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Does Everything Suck? Understanding the Teen Years

Is your 14-year-old daughter sneaking out of school early to hang out with her friends at the mall? Is your son staying out late with his friends on school nights without keeping in touch with you? The transition from childhood to adulthood can be a tough time. Psychologists often describe the adolescent teen years as a developmental stage of disorientation and discovery. No longer children but not yet adults, teens wrestle with issues such as autonomy and identity. Parents of adolescents may feel frustrated with how to make sense of this phase in their maturing child’s life. What can parents learn about this time in their child’s life? How can parents help their teen through this stage?

“The adolescent time period is a bridge between childhood and adulthood,” says Dr. Deborah MacNamara, counselor and educator. “Teens will flip back and forth between being childlike or adultlike. They have an adult body, but their brain, psychology and emotions are still under development. It’s a place of great transition, but also a wonderfully exciting time.”

At a parenting program, Dr. Deborah MacNamara shared information on the topic of “Making Sense of Adolescence” with a group of about 50 parents. Dr. MacNamara is a counselor and educator who works with Dr. Gordon Neufeld, developmental psychologist and author of the award-winning book Hold on To Your Kids.

Adolescents are presented with a number of challenging developmental tasks. They are seeking their capability as a separate being from their parents and finding out how they fit in with the larger society. Three significant psychological changes are occurring for teens: Their awareness is expanding as they begin to see things they never saw before. Childhood attachment to parents is separating, and teens are striving for greater freedom and autonomy.

How do parents help their adolescents navigate through this developmental time period? What practical strategies can parents use to guide their teen through this journey of discovery?

Dr. MacNamara offers some valuable suggestions:

  • Show patience and care for your teen.

  • Encourage them to have a relationship with themselves.

  • Draw out and affirm what is there, while avoiding asking them a direct question.

  • Create space for their discovery.

  • Normalize their sadness or anxiety.

  • Allow them to experience disillusionment naturally.

  • Understand this is just a temporary stage they are going through.

In this developmental transition period, it is critical that a parent still holds onto their teen and prevents peer attachment from replacing them. Teens need someone to listen to them. Parents should hold onto their teen by maximizing attachment behaviors, such as listening with full attention and interacting over meals. It’s important to learn about your teen’s interests and chat with them about their interests. “Get in their face in a friendly way,” advises Dr. MacNamara. “Minimize their peer interactions. Set limits and encourage space for their self-reflection and self-expression.”

It’s important to maintain a relationship with your teen by continuing to connect with them through good and bad times. Once a child enters their teen years, the parental relationship needs to change into more of a ‘consultant.’ This can involve parents actively listening, asking questions and sharing information with their child in a two-way dialogue, in contrast to telling them what to do. If a family situation becomes unmanageable, don’t hesitate to ask for outside help.

Bev is a writer with a background in social work and family life education who still fondly remembers her teen rebellious days! 

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