Good News About Adolescence
Relax! The horror stories you have heard about adolescence are false.
Adolescence has long been a synonym for trouble in our society. “Everyone knows” that the road from childhood to adulthood is stormy. Extreme moodiness in adolescence is normal. Rebellion is an inevitable and necessary part of growing up. If your teenager doesn’t get involved in drugs, crime, and risky sex, consider yourself lucky.
The idea that adolescence equals trouble has been part of our folklore, handed down from generation to generation, and accepted by psychologists, educators, and parents alike. Psychologists attempted to explain the storm and stress of adolescence through theory. Sociologists concentrated on delinquents, dropouts, drug users, and other problem teenagers. Few questioned the conventional wisdom—until scientists began to study adolescence systematically, in the late 1970s. Over the past 30 years, a new wave of research has swept through the field. Psychologists began to study adolescents themselves—how they think, what they think about, how they feel about their lives, why they behave as they do, and how they respond to different types of parents. They looked not only at troubled young people, but also at ordinary, everyday kids. As a result of this research, many common assumptions about adolescence have been exposed as myths.
Adolescence is not an inherently difficult period. Psychological problems, problem behavior, and family conflict are no more common in adolescence than at any other stage of the life cycle. To be sure, some adolescents are troubled and some get into trouble. But the great majority (almost nine out of ten) do not. The problems we have come to see as a “normal” part of adolescent development—drugs, delinquency, irresponsible sex, opposition to any and all authority—are not normal at all. They are both preventable and treatable.
Good kids don’t suddenly go bad in adolescence.
The evils of peer pressure have been overrated. To be sure, adolescent are concerned about what their friends think; they do want to fit in; and they are susceptible to peer pressure. But peer pressure is not a monolithic force that presses all adolescents into the same mold. Adolescents are as varied as adults are. In some adolescent crowds, earning academic honors is the “in” thing; in others, it’s dressing to the nines or excelling in sports. In some, it’s doing drugs. Peer pressure can be a force for good or evil, positive or negative attitudes toward family and school, depending on the source. Which crowd a teenager associates with is not random. Adolescents generally choose friends whose values, attitudes, tastes, and families are similar to their own. In short, good kids rarely go bad because of their friends.
The decline of the family has also been overstated. In today’s world, the story goes, parents have little or no control over their teenagers. The decline of neighborhoods, high divorce rates, women working, the youth culture, the media, and now the Internet all combine to undermine parental authority. This is nonsense. Parents remain the major influence on their child’s attitudes and behavior through adolescence and into young adulthood. Adolescents care what you think and listen to what you say, even if they don’t always admit it or agree with every point. The majority of teenagers like their parents, respect them, agree with them on the big issues (though they might disagree over matters of taste and style), and want to please them. Good parent-child relationships do not deteriorate because of adolescence. (And this is true whether parents are married, single, divorced, or remarried: Good parent-adolescent relationships do not depend on household arrangements.)
By and large, the good news about adolescence has not reached the public. One reason is that good news isn’t news. Adolescents appear in the news only when a study finds a dramatic increase in teenage pregnancy, police discover that youth gangs are involved with drug rings, or a teenager kills her stepfather or commits suicide. The many, many adolescents who have good relationships with their parents, are doing well in school, do not use drugs, and do not get pregnant aren’t news.
A second reason adolescence continues to equal trouble in the public mind is that cultural stereotypes die hard. An apron declares, “Mother Nature, in all her wisdom, gave me 13 years to love my son before he became a teenager”; a mug asserts, “Insanity is hereditary; you get it from your children”; the “terrible teens” is as much a part of our language as the “terrible twos.” When parents of adolescents get together, they often play “Can you top this?” The parents who have survived the worst battles with their teenager get the most medals. Parents who haven’t run into serious problems, who actually enjoy
their teenagers, end up being apologetic: “I guess we are just lucky.” It is not luck.Parents Can Make a Difference
Your relationship with your child will not change for the worse in adolescence, but it will change. How you view this change can lay the groundwork for healthy or unhealthy development, good or bad times in your family.
