In the last article I wrote, I clarified what adolescence is and isn’t. I also broke down this long transition to adulthood into three phases (which I took from Laurence Steinberg in his book Age of Opportunity, the number one book I recommend for parents with teens). I focused on phase one which is about 12-14. Click here to read that one. Below I talk about phase 2, ages 15-17.
Phase 2: Building a Better Break System (15-17)
Dumb, risky and just perplexing behavior is a trademark of this period. But thoughtfulness, kindness and maturity are also on the rise if we keep our eyes open. The stakes are higher for sure. This is why staying connected and being thoughtful about how and when we set limits is more important than ever.
A lot of parents I talk to are consumed with worry during this phase. Some hear the misogynistic lyrics of their child’s music and wonder if they did a good enough job instilling the right values. They worry that they’ve raised a kid that lacks empathy, a work ethic or judgement. All of this gets directed into fears of a future filled with struggle and limited opportunities for their child.
It’s easy to wonder: “Is the dumb choice they made an accurate reflection of who they really are and will become?” “Is the good behavior a sham and manipulative or is the sweet and considerate kid I hung out with the other day who he really is?”
Questions like these are understandable but often driven by anxiety which is based on a worry that time is running out and things may not end well. Guilt, shame or fear about the past or future are typically buffered by our fruitless attempts at control. When we exert control as a way to avoid our own discomfort (we’ve all done this, your teen probably does it often), it shows up in two ways: We either micromanage and get rigid with our rules and expectations or we withdraw and avoid.
Figuring out how and when to set limits while staying connected in a loving and playful way are the hardest and most important things to sort out during this phase. Their judgement really is improving, but at the same time, they’re still going to take risks, struggle to plan ahead and empathize the way we think they should.
What to Expect
Below are some specific things you can expect during this phase. The italics describe the choice we have to make as parents.
- They’re less moody and impulsive relative to phase one. We can reinforce the positives, feel happier and get more of the good from our teen or focus on the negatives, feel disappointed get frustrated regularly and watch our teen prove us right repeatedly.
- They’re more sensitive to behavior on your part that comes across as controlling. We can appreciate the opportunity to help them grow and learn from mistakes or inadvertently teach them to fear and avoid failure and disappointment.
- Their behavior and moods are still inconsistent. We can remember that their behavior isn’t personal because their brain is still developing and they literally can’t stop themselves at times or we can label and judge them and/or shame ourselves.
- They’re spending more time with friends and trying out different identities and belief systems (politics, diets, hair, clothes, religion, etc.)We can chide them when they express an idea or point of view that is different than ours or we can support and appreciate their desire to consider all sides and think for themselves.
- They will continue to take risks and try out new experiences. We can encourage and guide their need for novelty and risk through safe experiences like, sports, music, art, academics or leave them to their own devices that are more likely to involve more dangerous substances and behaviors.
- They’re much more capable of having reflective and thoughtful dialogue and are eager to participate and contribute in the adult world. We can talk to them in a way that shows how much we value their intellect and ideas. We can give them meaningful opportunities to interact in the adult world. Or, we can convey that we always know best and interact with them like they’re incapable. In this case, they will play “adult” with their peers on their own unsupervised terms.
You’ll help your teen do well during this phase by keeping the following in mind:
2. You will likely need to let go of some control. Your teen needs to feel like they have autonomy and some control over the decisions that affect them. You’ll probably need to let some things go and include them more in decisions having to do with rules and consequences. If you’re not in the habit of doing this, it’s going to take some work and time to shift the culture and patterns, but it’s not too late and well worth the effort. A good book to help you do this is called Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene.
3. Your teen is a ways away from being able to make adult like decisions. We often expect teens at this age to think and act like us. I think we do this because, occasionally, they can. In fact, in studies of self control tasks, 16 yr-olds do just as well as adults. Here’s the catch. This only happens when the teens are well rested, calm and rewarded for their behavior. When fatigue and stress are involved, they do significantly worse.
We have to always remember, they aren’t adults. We cannot and should not expect them to have adult like skills and decision making abilities. The legal and cultural ramifications that occur at age 18 really set a lot of teens and families up for unrealistic expectations. Adolescent brains aren’t “ready for prime time” till about 25. Car rental companies seem to be the only ones that get this. But fortunately now you do as well : )
Phase two of adolescence can really be a wonderful time. I hear stories on a daily basis of teens organizing protests, supporting friends, being eager to learn, and genuinely wanting to make a difference in the world. And yes, they really do care what you think and want your approval. It hurts them when they feel like you have a preconceived notion of who they are or you only see their screw ups.
I know how much you love your teen and that you’re doing your best. I tell them that all the time. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. They need to experience that love through your interactions. Continue to prioritize positive connection and ask more questions without assuming you already know the answers. Maintain high expectations but don’t worry or be surprised when they fall short, those are the best moments to learn. Your teen is right where they need to be. Finally, be sure to get help and support when you need it. It really does take a village to raise a child and especially a teenager.