Adolescents/teenagers are words to strike fear in the hearts of most parents. There is a commonly accepted notion that all teenagers are difficult, uncooperative, sullen, unhelpful, tired and absent – that is when they are not getting into trouble or having sex or drinking or taking drugs. Of course this is all a gross exaggeration; the very idea of ‘teenagers’ was only invented fifty years ago. Adolescence is a complicated time. Bodily changes combine with cognitive changes to make what can be an explosive mix. Factor in social expectations and Boom!!!

One of the big threats hanging over all parents is that their adorable babies will turn into teenagers one day. These cute little babies will become those ghastly people we have all read about: they grunt and complain and slam doors – they don’t help in the house, they go around with unsuitable people, they never study, they use the house like a hotel and you like a taxi driver, and they appear to eat money.  You still love them but you find them incredibly hard to live with.  One minute, you have pleasant, intelligent, civilized children, and ten minutes later you are living with moody miseries.  It’s not always like this, some children develop into adults without you spotting the change.

Some of this is down to luck – children often take on the colouring of the children they mix with. If the other children in his class start drinking, think that being drunk is good fun, or secretly smoke and feel it looks really cool, your son might too. If your daughter is part of a class where girls wear a lot of make-up, are seriously fashionable, go out with boys and find sex an attractive proposition, she is more likely to become a sociable creature who is rarely at home.  It’s the same with homework, drugs, working etc – teenagers usually want to be just like every other teenager. And everyone else means those with whom they are mixing, and that is often down to chance.

Adolescence is a time of psychological and physiological change. The teenager is faced with a number of significant changes, often known as the Tasks of Adolescence. Although these were originally identified decades ago by Havinghurst [1953], the principles still stand. These encompass a whole range of attitudes and behaviours that will see the child become an adult and, to some extent, understanding how much must be done might well help you tolerate otherwise unacceptable behaviour.

The Tasks of Adolescence include:

Achieving a stable sense of self: your child must accept a new role as a boy/girl, making more mature relationships with peers and a changing relationship with the other sex. Young children are fairly sexless in their play, accepting that both girls and boys can play with similar toys. As young people get older, they must adjust their friendships, accepting that some things are less acceptable than they. A teenage boy who embroiders must be prepared to defend his interest.

Moving towards financial independence: this is particularly complicated in our changing society where children remain financially reliant until a relatively late age. A child depends on parents for everything But as they move through adolescence young people increasingly have to make decisions about money. They must prioritise their spending, and work out how to generate enough income to cover their bills and social expenses.

Accepting a number of body changes and using their body effectively: both boys’ and girls’ bodies develop sexual characteristics. A boy’s voice deepens, his body shape changes, he grows body hair etc. A girl develops breasts and body hair and has to adjust to menstruation. These changes may not be desired and rarely result in the figure that the young person has anticipated. This is the period of life when we all must adjust to the body and looks we inherited. Braces on your teeth and contact lenses may adjust minor features, but the adolescent has to come to terms with the genetic endowment that has been handed down. This is increasingly difficult as images of ‘ideal’ bodies and faces are thrust at us.

Making his own place in the world: a very few people remain the son/daughter of their parents and work within the family firm; most have to determine a future that will provide them with the most overall satisfaction.

Preparing for partnership and marriage, preparing for family life: increasingly, young people are growing up in less stable and consistent family structures. The media no longer reflects a ‘happy family’ life style as the norm, finding audiences respond better to a depiction of dysfunction. Young people no longer have a clearly defined family model to imitate. Often, they assume that what they see on television is a manifestation of real life. [this is true of us all – we use film and television depiction of adolescence to reinforce a belief that ‘all’ teenagers drink, take drugs etc]. There are now so very many patterns of ‘family’ that children may be confused about what is the norm – perhaps even taking their cues from films that have gone to some trouble to ‘normalise’ gay couples etc.