When your child was small, you were responsible for directing and controlling an immature creature who saw you as all-knowing and all-powerful. In the near future, your young adult will take responsibility for his or her own life, and you will be more like friends. The adolescent still needs you, but in a different way. The parent-adolescent relationship is like a partnership in which the senior partner (the parent) has more expertise in many areas but looks forward to the day when the junior partner (the adolescent) will take over the business of running his or her own life. Parents who see the adolescent partnership as a losing proposition, or resist the adolescent’s desire for self-determination, are asking for trouble.
When parents expect the worst from their adolescent, they often get it. The most common adolescent response to suspicion and surveillance is rebellion: If the adolescent’s parents don’t trust her, why should she try to prove that she is trustworthy? Parents who assume that all teenagers are troubled also run the risk of overlooking the warning signs of serious problems that require immediate, professional attention.
When parents take the attitude that teenagers are teenagers and there’s nothing a parent can do, their child concludes that they don’t care. He may turn to his peers for guidance, or take unnecessary risks in the effort to discover for himself what his limits are, thus confirming his parents’ worst nightmares.
Parents who refuse to accept the fact that their child is maturing and attempt to keep everything as it was run into similar problems. Like it or not, your child is going to try to grow up. The adolescent doesn’t want you to solve every problem anymore. If you don’t make room for her friends, grant her privacy, and let her make her own decisions about clothes and music, when to do her schoolwork, and participation in extracurricular activities, she will find other, less benign ways to assert her independence.
In contrast, when parents welcome signs that their child is growing up and expect the best from their child, they often find adolescence the most rewarding time in their parental career. It’s interesting to have a child with whom you can have an adult conversation (the kind of open-ended all-nighters you haven’t had since you were their age); exciting to be in touch with the latest fashions in clothes and music; fun to be able to share activities with a teenager (if you don’t mind the fact that your daughter can beat you in tennis or knows more about computers than you do); and liberating to know that your child can take care of herself most of the time.Knowing What to Expect Is Half the Battle
Many parent-adolescent conflicts are the result not of holding on too long or giving up too soon but of misinformation. For example, parents tend to think of adolescence as beginning at age 13 or 14. When their son begins playing the stereo full blast and otherwise acting like a stereotypical teenager at age 11, they assume things can only get worse. In fact, things get better: Most families find the teenage years easier than the preteens. Parents often misread interest in friends as lack of interest in family. In reality, friends don’t subtract from the adolescent’s affection for his family but add to his circle of significant others. When the adolescent begins questioning their rules and their wisdom, many parents think, “Oh, no; my son is the one in ten who is going to be trouble.” In fact, challenging the old order is a sign of intellectual growth: You’ve raised a thinker!
Adolescence is a complicated time, but it is no more mysterious than infancy or toddlerhood. Like these earlier stages in development, it is a period of rapid growth and change. Some of the changes are biological, some intellectual, some emotional and social. Each adolescent develops according to an individual timetable. But the sequence of changes is more or less predictable. Preadolescents and young teens (roughly age 10 to 13) have different needs and concerns than middle adolescents (about age 14 to 18), and late adolescents and young adults (age 19 to 25) have needs and concerns of their own. If you know what to expect at each of these stages, you are in a much better position to understand why the adolescent behaves as he does and what he needs from you. Parents who have a better and more realistic understanding of adolescence have fewer problems during this time period. The same is true for individuals who teach, coach, supervise, or work with young people.
One crucial understanding parents need to have is that adolescence is now a much longer period than it was in previous generations.Adolescence Lasts Longer Than Ever
Adolescence has changed since most of today’s parents were teenagers. Once limited to the years from roughly 13 to 18, adolescence—at least as a psychological stage—now begins as early as 10 (because puberty occurs earlier than in previous eras) and extends into the mid-20s (because individuals remain financially dependent on their parents much longer). As a consequence, parents now confront many of the classic adolescent issues earlier in their child’s development than they had expected (e.g., having their authority questioned or discovering cigarettes in their child’s dresser drawer), and they continue to deal with others for a much longer time than they ever imagined they would (e.g., conflicts over money or battles over household chores).
