Early adolescence can be an exciting time for teens and their parents. They are becoming more independent and relying less and less on their parents. Although the shift in quantity of time spent together and in control over their child’s life can lead to some strain and conflict in the parent-child relationship, it is important to remember that teenagers still enjoy high-quality interactions with their parents and ultimately desire close relationships with them. Although young teens strive for autonomy, parents still need to monitor their whereabouts and how they are doing and still serve as important role models for their children.
Pubertal development is probably the most distinctive feature of adolescence. Because most of the physical changes are almost impossible to hide, it leads to a number of social changes beyond those experienced within the body. In fact, puberty is typically seen as a multi-level (biological, psychological, social), multi-stage process that takes approximately five to six years. Puberty influences how a teen acts, feels, and thinks, with their peers, at school, and at home. While there is a broad range of when it begins and how fast it takes place for each individual, puberty usually begins in the late stages middle childhood and ends sometime in adolescence.
Although adolescents can sometimes act and look like young adults, their brains are still developing. This means that they can have difficulty effectively managing their emotions in the context of stressful circumstances, such as peer problems or academic difficulties. They may seem moodier and experience mood swings, but because they are striving for more independence and use their peers as their primary resource for support, they may not ask for help from their parents. Adolescents will begin to form cliques that are more rigid in terms of shared interests and values than those in middle childhood. Clique membership can undergo frequent changes as adolescents explore their identity. Friendship conflict and change can be particularly stressful during adolescence, especially on females.
An increased desire for independence may lead to rule and limit testing. This is the time that they may start to experiment with sex and drugs. Because they are focused on the here and now versus the future, it is important for parents to discuss these topics with their teens to help them think through the consequences of their actions. At the same time, teens are better able to understand, think about, and incorporate morals and values than children because of their ability to think about abstract concepts.
While middle childhood is about understanding strengths and weaknesses, individuals begin to really think about “who” they are in adolescence. They will actively seek out their identity and try on many hats before they decide who they are. This may or may not lead to some social, family, and emotional upheaval. For example, considering new political views could lead to conflict with family members.
While adolescence is frequently thought of as a stormy time in development, excessive stress and turmoil is not normal.
Signs that suggest that an evaluation is needed:
- Significant decline in school performance
- Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
- Significant changes in sleeping and or eating habits
- Extreme difficulties concentrating
- Sexual acting out
- Depression shown by sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude, often accompanied by poor appetite, difficulty sleeping, thoughts of death
- Severe mood swings
- Repeated use of alcohol and/or drugs
- Intense fear of becoming obese with the relationship to actual body weight, excessive dieting, throwing up, or using laxatives to lose weight
- Persistent nightmares
- Threats of self-harm or harm to others
- Self-injury or self-destructive behavior
- Frequent outbursts of anger, aggression
- Repeated threats to run away
- Aggressive or nonaggressive consistent violations of rights of others, opposition to authority, truancy, theft, or vandalism
- Strange thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or unusual behaviors