Preparing for Adolescence
When your child was a newborn, coping with short nights of sleep, dirty diapers and crying spells may have hampered your ability to marvel at the incredible little person before you. When she was a turbocharged and at times defiant toddler, the nonstop effort required to keep her (and your home) safe and sound may not have given you much time to appreciate her rapidly developing abilities.
Similarly, when your adolescent experiences normal growing pains and emotional turbulence (and possibly a crisis or two) during the coming years, it may be all too easy to lose sight of a number of very encouraging and gratifying developments.
Yes, there will be a lot of problems to solve, arriving in all shapes and sizes (often when you least expect them). You will need to guide, monitor and sometimes intervene to keep the cultural wolves a respectable distance from your teenager’s door. You may have to put out some fires or even an occasional four-alarm blaze.
Hopefully, through it all you will be able to recognize and appreciate in your adolescent many of the positive attributes that are common in this age-group. How and when these qualities will be expressed will vary with each individual, but be on the lookout for them — and be sure to express your appreciation when they show up:
- Energy and enthusiasm
- Concern for the needs of others — often coupled with a willingness to offer help in ways that adults might find risky or “unrealistic”
- A desire for meaningful relationships
- A sense of humor that can be witty and insightful
- A concern for fairness and justice
- An interest in other cultures and countries
- Development of new skills in athletics, the arts, crafts, the use of tools, writing and speaking — often with extraordinary achievements
- Curiosity — not only about the way things work in the world but why
- Willingness to commit to worthwhile causes and to back up that commitment with specific actions
- Ability (and attention span) to appreciate sophisticated music, drama, films and artwork
- A deep desire for a relationship with God and a willingness to make a lifelong commitment to serve Him
Despite the relatively few years separating one generation from the next, most adults seem to have amnesia about their own adolescence. Parents who have already “been there, done that” may have difficulty recalling how they felt and thought between the ages of twelve and twenty-one. As you read through the stages of adolescent development in this article series, try to recall what you were experiencing during those years. Whether your effort brings fond memories, a lot of pain or merely a sigh of relief that you don’t have to go through that again, you will connect more smoothly with your teenager(s) if you can remember what it’s like to walk a mile in their sneakers.
Early Adolescence: Why It’s Tough
Puberty, mood swings and social tensions will play major roles in an adolescent’s life.
Take an informal poll of one hundred adults about what years of their lives they would never want to repeat, and you will probably hear “junior high” or “middle school” most often. All too frequently, a relatively well-adjusted, good-natured child enters the sixth or seventh grade and two or three years later emerges emotionally (if not physically) battered and bruised. What turns these years into such a war zone?
First, the tides of puberty are likely to be flowing at full speed. Among other things, these generate much concern and self-consciousness about physical changes that are (or aren’t yet) under way. Such worries are intensified by the marked variations in development at this age. Within the same class will be skinny thirteen-year-old boys with squeaky voices and hairy hulks who appear qualified for the defensive line of the high school football team. Similarly, flat-chested girls who have yet to experience their first menstrual cycle are mingling with fully developed counterparts who could pass for women several years older. The inevitable comparisons and insecurities can become more acute at the end of gym class if many classmates shower together.
Second, wide mood swings and strong emotional responses to the ups and downs of life are the order of the day. Physical and hormonal components contribute to this stormy weather in both sexes, although the biochemistry of the monthly cycle can accentuate the mood swings in girls.
Like the two-year-old, the young adolescent experiences life in extremes. If she gets a friendly smile from a guy she thinks is cute, everything is coming up roses. If he finishes last in the fifty-yard dash, the whole world stinks. Today two girls declare their undying friendship; tomorrow they announce they hate each other. Last summer he campaigned passionately for a new guitar; today it gathers dust in his room.
Emotional reactions to life’s twists and turns, even in a stable home environment, can provoke physical responses as well, especially headaches, abdominal pains and fatigue. While any of these may be caused by the daily strain of growing up, they should be evaluated by a physician if persistent or disruptive. Insomnia, withdrawal from activities that were once enjoyed, irritability and a marked change in appetite could signal full-blown depression, a more significant problem that should be taken seriously and treated appropriately.
