The teenage years can be an emotional assault course for all concerned. Parents and their teenage offspring may seem to be at each other’s throats. The special name for this stormy time is adolescence. However, recent studies have shown that most teenagers actually like their parents and feel that they get on well with them. So why do so many people find adolescence so difficult? It’s a time of rapid physical development and deep emotional changes. These can be exciting, but also confusing and uncomfortable for child and parent alike. In this leaflet you will find information about these changes, the upheavals they can cause, the special problems that arise and ways in which they can be managed.
The changes of adolescence
The rapid changes of adolescence start gradually, from around eleven years for girls, thirteen for boys. The hormone changes responsible actually begin some years earlier and may produce periods of moodiness and restlessness. Girls start these changes before boys and will, for the first three or four years, appear to be maturing much faster. After this, boys catch up. By the age of 17, they’ll be young men and women who may be as big as their parents and capable of having children themselves. This is all complicated by the fact that a daughter’s ability to conceive may emerge at the time her mother is losing hers – the menopause. The good times and opportunities that adolescent children have may well make their parents feel very middle-aged and even envious.
It is not surprising that, with the speed of these changes, some adolescents become very concerned about their appearance. They may need a lot of reassurance, especially if they are not growing or maturing as quickly as their friends. They and their parents may worry less if they are aware that there’s a lot of difference in the ages at which rapid growth occurs, at which girls have their first period or at which boys’ voices break. All this growth and development uses a lot of energy, and this may be why teenagers often seem to need so much sleep. Their getting-up late may be irritating, but it may well not be just laziness.
As well as growing taller, starting to shave or having periods, people of this age start to think and feel differently. They start to make close relationships outside the family, with friends of their own age. Relationships within the family also change. Parents become less all-important in their children’s eyes as life outside the family develops.
Real disagreements emerge for the first time as young people develop views of their own that are often not shared by their parents. As everybody knows, adolescents spend a lot of time in each other’s company, or on the telephone to each other. Although this can be irritating to parents, it is an important way of gaining a sense of identity that is distinct from that of the family. These friendships are part of learning how to get on with other people. Clothes and appearance become very important, both as a way of expressing solidarity with friends, and as a way of declaring a growing independence from the family.
Parents often feel rejected, and in a sense they are. But this apparent rejection is necessary for young people to become adults with their own identity. Rows and arguments may be frequent, yet adolescents will usually hold their parents in high regard. The rejections and conflicts are often not to do with parents’ personalities but simply with the fact that they are parents, from whom their children must become increasingly independent if they are to have their own life.
Striving to become more independent, young people want to try out new things, but often recognise that they have little experience to fall back on when under stress. This may produce rapid changes in self-confidence and behaviour – appearing to be very grown up one minute, very young the next. Being upset or lacking confidence can make them feel childish, and so is often expressed in sulky behaviour rather than open distress. Parents have to be pretty flexible to deal with all this, and may feel under considerable strain themselves.
Adolescence is the time when people first start to learn about the world in earnest and to find their place in it. This involves trying out new experiences, some of which may be risky or even dangerous. People of this age crave excitement in a way that most adults find difficult to understand – and exciting activities may be dangerous ones. Fortunately most people manage to find their excitement in music, sport, or other activities that involve a lot of energy but little real physical risk.
Whatever experimentation does take place – with drink or drugs or smoking – is usually in the company of others. Those who do so alone are in much greater danger. Warnings from older adolescents may well have more effect than those from adults.
1. Emotional problems
Research has shown that at some time 4 out of 10 adolescents have felt so miserable that they have cried and have wanted to get away from everyone and everything. In the course of their adolescence, more than 1 in 5 think so little of themselves that life does not seem worth living. These common feelings can produce a state of depression that may not be obvious to other people. Over-eating, excessive sleepiness and a persistent over-concern with appearance may also be signs of emotional distress. More obviously, phobias and panic attacks may appear. Recent research suggests that emotional disorders are often not recognised, even by family and friends.
2. Sexual problems
The dramatic physical changes of adolescence can be very worrying to some teenagers, especially to those who are shy and who don’t like to ask questions. At the other end of the scale, concern may show up in excessive bragging about sexual ability and experiences. More than half will have had their first experience of penetrative sex before the age of 16 and so the fear and risk of pregnancy are an important part of adolescent life. Also it is not lawful for boys to have sex with girls who are less than 16. Those who begin penetrative sex early are at greater risk of early pregnancy and health problems. The new risks of HIV infection and AIDS cause great concern to many. There may also be doubts about whether an adolescent is gay or straight by some young people and their parents.
Sensitive support, clear guidance and accurate information about these different aspects of sex are greatly appreciated – from parents, schools, family doctors, and sometimes family planning clinics.
Most adolescents are quite careful in their choice of partners. Promiscuity and repeated, risky unprotected intercourse are often signs of underlying emotional problems. They may also be the signs of a risk-taking lifestyle – adolescents who take risks in one way tend to take risks all-round.
3. Behaviour problems
Teenagers and their parents complain about each other’s behaviour. Parents often feel they have lost any sort of control or influence over their child. At the same time as wanting their parents to be clear, wanting some structure and boundaries, adolescents resent parental restrictions on their growing freedom and ability to decide for themselves. Disagreements are common, part of the young person’s struggle to forge a separate identity. This is all normal, but may get to the point where parents have really lost control, not knowing where their children are, what they are up to, or what is happening to them. Experience suggests that children are at greater risk of getting into trouble if their parents don’t know where they are, so it is important that they let their parents know where they are going and that parents ask.