Evolving an emotional independence from parents: small children are totally dependent on their parents in every arena, particularly emotionally. As children grow older, they usually work through a fierce independence when they won’t accept anything from parents. They can do everything for themselves and reject help from all quarters. Later still, they grow into an understanding that interdependence is good – it is possible to ask for help without admitting to weakness.

Developing a personal morality and ethical code: young children tend to do as they are told, or as their friends do. Concepts of morality take some time to develop and require more independence of thinking. Do they agree that telling lies is sometimes justified or that it’s OK to drive after one drink? Young people have to decide for themselves what they believe in and to what extent they might defend their beliefs. They must decide whether, for example, they believe in abortion, or they would tell if a friend was shop-lifting or was involved with drugs.  There are other physiological considerations to take into account too. Hormones affect behaviour quite significantly. In girls, it is relatively simple to link hormones to physical development, and to mood changes – some girls are patently very different in the days around and during a period. With boys, things are less clear cut but a number of parents believe their sons’ behaviour follows a pattern.

Interestingly, there is a four year gap between sexual maturity for girls and boys, and the prime age for reproduction, with 19 as the average age for having a first child in most cultures. It had long been assumed that the brain was fully formed by late childhood. We knew a lot of changes happened in the first couple of years of life and that for some time after that the brain was ‘plastic’ and could adapt to different challenges, for example transferring functions to different parts of the brain if necessary. Recent research, however, monitored the development of the brain through adolescence and discovered that a number of changes happen during this time. These can affect behaviour.

The hormones released in adolescence are especially active in the limbic system. This leads to a need in young people to seek new experiences, strong sensations and thrills. It encourages exploration and a desire to leave safety and strike out alone. Unfortunately, the parts of the brain responsible for exercising judgement are still maturing during adolescence. Experiments showed that young people rely more on the amygdala to make judgements. The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with emotional and gut reactions. Adults use the frontal lobe in the same situations – involving planning and analysis in the judgements they make.

When young people were shown photos of a number of facial expressions they tended to misread them, often judging them adverse or negative. Overall, it seems that young people can be as adept as adults at making a number of judgements but that teenagers will take risks when with their friends while those over twenty are less likely to be affected by the presence of others. Some researchers suggest that immature development of a particular area of the brain, leads to a motivational deficit so that teenagers tend to behave in ways that offer rewards of high excitement or require very little effort. [Researchers go further to say that teenagers are more likely to comply with suggestions that offer immediate payback rather than a delayed pay-off].

Further studies show that melatonin levels take longer to rise in teenagers than in younger children or adults. This means that teens are slower to start night time and feel the need to sleep longer in the mornings, [and these wonderful children often share this not-sleeping with the family, wandering around the house and watching television when everyone else is ready to sleep. Similarly, playing dead in the morning when you need everyone to get up!!!]. Paper rounds are quite challenging for teenagers. This problem has been acknowledged by some schools which now offer a later start to the older years.  It has also been suggested that the production of melatonin is reduced by radiation emissions from screens [computer, television, Wiis, etc] and this may lead to earlier onset of puberty.

Adolescence is a testing time for many reasons. Knowing what underpins some behaviours may help parents to tolerate some of the excesses. The basic principles of behavioural management apply whatever your child’s age, but you might have to be more subtle with teenagers. I particularly admired the mother who said ‘of course she’d be delighted to give her son a lift – but not just yet as she had to tidy his room first’. Next time he tidied it.  Use whatever leverage you have to encourage co-operation. If your child has pocket-money, you can reduce it or make some of it contingent on behaviour. Consider an allowance to teach the teenager the value of money. If your child likes to go out, he can be grounded temporarily or not given a lift until his homework is complete. If your child is rude, you can just be deaf. Not all teenagers are impossible to live with though they will depress, amaze and frighten you at times – whatever happens, adolescence is the time when you realise how little you know of this young person, how wonderful you or your parents were by comparison, and how much you will miss them when it’s time to move on.