In addition to these physical and emotional upheavals among individual adolescents, bringing many of them together (as occurs every school day) creates a social stew containing large doses of these volatile ingredients:
- An intense need for acceptance by peers.
- An equally intense concern about looking dumb, clumsy, or at all different from the surrounding herd of other early adolescents — who themselves are intensely concerned about looking dumb, clumsy, or at all different from everyone else.
- An ongoing struggle with self-confidence or overt feelings of inferiority, even among those who are the most attractive and talented (or tough and hostile).
- A surprising — and at times shocking — intolerance for anyone who looks or behaves a little unlike everyone else.
- A limitless capacity for creative (and often obscene) insults, put-downs and jokes directed at nearly everyone — but especially the one who is different. This is particularly and sometimes painfully obvious in group settings. Kids who are quite civilized one-on-one or who pledge their allegiance to virtue and values at their Sunday-night youth group can unleash a torrent of crude slurs during a slumber party or a school-yard basketball game. In some cases, nonstop verbal harassment can escalate to physical confrontations or violence.
Consequently, school represents more than classroom activities and homework for many adolescents. It can be a daily social gauntlet — unpleasant at best, a barbaric ordeal at worst — requiring every ounce of effort and energy just to complete the round-trip back to home base. As a result, if any physical symptom is present when the alarm clock goes off — a headache, a minor cold, too little sleep the night before, some menstrual cramping — you may encounter major resistance when you try to pry your junior higher out of bed.
Understanding Sudden Changes
Why your adolescent will detach from you and criticize you.
While you might expect your young adolescent to come to you for aid and comfort or to take cover from the daily shellings at school, the opposite may take place. The budding (or broiling) urge for independence, combined with mood swings, extreme self-consciousness and intolerance for anything that strikes them as “stupid” or “lame,” may begin to drive an alarming wedge into your relationship.
This is the age at which kids may decide that their parents are hopelessly naive, out of touch with reality, or terribly short on intelligence. Your adolescent may avoid sitting with you at church. You may hear criticism of your clothes, musical tastes and opinions. And don’t even think about wearing that slightly weird hat or doing something a little unusual (such as humming your favorite tune a little too loud) in a public place — especially the mall. You may be strongly rebuked for this “embarrassing” display, especially if (heaven forbid) someone she remotely knows might possibly see it. Her concern, of course, will not be for your reputation but hers.
This apparent detachment from you and the family may extend to cutting other moorings to the past. One day your son may suddenly pack up his action figures, shove his baseball cards into a drawer and insist that you replace the race-car wallpaper that was painstakingly installed in his bedroom just a few years ago. Your daughter’s dolls and figurines may suffer a similar fate. Some adolescents also choose this time to abandon cute childhood nicknames in favor of more grownup-sounding names. Don’t be alarmed, and certainly don’t smirk or ridicule, if you are told one day that Suzie wants to be called Susan or that Skipper is now Jonathan. Such sudden announcements that childhood is over may catch you off guard, provoking a lump in your throat or even a few tears. But welcome the transition as best you can.
During this period, early adolescents typically form and maintain strong same-sex friendships, even as interest in members of the opposite sex is growing more intense. Infatuations and crushes are to be expected, but intense romances and dating are not good at this age for a number of reasons.
Friends and peers can play a major role in reinforcing or undermining the values that matter to you. You may become frustrated by the fact that a classmate’s half-baked opinions seem to matter more than all the common sense you’ve imparted over the years. But choose wisely if you decide to intervene because the more you complain about her newfound friends, the more vigorously she may defend them. Some streetwise vigilance, ongoing prayer and evenhanded but candid conversations about who’s hot and who’s not on the current friendship list (and why) should be regular agenda items for your busy week.
While the value of your parental stock may seem to be falling by the hour, you may be surprised (and perhaps a little hurt) to see your adolescent form a powerful attachment to another adult. A teacher, choir director, favorite aunt, coach or youth leader can become the object of intense admiration and attention. This common turn of events can be a blessing if the object of this affection is an ally who shares your values and goals and who moves her in positive directions. But someone with a less constructive agenda can have a significant negative impact.