This latter change has been particularly dramatic. Parental responsibilities, financial and otherwise, now extend over a greater period of time than they did in earlier generations. Today’s parents are often perplexed, sometimes anxious or even annoyed, about what they may perceive as their child’s excessive dependence, floundering, or reluctance to grow up. And today’s young people may be equally confused about drawing appropriate boundaries between themselves and their parents, creating new conflicts and tensions in the relationship. Parents of these older adolescents have different concerns than parents with preteens, but they nonetheless have questions and need guidance. When I speak to parents, I now get almost as many questions about parenting 20-somethings as I do about parenting teenagers.
A fair amount has been written about the fact that adolescence has been lengthened at both ends. But virtually everything that has been said about this transformation has focused on the individual adolescent, and very little has been said about how it has changed what it means to be a parent. A couple of generations ago, it was possible (although not advisable) for a parent to simply try to “survive” the period, because the worst-case scenario was five or six years of difficulty. Most books written for parents of teenagers were survival guides (many still are). Nowadays, adolescence is too long—15 years in some families—for mere survival. Knowledge, not fortitude, is what today’s parents need. That’s where this book comes in.
NoteA NOTE ON THE PRONOUN PROBLEM
Like many authors today, I object to using the male pronoun he
as a generic term to refer to people of both sexes. Nor am I comfortable with always using the plural forms, or constantly resorting to the cumbersome he or she
. My solution is to refer to the adolescent sometimes as male and sometimes as female. In either case, what I say about one sex applies to the other. For the most part, the concerns of female and male adolescents are similar, and boys and girls are even more alike today than they were a generation ago. If I am talking about something of special concern to one sex, I’ll say so.The Purpose of This Book
When your child was small, you probably kept one or more baby books on the shelf. These books told you what to expect at three months, six months, and a year and a half. You skimmed the book to get a preview of what lay ahead, pulled it out when something came up you hadn’t anticipated, and reviewed it now and then to reassure yourself that your child was developing normally. When the book did not give you the answer you needed, you called your pediatrician. This book is written in the spirit of those baby books.
One purpose of this book is to describe the normal
developmental changes young people undergo as they enter and move through adolescence. I will talk about what adolescents at a given age are likely to be thinking and feeling, what is probably happening at school and in their social world, how they are likely to perceive you and why. I’ll also explain why you
are feeling the way you do, and what you can do to improve your own mental health. One of the lessons of recent research on adolescence is that the period turns out to be much harder on parents than it is on teenagers.
The second purpose of this book is to suggest effective ways of relating to your adolescent. There is no magical formula for raising a healthy, well-adjusted child—and indeed, no one definition of well-adjusted
. But research does show that some strategies are more effective than others. I suggest general guidelines, offer concrete suggestions, and highlight mistakes parents often make. But you know your son or daughter better than anyone. The best advice anyone can give you is to get as much information as you can, then follow your intuition.
In line with this view, the third purpose of this book is to provide practical information that both you and your adolescent should have. For example, I tell you what happens in an adolescent’s body during puberty, what the dangers of unprotected sex are, including sexually transmitted diseases and early pregnancy, and how teenagers can protect themselves. Likewise, I discuss how the demands on students change as they move from middle school, or junior high, to high school and on to college. Much of this information is intended for parents to share
with their child. There is nothing in this book an adolescent should not see.
The fourth purpose is to alert you to potential problems and tell you when you should be concerned and what you should do. Adolescence is not inevitably a bad time for families, but it is almost always a challenging one. There are many professionals trained to deal with the special medical and psychological needs of adolescents and their families. Help is available if and when you need it.The Organization of This Book
The first section of the book, “The Basics,” deals with issues that come up throughout the adolescent period. I introduce the basic principles of effective parenting, discuss how you can improve the climate of communication and resolve conflicts to everyone’s benefit, talk about when and how to get professional help, and address the special concerns of working parents, divorced parents, and stepparents. My goal in this section is not to sell a philosophy of parenting but to report what psychologists have learned about adolescents and their families.
