Chapter 1: Understanding Your Teenager
"Who are you?" said the Caterpillar. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I -- I hardly know, Sir, just at present -- at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I must have changed several times since then."
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865
Welcome to the exciting world of adolescence -- the teen years -- one of the most interesting and challenging phases of life. Adolescence is a time of change, a time to gradually shed one's protective childhood for a new identity and a world of new responsibilities and independence. The transition from childhood to adulthood has never been easy, but there are few times in history when the adolescent years have been more challenging than now.
Our life span, from conception to late adulthood, has distinct and somewhat predictable phases through which we pass on life's journey. Adolescence is one of the more lengthy developmental phases. Spanning approximately ten years, it usually begins at the age of eleven or twelve and ends between the ages of eighteen and twenty. Adolescence can be divided into three distinct stages: early adolescence (eleven to fourteen years old) roughly covers the junior high or middle school years; middle adolescence (fifteen to eighteen years old) includes the senior high years; and late adolescence (nineteen to twenty years old) covers the first few years of college or time when still living at home with parents. Each stage has unique issues, potential problems, and important tasks to complete. For instance, the onset of puberty is a significant issue in early adolescence, dating is of importance in middle adolescence, and career decisions play a key factor in late adolescence.
Being a teenager in the twenty-first century has the ups and downs of a roller coaster ride: it's exciting and scary -- all at the same time; and the anticipation of the next blind curve is often better than the real experience. The journey to adulthood in this decade has an unprecedented number of potential dangers -- including violence, gangs, car crashes, suicide, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections. Caught between childhood and adulthood, wanting to be grown-up but reluctant to give up the security of childhood, teens frequently take two steps forward and one back. In the eyes of many teenagers, the road to adulthood looks unfriendly. And in many ways it is. One fifteen-year-old girl sums up the feelings of many teens as she unleashes her frustration on past generations:
Parents should think back to when they were teenagers, then watch the evening news to see how much has changed. Parents had it easy when they were teens. They did everything they wanted to and barely had any consequences for their actions. Everything we do has a consequence, and most of them are lifelong or deadly.
Teenagers also feel misunderstood and maligned by our society. The media and a small percentage of troubled teens have caused the image of teens to be seriously tarnished. Teens are frequently portrayed in news reports and depicted in movies as being lazy, deviant, promiscuous, self-centered, disturbed, and delinquent. One large metropolitan newspaper uncovered through its own investigation that teenagers were depicted more negatively than any other group in their newspaper, resulting in an effort to portray a more balanced coverage of teens.
Although there has been an increase in delinquent behavior by teens, the negative stereotype still represents only a small percentage of all teens. Research findings clearly demonstrate that the vast majority of adolescents are not as troubled and disturbed as their stereotype suggests. Researcher Daniel Offer and his colleagues found that almost three-quarters of the adolescents they studied had a healthy self-image. They perceived themselves as able to exercise self-control, they valued work and school, they expressed positive feelings toward their families, they felt they had the capability to cope with life's stresses, and they reported enjoying life.
One issue that many teens do worry about is their future. They know that adulthood will not meet them with open arms. They will face significant increases in college tuition, extraordinary competition for jobs, a struggling economy, continuing changes in the family structure, high divorce rates, and a future full of problems left over from previous generations. For teens living in poverty, especially those in the inner cities, the outlook is much bleaker and, in their eyes, almost hopeless.
Adolescence is also a time of extraordinary changes. Your teen is changing in many ways: physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally. The specific purpose of this chapter and many other parts of this book is to help you understand and anticipate these changes, and, most important, to help you and your teen cope with these changes. This chapter describes three of the most important aspects of adolescent development -- physical changes, including puberty and its emotional aspects; cognitive (intellectual) changes; and the process of identity development.
One of the biggest milestones of adolescence is the onset of puberty, a series of events lasting an average of two to five years that gradually transform an adolescent's physical characteristics into those of an adult. The onset, rate, and ending of puberty are controlled by the central nervous system, which commands various glands to begin secreting hormones. The hormones travel through the bloodstream to certain organs and tissues causing specific changes to take place. Although most teens begin puberty in early adolescence, there is considerable individual variation in both the timing and tempo of puberty, depending on factors such as genetics, health, nutrition, and body mass. There is such a wide normal range for individuals to start puberty (see below), that it is possible for some teens to complete the pubertal sequence before others their same age even begin.
When asked to describe puberty, one teen replied, "It's when your body goes crazy." In many ways, that's close to the truth, especially from a teen's perspective. There are changes in the genitals; further development of the sex glands; growth of facial, pubic, and body hair; changes in the quantity and distribution of fat and muscle; and increased strength and stamina. There is also a rapid growth and weight gain called the adolescent growth spurt, which typically lasts for two years. During this period, both boys and girls can grow three to five inches in a given year. Girls begin their growth spurt around the age of ten or eleven, two years before boys. This helps to explain why many girls tower over their male counterparts in sixth and seventh grades.
Girls usually begin puberty between the ages of eight and thirteen, with the entire cycle lasting from one and a half to six years. It is widely believed that menarche, the first menstrual period, marks the onset of puberty for girls, but, in fact, it occurs relatively late in the pubertal cycle. It typically occurs between her twelfth and thirteenth birthdays, but with a wide normal range from nine to fifteen.