Throughout the adolescent years, a number of important developmental tasks are under way. We’ll look at these throughout the rest of the articles in this series.
The task of achieving independence from parents
With rare exception, adolescents develop a powerful drive to become independent, to be in charge of their daily affairs and their future. As a result, bucking the limits, challenging authority and resisting constraints imposed at home and at school are pretty much par for the course. Just as in the first adolescence of toddler days, the extent of willfulness and the lack of good judgment can at times be spectacular. And while it may sometimes seem outrageous, some degree of struggling against parental control is a normal and necessary part of growing up.
Your job in helping your adolescent complete this task is to release your grip in a controlled and reasonable manner. You still have the right and responsibility to make house rules. But when you impose (and defend) them, you need to do so calmly and respectfully. “Because I’m the Mom, that’s why!” may have worked with your two-year-old, but it will rarely be appropriate anymore. Few things exasperate and discourage a teenager more than being treated like an immature child, even if it may seem appropriate (to you) at the time.
Even more important is linking your adolescent’s blossoming independence to the realities and responsibilities of adult life. He will need hundreds of age-appropriate reality checks before he leaves your nest, and you are in the best position to provide them.
Body Changes and Self-Care
As adolescents undergo changes to their bodies, they will need to understand what’s happening, develop a positive body image and care for themselves.
Your adolescent is (or soon will be) in the midst of intense physical changes, especially during the early years of this period. Virtually all systems in the body are involved, but those affected by new surges of hormones will generate the most attention and concern. Three issues will dominate the landscape:
“What’s happening to me?” If your adolescent has not received some advance warning about the changes of puberty, a friendly and factual huddle about this subject will be most reassuring. Even if your teenager already appears quite mature physically, the impact of hormones and rapid growth on emotions, energy and various parts of the body may not be clear to her — or you. Your input and, if needed, her physician’s can calm many concerns.
“Do I like this body?” Adolescents are keenly interested, at times seemingly obsessed, with body image — both their own and everyone else’s. As a result, comparisons with others are always in progress. Whoever holds the winning ticket in the physical sweepstakes — the most attractive features, the knockout figure, the well-sculpted muscles, the athletic prowess — will nearly always reign supreme where teens gather. But even those who would seem destined to appear on a future cover of People magazine will struggle with doubts about their appearance and worthiness.
No matter how well assembled your teenager might appear to you and others, from her perspective someone will always seem to have a better package. Negative comparisons with that person — sometimes amazingly unrealistic — are likely. And an adolescent with an obvious physical deficit may be cruelly taunted by peers and develop a lifelong preoccupation with appearance. Accepting one’s body and taking appropriate care of it are important tasks to be accomplished during this transition to adulthood.
Your job here is a delicate one. Your teenager will need generous doses of reassurance that worth is not dependent on appearance, even when the culture around her says otherwise. You will have to endure the fact that any positive comments you make about looks, temperament, accomplishments or inherent value may not be met with expressions of thanks. It may appear that what you say doesn’t count, but it does — in a big way.
One challenge for parents will be to find the fine line between making constructive suggestions and being a nag. Your adolescent’s preoccupation with looks may not necessarily translate into specific actions to improve them or to appear pleasing to adults. In fact, at times the opposite will be true. The current “dress code” at junior high, for example, may decree an extremely casual, semi-unkempt look in order to appear “normal.” As will be discussed later, within limits, generational differences in clothing and hairstyles may not be worth a family battle.
But sometimes you may need to take the initiative. If he suffers from acne, he’ll need your help and some professional input to bring the blemishes under control. If she is clueless about clothes, Mom or a savvy relative may need to help rehabilitate the wardrobe, a project that does not need to be expensive. If weight is a problem, tactful efforts to move the scale in the right direction may improve your adolescent’s self- image and general health. These efforts should be positive, stressing healthy foods and activities for everyone in the family without focusing all the attention on one person. If there is a major problem related to food — whether an unhealthy obsession with thinness, or weight that is far above the norm for an adolescent’s height — professional help should be sought from a physician, dietitian, counselor or all of the above.
