If parenting adolescents were a sport, many would describe it as full contact without pads (resulting in numerous concussions), fast paced, no clear start or end point with vague rules that often change mid-game without notice. There’s nothing enjoyable about playing a game like this.
Over the next three posts I hope to clarify some of this by providing you with a road map of adolescence. First, I’ll define it. Then I’ll share 3 distinct developmental phases of adolescence that all kids go through along with how to support them at each stage.
While this is a road map, it’s not the road. Your family is unique and will experience these stages slightly different than others. As with everything I share, adapt it to your family as you see fit and discard the rest.
The three phases of adolescence can be described using a car metaphor.
Phase 1- Learning to drive a Ferrari with bad breaks: 11-12 to 14.
Phase 2- Building a better brake system: 15 to 17.
Phase 3: Becoming a skilled driver behind the wheel: 18 to late 20’s.
These guidelines are based on adolescent neuroscience, research and my own experiences working with this population for nearly 20 years. The age of starting and ending each phase may vary a little or a lot. Some kids stay in phase 1 until they’re 15 or 16, others complete phase 3 by their early 20’s.
In this article I’ll talk about the first phase which typically starts at 11 or 12 and ends at about 14.
Adolescence is not the teen years
Adolescence is the transition to adulthood. This period starts at around puberty and ends when a young person has fully integrated into adult society. So it’s a time that starts biologically and ends culturally. Adolescence is a distinct period between childhood and adulthood that is recognized in all cultures throughout the world. It’s even been identified in animals. Apparently, dogs, cheetahs, parrots and finches all experience adolescence. Who woulda thought?
For us humans, adolescence has gotten longer and longer over the years. In 1900, the average American woman got her first period at 14 or 15 and was married at 21. It’s safe to say that boys had a similar start and end point. Today, the average age of puberty for girls is around 11 and for boys, around 12. The average age of first marriage now is 29. So this transition went from about 7 years to now being almost 20! Laurence Steinberg writes a lot about this in Age of Opportunity, a book I strongly recommend for any parent of a teen or preteen.
Now that you know you’re gonna be here for a while, you may as well make yourself as comfortable as possible. While this may be unsettling, I do have good news to report and it’s this: For the vast majority of kids and their parents, not only will things get better and more enjoyable, but by the time they do settle down, they are much more likely to be happy with their personal and professional choices. I’ll talk more about phase 3 in the third post.
But for now, let’s start by looking closer at the first period of adolescence, phase 1.
Phase 1 – Learning to drive a Ferrari with bad breaks. 11-14.
Many parents experience a shock when their first child hits puberty. They don’t recognize their kid anymore. This isn’t because of the notable physical changes but more so because they’ve suddenly become much more surly, withdrawn, argumentative and focused on appearances and peers. A lot of parents report that everything they thought they new about how to parent their child is now obsolete. In one major longitudinal study of over 200 families, forty percent of parents reported a decline in mental health once their first child entered adolescence. Many respondents also reported drops in marital satisfaction.
Below are some specific emotional and behavioral changes that are to be expected during this period.
- Testosterone surges in boys leads to more irritability and aggression, withdrawn behavior, sexual preoccupation and risk taking.
- Estrogen/progesterone surge in girls leads to an enhanced desire to view themselves as attractive and a strong drive towards social connection and reward.
- More impulsivity and emotional intensity due to their active limbic system (emotional brain and gas pedal) combined with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (reflection/planning and brake system).
- A rapidly budding capacity to think about things in more complex ways. This is great for learning (and arguing), but also for worrying and depressive thinking.
You can help your child do well during this phase by keeping the following in mind:
1. It’s not personal. Your child is feeling awkward and overwhelmed by all of this. They often can’t help it. Think of it as a dis-ability. They literally aren’t able to meet certain expectations at times. They’ll need more patience, help and support from you during their inevitable emotional breakdowns and inconsistent behavior.
2. It really is a phase. Their impulsivity will decrease and their thoughtfulness will increase as their prefrontal cortex (brake system) continues to develop and they transition to phase 2. Until then, expect impulsive language and behavior at times. Your job is to help them stay safe and develop problem solving and self-reflection skills.
3. They desperately need you to provide empathy and boundaries. Compassion and validation helps calm their reactive and emotional brains. An example might be to lovingly say, “You’ve got so much going on right now, I would totally understand if you were feeling overwhelmed and angry.” Or it may be as simple as, “I’m sorry, that must be really hard.”
On the other side of the coin, clear and consistent expectations help keep their emotions from getting out of control in the first place. Examples of important boundaries at this age are having phones turned in an hour before bedtime along with established curfews. Having their social media passwords and being actively engaged with them online to both mentor them and learn along side them is also a good idea.
4. This is by far the most dangerous time for their brain to be exposed to drugs and alcohol. In her book, The Teenage Brain, neuroscientist Frances Jensen writes: “Early teen users are twice as likely to become addicted, and those who indulge in pot before the age of sixteen have more trouble with focus and attention and make twice as many mistakes on tests involving planning, flexibility, and abstract thinking.” If you have a young teen that’s using drugs are alcohol, there’s some good science about how this stuff affects their developing brain in this book. This is the most important time to set boundaries around this stuff not only because of their fragile developing PFC but also because it will get much harder when they get into Phase 2 and beyond.
If you have a young teen or preteen, I encourage you to lean into this exciting period. Yes, the attitude and intensity can be hard, but this is also the beginning of so many new experiences and opportunities for them.
Following the road map through this period of adolescence will require that you expect some mistakes, moodiness and bad judgement. That you don’t view their behavior as a result of character flaws on their part or bad parenting on yours. It’s also important that you find a way to enjoy your child’s new found capacity for thoughts and ideas (especially when they’re different than yours) and appreciate the enthusiasm and passion that they bring to your family.
By remaining kind, loving and affectionate while maintaining clear expectations and boundaries, you’ll help them develop those much needed brakes faster as they transition to phase 2.