4. School problems
Refusal to go to school is commonly due to difficulties in separating from parents, and may have happened before in primary school. Such children commonly suffer physical symptoms such as headache or stomach-ache.
Those who go to school, but then play truant, are usually unhappy at home and frustrated at school, so spend their days with others who feel the same way.
Emotional problems will often affect school work – worry about oneself, or about what is going on at home, makes it difficult to concentrate.
Pressure to do well and to pass exams may come from parents or teachers, but adolescents usually want to do well and will push themselves.
Excessive nagging can be counter-productive. Exams are important, but they should not be allowed to dominate life or to cause unhappiness.
5. Trouble with the law
Most young people do not break the law, and those that do are usually boys. When they do, it usually only happens once. Repeated offending may reflect a family culture, but may also result from unhappiness or distress – so it is always worth asking about these feelings when an adolescent is repeatedly getting into trouble.
6. Eating problems
A common cause of unhappiness is being fat, which may cause a vicious circle to develop. Overweight adolescents who are criticised or made fun of, maybe at home, maybe at school, or both, become depressed and grow to dislike themselves. This leads to inactivity and comfort eating, which worsens the weight problem – dieting can actually aggravate the situation. It is more important to ensure that they feel happy with themselves, fat or thin.
Many adolescents diet, particularly girls, but fortunately very few will develop serious eating disorders, anorexia or bulimia. However, these are more likely to occur in those who take up serious dieting, think very little of themselves, are under stress and who have been over-weight as a child. (See The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ ‘Help is at Hand’ leaflet on Anorexia and Bulimia).
7. Drugs, solvents and alcohol
Most teenagers never use drugs or inhale solvents, and most that do never get beyond experimenting with them. Despite the publicity about other drugs, alcohol is the most common drug which causes problems for adolescents. The possibility of any form of drug use should be considered when parents notice serious, sudden changes in behaviour.
Finally, physical, emotional and sexual abuse may occur in adolescence and may cause many of the problems mentioned above. Families with these problems need expert advice and should seek help. The list of organisations at the end of this leaflet may be able to point you in the right direction.
Less common problems
Much less often, changes in behaviour and mood can mark the beginning of more serious psychiatric disorders. Although uncommon, manic depression and schizophrenia may emerge for the first time during adolescent years. Extreme withdrawal may indicate schizophrenia, though there are usually other explanations for such behaviour. Parents who are concerned about these possibilities should seek further information from their family doctor.
How to cope
Adolescence can be a time when the process of growing up can help people to make positive changes and to put the problems of the past behind them. It is not just a difficult stage, although it can feel very much like it at times.
The anxiety experienced by parents is more than matched by the periods of uncertainty, turmoil and unhappiness experienced by the adolescent. In spite of this, most don’t develop serious problems, although difficult times come and go.
Most difficulties in adolescence are not serious or long-term. This may be cold comfort to those who are struggling to get through it. Parents may even start to feel that they have failed. However, whatever may be said in the heat of the moment, parents still play a crucial part in their children’s lives.
One of their jobs is to provide a secure base for their offspring to come back to. The first way to ensure this is for parents to agree between themselves and support each other. One parent allying themself with a child against the other parent is a recipe for disaster.
The next requirement is – rules. However fast people are growing up, parents are the children’s providers and it is reasonable that they should decide what the ground rules are. Whilst adolescents may protest, sensible rules can be the basis for security and agreement. They must be clear, so everybody knows where they stand, and must be applied consistently. Rules should be reasonable and become less restrictive as older children become more responsible. Parents need to sort out what is important and what isn’t, so that there aren’t rules for everything. While some issues will not be negotiable, there should be room for bargaining on others. Sanctions such as grounding or loss of pocket money will work better if they are established in advance; these should never be threatened if they are not going to be carried out.
Another task for adults is to be a source of advice, sympathy and comfort. This will only happen if adolescents know that their parents will not automatically jump down their throat with a judgement, a criticism or routine advice. Listening is what’s needed first.
Lastly, parents shouldn’t expect their children to be grateful – they probably won’t be until they have children of their own and realise what an exhausting job it is!
Sometimes, all of this may not be enough and the family (or the adolescent) may be unable to cope.
Worries about the physical changes of adolescence – are they too early, too late or ever going to happen – or about relationships can be discussed with the family doctor.
When problems arise at school, obviously teachers may be a useful source of information. The teacher may suggest that an educational psychologist becomes involved. Psychologists can find out if there are any particular problems with learning, but can also offer counselling if relationships are the issue.
Adolescents who experience turmoil or distress for more than a few months – persistent depression, anxiety, serious eating disorders or difficult behaviour – generally require outside help. Counselling agencies may be suitable if things have not gone too far. They exist for young people and for parents and some contact addresses are listed below.
However, specialist help may be needed from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. They mainly offer out-patient treatment and can be contacted through the family doctor.
As they grow older, develop the desire for privacy and need to be less dependent, adolescents may, quite naturally, wish to see the doctor on their own. The law allows them to agree their own treatment from the age of 16, or younger under certain circumstances.