The main body of the book is organized chronologically into sections on preadolescence and early adolescence (ages 10 to 13 years), middle adolescence (14 to 18), and late adolescence and the transition to adulthood (19 to 25). The topics within each section are geared toward that particular stage of adolescence. For example, young adolescents are interested in learning about sex, but most teenagers do not begin having sexual intercourse until middle or late adolescence. For this reason, I discuss how to talk to your child about sex in the section on early adolescence but do not cover sexual decision-making, contraception, or pregnancy until middle adolescence. Similarly, under the topic of money management, I discuss earnings from after-school jobs in the section on middle adolescence, but how to help your young adult develop a budget in the section on late adolescence.
Parents should not take the boundaries between stages of adolescence too literally, however. Adolescents develop at different rates. Labeling ages 10 to 13 early adolescence, ages 14 to 18 middle adolescence, and ages 19 to 25 late adolescence is not a statement about what is normal or expected. (For purposes of this book, I will sometimes refer to people in their early 20s as “late adolescents.”) The correlation between chronological age and levels of development is much weaker in adolescence than in earlier stages. For example, I discuss puberty in the section on early adolescence because most teenagers begin developing sometime between the ages of 10 and 13. Others do not show signs of puberty until age 14 or 15, though. This does not mean the latter are “late developers” in the sense that a child who hasn’t begun talking by age 3½ is a late developer. Either pattern is normal. I discuss questions about cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana in the section on early adolescence, and the use and abuse of these and harder drugs in middle adolescence. But in some communities, young people are exposed to illicit drugs and experiment with them at an early age. If this is the case in your community, or if you and the young adolescent simply want to know more, by all means skip ahead. (Cross-references in the text will tell you where the subject is continued.)
The book can be used either as an introduction and guide to adolescent development or as a reference book. I believe it will be most useful if you read through an entire section as your child enters this stage of development, to get a general sense of what to expect, then refer back to specific topics as questions arise. The index will guide you to specific information when you need it. If your child is already in middle adolescence, however, I recommend at least skimming the earlier chapters. Much of what is happening now builds on what went before. The same is true if it is late adolescence that you have questions about. Knowing what takes place in middle adolescence will help you better understand your 20-year-old.
It’s also important to understand psychological development in middle adulthood—the time of life when most parents have teenage children. The relationship you have with your adolescent is influenced by both of you.Crossing Paths: When Adolescence Meets Midlife
Because most parents are in their late 20s or early 30s when their first child is born, the child’s entrance into adolescence often coincides with the parent’s transition into midlife. Many of the mixed emotions parents feel in response to their teenager’s growth toward independence result from, or at least are exacerbated by, the parent’s own struggles with middle age. It’s not a topic that has received a lot of attention, but there is good reason to believe that at least some of the difficulties parents have when their teenagers are children are as much attributable to what parents
are going through as to what their child is going through.
The juxtaposition of adolescence and midlife is ironic—some might even say it’s downright perverse. Your son’s sense of limitless possibilities collides with the sinking feeling you harbor that your own life choices are now cast in concrete. You can’t help but notice the contrast between your daughter’s freedom and carefree lifestyle and the substantial personal and financial responsibilities you shoulder—not only as her father, but as a husband, employee, and adult son of aging parents with their own problems. The excitement your teenager exudes while getting ready for a night out with a new date is something your spouse hasn’t expressed toward you (or vice versa, for that matter) in a long, long time. You realize that when you walk down the street with your daughter, more men are looking at her than at you.
Not many adults experience a full-blown “midlife crisis,” in which they quit their job, leave their spouse, and drive off into the sunset in a sparkling new convertible. But the majority of parents do go through a period of heightened introspection and self-evaluation sometime during their 40s, just about the time when their first child is in the midst of adolescence. Grappling with the questions of midlife (“Am I really happy in this marriage?” “Did I choose the right career?” “What am I going to do with the rest of my life, now that my children no longer need me as much?” “What would my life have been like if only I had [fill in the blank]”) is hard enough; facing them while your teenager is just coming into maturity makes them that much more vexing.
