in younger age may resort to defiant behaviour in adolescence, which requires professional help. Addictions, including drugs, alcohol, porn and gadgets addiction are problems which may require professional advice. 

Managing troubled adolescents

Listen, don’t lecture. Only when you listen, are you likely to understand why they need your support, trust and constructive advice. When you lecture, they will find every opportunity to avoid your company. Don’t preach and speak to them about how you walked 15 km to get to school when you were a child. Lifestyle-related changes across two generations are not comparable.

Set boundaries, don’t control. Set clear boundaries and structure so that your adolescent can feel free to explore while respecting set limits. 

Lead by example. Model the routine, habits and ideals you would like to nurture in your child. This is the fastest and most effective way to shape their behaviour. 

Support, don’t shame. When your teen misbehaves or gets into trouble, don’t shame her especially when schools or others do. Listen to as many perspectives as you can and then work to find solutions together with your child.

Understand, don’t overrule. Acknowledge that neurological and physiological changes in adolescence are real and can cause tremendous stress resulting in violent mood swings, risky behaviour, inconsistent habits, relationship turmoil and academic fluctuations. Don’t throw the rule book at them. 

 (Aarti C. Rajaratnam is a child and adolescent psychologist who hosts a weekly show on Polimer TV)

Also read: Balancing teens’ right to privacy & safety

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