“Will I respect this body?” Whether or not they are comfortable with their physical appearance, adolescents must decide how they will care for themselves. Lifestyle and habits established at this age may continue well into adulthood, and it is never too early to establish a healthy respect for their one and only body. Prudent eating habits can be modeled and encouraged, and you can also point out that exercise isn’t merely something to be endured during PE class but is also worth pursuing (in moderation) for its own sake. Unfortunately, some teenagers who harbor a mistaken belief that “nothing can happen to me” choose to engage in substance abuse, sexual misadventures and other risk-taking behaviors that could establish long-standing negative habits or leave permanent physical (not to mention emotional) scars.
Your work in this arena should have begun years ago, and if this took place, your child’s concept of respect for his body will have roots dating from the preschool years. Even so, reasonable vigilance, good role modeling and forthright and open conversations about risky behavior will need to be on your agenda until your adolescent has completed the transition to full independence.
Peer Relationships and Identity
Friendships and self-identity will have a profound impact on adolescents and may need guidance from parents.
The impact of peers on adolescents cannot be underestimated. The right people crossing their path at critical times can reinforce positive values and enhance the entire process of growing up. The wrong individuals can escort them into extremely negative detours or suck the life out of them.
Your job is to pray with utter abandon for the friends your adolescent will make over the next several years. Without being too pushy about it, make every effort to make friends with your teenager’s friends. If your home is the most teen friendly in the neighborhood, chances are the troops will gather under your roof or in your backyard and respond to your influence in the process.
Because peers can play such a serious role for good or ill in your teen’s life, you will need to be forthright and directive about where and with whom his time is spent — especially in the early years. If the drama club, 4-H, Scouts or athletic teams provide a consistently healthy niche, by all means encourage them. But if a new “friend” who manifests an abundance of toxic language and behavior enters your adolescent’s life, don’t hesitate to take some defensive measures. This may include insisting that they spend time together only under your roof with an adult on the premises (and no closed bedroom doors). If it becomes apparent that your teenager is being swayed toward destructive habits, however, reasonable measures to keep them separated will be necessary.
If your church has a strong and active youth group, do everything you can to support it and your teen’s involvement in it. But if your youth group has gone stale or has become a clique zone, find another one. The program should honor your family’s faith and values, of course, but should also accept all comers, build positive identities and be fun as it promotes spiritual growth.
The task of developing a coherent identity
Whether they are National Merit Scholars or total nonconformists (or both), adolescents are fervently searching for a clear sense of identity. Whatever the guise or getup, the questions they continually ask boil down to these: Who cares about me? and What can I do that has any significance?
If the answers are “my God, my family and my close friends” and “impact the world in a positive way,” your main task — and it usually will be a pleasant one — will be serving as cheerleader and sounding board as your son or daughter finds the best track on which to run.
If the answers are “my friends (and hardly anyone else)” and “have fun (and hardly anything else),” the ultimate outcome could be more unpredictable. Most adolescents with this mind-set eventually grow up and find a productive niche, while some stay in this shallow, meandering rut well into adulthood. Some also drift into drug use or sexual activity in their search for the next diversion — and ultimately pay dearly for it.
For the teenager whose answers are “no one” and “nothing,” if different answers are nowhere on the horizon, the consequences may be more serious: depression, acting out, even suicidal behavior.
Obviously, it is important that your child enter adolescence with some clear and positive answers to the questions of caring and significance. During the coming seasons, he will probably ask them often and in many different ways — some of which may catch you way off guard. Even if he has lost his bearings or abandoned common sense, you will still need to communicate that your love and his significance are unshakable. As in earlier years of childhood, you will need to enforce limits and help him make some course corrections until he is on his own. But he must always know that your fundamental love for him will never change, regardless of grades, clothes, a messy room, dented fenders or more serious issues.
Discovering Interests and Developing a Worldview
How to respond to an adolescent’s concern for others as well as that period of time when he or she questions the Christian faith.