Most parents are able to work through their midlife concerns successfully enough without them taking a toll on their relationship with their teenager. But some mothers and fathers find it difficult to enjoy their child’s adolescence while they themselves are struggling through middle age. Inside, they may feel jealous of their teenager’s youth, regretful of decisions made when they themselves were younger, abandoned by a child who no longer “needs” the same level of parental attention, or powerless in the face of the adolescent’s autonomy. Unconsciously, these parents may let their own internal struggles color their feelings about their child and tarnish their relationship with their adolescent. The jealous parent may be a spoilsport when she sees her teenager having too much fun (“I wish I had all the time in the world to spend hours on the phone with my friends”). The regretful parent may try to mold his adolescent into the person he wishes he had been (“It’s really a shame you decided not to go pre-med; I wish I had”). The recently divorced parent feels abandoned when her teenager decides to spend Friday night with her girlfriends instead of staying home (“But I was really looking forward to our movie night, sweetie”). The powerless stepparent cracks down irrationally (“I don’t care what you were allowed to do before; you are not allowed to have food in your bedroom”).
In one of my own studies of how adolescence affects parents’ well-being, more than one-third of parents reported increases in depression, self-doubt, and dissatisfaction with marriage, work, or life in general during their child’s early adolescent years. (The good news is that about one-fifth reported that their mental health improved.) If you feel that your own midlife struggles, by themselves or in combination with the challenges of raising a teenager, may be contributing to problems around your house or affecting your own mental health, here are some things to keep in mind:
Make sure you have genuine and satisfying interests outside of being a parent. Most parents who cope well during midlife have a real zest for something in addition to being a parent. For some it is marriage, for others work, and for still others an outside hobby or interest. If you are fortunate enough to have a happy marriage, a satisfying career, or a stimulating hobby, do what you can to strengthen your commitment to it even further. If you are not so fortunate, take steps to establish a satisfying foothold outside of the parental role. Don’t fall for the fallacy that one has to choose between work and family. The happiest, most well-adjusted adults tend to have strong commitments to both.
Don’t disengage from your child emotionally. Adults fare better in middle age when they have warm, involved, and emotionally close relationships with their children. Disengaging from your child will not protect you from the psychological effects of seeing your child mature. It will, however, jeopardize your child’s well-being, and this, in turn, will adversely affect your own. The healthiest children, and the healthiest parents, have a relationship that is authoritative—warm, firm, and communicative (see chapter 2).
Try to adopt a positive outlook about what adolescence is and how your child is changing. If you approach your child’s adolescence as if it is a problem, you may well turn it into one, not only for your child, but for yourself as well. Instead of viewing your child as challenging your authority, remind yourself that raising a curious, assertive child is wonderful, not problematic. Instead of seeing your child’s emotional growth as the end of your relationship, try to envision how the relationship you have with your son or daughter can be strengthened by your child’s new maturity. Instead of viewing your child’s independence with fear and trepidation, try to reframe it as something that is not just inevitable but desirable. Don’t view your child’s striving for autonomy as a sign that he or she does not want to be emotionally close to you. Remember, adolescents learn healthy independence best in the context of a close parent-child relationship.
Don’t take it personally. It’s normal for teenagers to question authority, expose adults’ hypocrisy, seek privacy, and crave independence. It’s not anything you’re doing that makes your child petrified about being seen with you in public. As irrational as it may seem, she doesn’t want the rest of the world to know that she is still someone’s child. When she rolls her eyes whenever you open your mouth in front of her friends, she’s not really criticizing you, although it may feel like it. Rather, she’s trying to distance herself from what you represent: a constant reminder that she was once someone’s baby.
Don’t be afraid to discuss what you are feeling with your spouse or partner, your friends, or, if need be, a professional counselor. It’s normal for parents to occasionally feel angry, jealous, or resentful, even when logic says otherwise. All parents have ambivalent feelings about their children growing up. We simply haven’t been socialized to express these feelings—not to others, and not to ourselves. You may find comfort in venting some of what you are feeling, and solace in learning that you are not alone.
© 2011 Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D.