The first sign of puberty for girls is either the slight elevation of the breasts (typically called breast buds) or the appearance of pubic hair. As puberty progresses, the pubic hair becomes coarser and darker, and the breasts continue to develop through a series of five distinct stages. Regardless of breast size, the final stages of breast growth are marked by the areola (the nipple and area around it) receding to the contour of the breast with only the nipple elevated. Internal changes include growth and development of the uterus, vagina, and other aspects of the reproductive system.
Boys usually begin puberty between the ages of ten and fourteen, and end between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. Sex characteristics also appear in a predictable order in boys. First, there is rapid growth of the scrotum and testes and the appearance of pubic hair. Next, the penis enlarges and the pubic hair becomes coarser and darker. Later in the pubertal process, facial and body hair appear, the voice deepens, and the ability to ejaculate seminal fluid occurs.
Adjusting to Puberty
It is not surprising that the plethora of physical changes brought on by puberty can cause some psychological problems as well. It takes time for teenagers to adjust to these changes and accept their new appearance. It is both understandable and normal for them to become preoccupied with their bodies during puberty. They will probably spend an inordinate amount of time looking in the mirror, wondering where the next change will take place. Most teens also have bouts of being overly sensitive or even embarrassed about their "new" body, causing them to have a poor body image and frequent complaints about their appearance. However, by the end of puberty and the beginning of late adolescence, most teens have an improved, if not proud, body image.
Since one of the unwritten laws of pre- and early teens is to not appear too different from friends and peers, those who don't develop along the average time line often experience a more turbulent time during puberty. Judy Blume's endearing character, Margaret, in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, typifies a young adolescent who can't wait to blossom as some of her peers have. Impatient with her lack of development, Margaret takes up her issue with God:
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I just did an exercise to help me grow. Have you thought about it God? About my growing, I mean. I've got a bra now. It would be nice if I had something to put in it.
Being the first or last peer to develop physically can accentuate the general adjustment problems of puberty mentioned earlier. Developing breasts too early or too late can cause some girls to be embarrassed about their appearance and to have a negative self-image. The same is true for early or late maturing boys, who may be teased in the showers for appearing different. Early maturing girls may receive newfound attention from older boys, but may become the object of nasty rumors instigated by their peers. It is quite normal for early or late developers to become extremely preoccupied with their development, secretly wishing that their peers would either catch up to them or that they would catch up to their peers. Although obviously stressful at times, most teens successfully weather the occasional stormy seas of puberty and enter late adolescence with a more positive body image and acceptance of self.
Dads, Daughters, and Puberty
According to many of my female college students, dads sometimes keep a little more physical distance with their daughters after puberty begins. A few years ago, during a discussion about puberty in an adolescent development class, a young woman raised her hand and said, "When I was twelve, and in the midst of all the body changes, the relationship with my father became more distant." A feminine chorus of "Me too" echoed around the room. In each semester since, I have asked the women enrolled in the same course if they had a similar experience. Thirty to fifty percent said they did.
It's not surprising that some dads will be perplexed as to how to react as they watch their "little girls" turn the corner toward womanhood. And mothers often have similar issues with their adolescent sons. Our best bet is to follow the lead of our adolescents. Most will not balk if we occasionally put an arm around their shoulder or give a loose hug. It will become obvious that they either enjoy the affection or they don't, and it may vary from one age to another. When in doubt, ask for permission to hug.
Parents Play a Key Role During Puberty
Parents can play a key role in minimizing the stressful aspects of their child's puberty cycle by being understanding, accepting, and tactful. Most important, parents need to talk to their children about puberty before it begins. Stress can be minimized if teens know what to expect and have a positive attitude about their forthcoming changes. Girls should learn about and be prepared for the onset of menstruation and boys should learn about ejaculation and be prepared for their first wet dream. Information about puberty and sexual maturation should be presented in a manner that is positive and builds pride, not shame.
I was shocked to learn that approximately one-half of the young women in each of my adolescent development college classes never had a parent talk to them about their first period or how to prepare for it. Many of the students said they were frightened and alarmed when it happened; some even thought they were bleeding to death. No matter how uncomfortable you may feel about discussing puberty with your children, you must. If you don't, your children will learn from their friends -- probably other nine- or ten-year-olds who don't know the facts themselves. It's also quite common for children to balk at any mention of "the talk," out of embarrassment. Some will even try to convince you that they already learned about body changes in school. Even if this is true, this is an opportunity to show your children that they can talk to you about any topic, whether it's about their bodies, romantic relationships, or sexuality, and that you will be open and honest with them. This talk could set the stage for an open line of communication that will continue throughout the teen years and beyond. On the other hand, if your children sense that you are uncomfortable talking about puberty, they probably won't even consider you if they have a question about sexuality later in their development.
A book about puberty can be an excellent ice breaker or focal point during a talk between a parent and child. There are some excellent books on this topic specifically written for children (See the recommended book list at the end of Chapter 10, "Sexuality and Dating.") Visit your local library or bookstore and pick one out together. Chances are that your child will read it cover to cover, but as adolescents often do, they probably won't admit to you that it was helpful.