One of the most important and life-enhancing aspects of adolescence is the process of looking at a variety of activities and interests. If her childhood interests in Scouts and piano lessons don’t continue into the teen years, don’t count your time spent in those activities as wasted. She may want to explore drama or gymnastics for a while, and they may become her new passions — or she may discover that the piano really is her true love after all. Your encouragement for her to find and develop her strengths and perhaps to overcome what she (and you) might have considered her weaknesses will pay off in many ways. Not only might she find a niche of true excellence and accomplishment, but all of these activities — even the ones that don’t pan out as permanent interests — will broaden her fund of knowledge and experience. Furthermore, your support during these efforts will repeatedly affirm her value.
This is also a time during which many young people develop and hone a social conscience. Altruism often peaks during the teen years, and she may find considerable satisfaction in helping others solve problems and in volunteering to serve in worthy causes. Teenagers can be surprisingly empathetic to the suffering of others, and they may go to great lengths of energy and time to lend someone a helping hand. You will obviously want to encourage selfless and sacrificial behavior — at times you may find your own conscience stirred by your adolescent’s willingness to love the unlovely.
You should model practical concern for the needs of others and at the same time offer guidance as to the parameters of your teen’s involvement. For example, your daughter might want to rescue a friend from an abusive family situation by inviting her to stay at your home. Perhaps you are able to offer a safe haven — certainly an honorable and meaningful action — but you will also need to walk your daughter through some of the realities and details that may not have occurred to her in the rush to help. If you have a particularly generous and tenderhearted teen at home, you will have to pass along a little street wisdom to help prevent her charitable instincts from being soured by encounters with users and abusers who might take advantage of her.
The task of developing a worldview
The adolescent years are a crucial period in an individual’s development of a worldview — the basic (and often unspoken) assumptions that govern attitudes, decisions and actions. Young people often make decisions during their teens that will set a course for the rest of their lives. Many make permanent spiritual commitments at church, camp, or other events and continue to mature in their faith as the years pass. But these are also years during which fundamental questions about God and the universe are asked, and parents may find their own beliefs (or lack thereof) held up for inspection.
Many teens feel the need to chart a different spiritual course from their parents during these years, a development that can make parents feel very uneasy. What if he turns away from God and all we have taught him over the years? Before you lose too much sleep over this question, remember that your child must eventually make his own decision whether or not to follow God. You can’t do it for him. In fact, to some degree an examination of what he has heard as a child is a healthy process because he must understand eventually how his faith applies to adult situations and problems.
Your primary job will be to keep your own relationship with God thriving — which should include meaningful time in prayer for your child(ren) on an ongoing basis. Spiritual vitality that consistently manifests genuine joy, peace and other positive expressions will ultimately communicate more to your adolescent than a lot of clever (or convoluted) answers to his questions. In matters of faith (and in other arenas as well), teenagers are particularly responsive to honesty and integrity and turned off with equal fervor by hypocrisy.
If his need to assert his independence from you spills into the spiritual realm, you may need to entrust his growth in this area to other adults (or even peers) who can positively influence his view of God, faith and the world in general. Youth leaders, teachers, young couples or single adults, or other friends of the family can often “stand in the gap” for you in this area. Do what you can to encourage these contacts and interactions (without being pushy about it) and then leave the results in God’s hands.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources to help you prepare your child for adolescence
Popular questions on this topic:
- Our teen’s personality has changed drastically. How should we respond to the moodiness?
- Our daughter suffers from poor boty image. How do we address this with her?
- My pre-teen seems to have separation anxiety and doesn’t want to be away from us.
- Why are mother-daughter and father-son relationships important? What are good characteristics of those relationships?
- Preparing for Adolescence
- Adolescence Isn’t Terminal
- “Mom, I Hate My Life!” (Paperback)
- Parents Prepare For Adolescence I-II
- Suddenly They’re 13
- A Chicken’s Guide to Talking Turkey With Your Kids About Sex
- Teaching Children Healthy Sexuality
- Talking About Sex and Puberty
- Managing Tween Anger
- Is My Teen Just Angry or Is She an Angry Teen?
- Teen Rebellion
- Cutting and Self-Injury
- Eating Disorders and Kids
- Prevent the Sexualization of Your Daughter
- Combatting Cultural Influences