Understanding the Developmental Stage for Adolescents

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“I just want to strangle her” said the exacerbated mom about her daughter. Of course she did not really want to cause physical harm to her child but similar statements of intense frustration and anger from parents are vented to me. So the question is why can a teenager trigger this reaction in one of their parents? The best way to understand this is by understanding the physical and developmental stage that adolescents must go through prior to becoming adults.

Anna Freud describes the teen years as “adolescent revolt” A period where the adolescent regresses to self-centered behaviors and will tend to reject their parents values and family norms while seeking their identity and place within society. Jean Piaget’s theory of development looks at how the teen begins to have the ability for abstract thought, struggles with moral and ethical dilemmas, and begin to have deductive reasoning, the process of analyzing problems and finding logical conclusions. This allows for the adolescent to challenge the beliefs and social mores they have been exposed to while finding their sense of identity and resiliency separate from their parents. Erikson’s theory of “Psychosocial Development asserts that from the age of 12 to 18 is the stage of “Identify versus Role Confusion.” In this stage, “a reintegrated sense of self, of what one wants to do or be, and of one’s appropriate sexual role. During this stage the body image of the adolescent changes.” (Bee, 1992) Add to this the hormones and testosterone that is raging as a result of puberty causing significant shifts in mood, running the gamut of dramatic highs to deep lows, sometimes cycling for only a few minutes or hours.

One question I am often asked is, “What is the difference between adolescent “angst” and behaviors that go beyond this stage of development.” While difficult to assess the difference between normalcy and abnormal behavior, there are certain behavioral traits to look for. For example, is the acting out excessive, causing difficulty in social and academic functioning? Are your child’s grades dropping? Are they isolating from previous friends? Is he or she experimenting with alcohol or cannabis on a regular basis? Do they defy authority to the point that it causes conflict with teachers or peers, resulting in disciplinary problems? In short, are your son’s or daughter’s behaviors causing significant difficulty in their social or academic functioning?

During this time of development, teens start to learn to regulate their emotions. A father recently told me that their daughter can be a drama queen one minute and delightful the next. Regulating our emotions is a skill developed in adolescence and honed in the early twenties. Mastery of this skill can be delayed or accomplished during this phase. Good role models in the community and at home, along with peers that are a positive influence greatly speed up the process. However regulation of moods can be hampered by their environment, use of mind altering substances, depression or anxiety.

Sexual identity for teens is a difficult and necessary part of their development. Sexual identity is the adolescent figuring out how to be a man or woman. Exploration, attraction to others, the awkwardness that accompanies social interactions with the opposite sex. Some adolescent discover they identify closer or completely to the gender they were not born with. Depending on the community and family values, this can either be a time for growth or struggle. Finally developing a sense of wholeness in the body they have. Most teens struggle with a distorted body image despite others telling them they look great, they will only see the flaws such as an emerging pimple or a bad hair day. Adults can help or hinder this depending on how they address it with their child.

However, most teens when brought up in a stable home environment, will travel through this period of growth and come out the other end as happy productive members of society. A wise parent will remember that “this too shall pass” and be grateful for helping their child grow and thrive in an increasingly more complicated world. Even if at times you want still want to metaphorically strangle them.