As one's body develops over the course of adolescence, so does one's intellectual ability. With improved memory, attention span, and the ability to process information faster and with a greater capacity, teenagers become capable of thinking in more advanced ways. They gradually move from the limited ability to think only in concrete ways, things in the here and now and events they can see, into the world of abstract thought and reasoning. This new ability allows them to think in multiple dimensions that are more advanced, efficient, and effective.
One aspect of a teenager's new thinking skills is the ability to think hypothetically, to explore the consequences of various propositions. The power of hypothetical reasoning opens up many new horizons for their cognitive development. They can now solve logical and scientific problems. And, according to many parents, their ability to argue reaches new heights. They no longer consider only what they can see; they begin discovering the many alternatives that might be.
The ability to think abstractly also enables teens to be more introspective, to think about their own thoughts and feelings. It's common for teens to spend hours pondering new ideas and thinking deeply about issues of importance to them: What does love mean? What do I want out of life? Is there really a God?
It's also very common for this type of thinking to lead to periods of intense preoccupation with one's self, what psychologists call adolescent egocentrism. David Elkind, a developmental psychologist, believes that an adolescent's egocentrism is usually expressed in one of two ways, what he calls "imaginary audience" and "personal fable."
The term imaginary audience is used to describe egocentric behavior by a teen who erroneously believes that his behavior is the focus of everyone else's concern and attention, similar to an actor on a stage. It is most common in early adolescence when one's feelings of self-consciousness are at a peak. For example, a teen can obsess about a small pimple on her face or a hair out of place to the point where she believes everyone in her class or the cafeteria is looking directly at her.
The personal fable evolves out of a teenager's erroneous belief that his or her experiences are unique. It is a belief that no one in the world could possibly understand what they are feeling or experiencing. For example, after a breakup with his girlfriend, a young man tells his father that neither he nor anyone else could ever understand his pain. Of course, in reality his father and most other people have experienced such a heartbreak more than once and can feel empathy to such an experience.
There is a growing belief among psychologists that adolescent egocentrism and its frequently erroneous belief system may account for much of the reckless behavior of teenagers, including unsafe sex, suicidal behavior, and drug use. In their minds they have created the illusion that they are unique ("I'll never get caught") and invulnerable ("Other people get AIDS, not me").
Who am I? Where am I going? Adolescents spend a great deal of time pondering these and similar questions in their quest for an identity. According to the famous theorist Erik Erikson, establishing a sense of who you are is the major task of adolescence.
Finding one's identity in today's rapidly changing world is more difficult than ever before. There are more choices, from occupations to lifestyles. And with more choices there is often more confusion. For example, instead of following in the footsteps of a parent and becoming a farmer, blacksmith, homemaker, and so on, as young people did for centuries, there is now almost a limitless array of occupations and careers to choose from.
Erikson writes about the choices adolescents will make in forming their identity, "[F]rom among all possible and imaginable relations, [the young person] must make a series of ever-narrowing selections of personal, occupational, sexual, and ideological commitments." Using their expanded cognitive and social skills, and new knowledge, adolescents keep pieces of their childhood identity while shedding others in exchange for new beliefs, directions, and ways of looking at the world. During late adolescence, when it becomes clearer every day that they will soon be responsible for themselves, teens begin to narrow their focus on career goals. Much of their identity formation at this stage involves the question, "Where am I going?"
An adolescent's identity is developed through experimentation; they explore different roles and "try on" new personalities, hoping to find one that fits. This is a normal and necessary aspect of identity development, but one that can be trying at times for parents. Teens can be quite moody and rebellious in their search for identity. They may be friendly one moment and argumentative the next moment. Personalities, clothing styles, and friendships can change frequently. Parents often talk about these times as being "phases" their teens are going through. These phases, or periods of experimentation, can be as brief as one day or can last for an extended period of time.
Chances are, some of the phases will be undesirable from the standpoint of the parents. Stay calm and wait for the phase to pass, recommend experienced parents. The more you fight it, the deeper the foothold will become. Remember that these are phases and that phases pass. Talk to other parents who have been through this; you will discover that they have experienced situations similar to yours.
Instead, parents can support their teens' quest for identity by giving them the time and the space to explore their options, roles, and personalities. That does not mean that you should allow your teen to get involved with individuals, groups, or activities that you believe to be dangerous or illegal. Parents can be helpful by promoting their teens' sense of individuality. Many psychologists, including noted developmentalist Catherine Cooper, believe that parents should promote their teens' individuality while at the same time maintaining the family connectedness, which provides a secure base from which to explore one's identity. Studies also show that a democratic parenting style (one that allows teens to be involved in family decisions) fosters identity development more than an autocratic or permissive style.
The identity that your son or daughter establishes during adolescence will be tweaked, revamped, and revised over the years, especially during early adulthood. Identity development is a lengthy and ongoing process, one that Erikson believes is constantly lost and regained. But its foundation is established in adolescence. So watch in wonder -- and patience -- as your child's new sense of self emerges.
Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Thomas L. McMahon