Parenting through the early years of adolescence
Adolescence and the journey from childhood to adulthood is one of the most rapid phases of development. The changes that occur may appear universal, yet the time and speed varies greatly both among and even within individuals. External factors such as getting adequate nutrition or being exposed to an abusive environment will also impact on these changes.
The changes that come with adolescence
The years between childhood and the start of adolescence – typically the so-called ‘tween’ years between ten and twelve years old - see a series of challenges which can seem to merge into one. Moving from being the ‘big kids’ at primary school, for example, to becoming small fry again at a potentially larger and more impersonal secondary school.
The onslaught of hormones and associated body development can pose further challenges to the young person. Adolescence is a time for young people to establish their own individual identity, which involves spending more time with and connecting more closely with their peer group than their family.
The biology of adolescence
When thinking about parenting and communicating with younger adolescents, it is worth looking at what is happening developmentally.
Whilst there are individual differences, overall, biological maturity is reached before psychosocial maturity. The limbic system which is responsible for pleasure seeking, emotional responses and sleep regulation changes before the area of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) which deals with decision making, forward planning, organisation and impulse control. This means that, until the pre-frontal cortex catches up with the limbic system, the desire to seek short-term rewards and social pressures from peers override rational thinking.
What does this mean for adolescents?
- As their capacity for decision making is still developing, younger adolescents can be especially vulnerable at just the time they are starting to look outside of the confines of their family.
- Some adolescents are especially vulnerable, for example, those growing up in poverty, where there is family violence, where the adults around them have issues with alcohol and other drugs.
- Certain health issues that may appear during adolescence such as mental health issues or issues around substance misuse reflect both the biological changes of puberty and the social setting in which young people are growing up in.
- These health consequences may well impact the individual throughout adolescence and throughout adulthood.
- Young people and the adults around them need to understand the processes that are occurring during adolescence.
- Not all young people are the same.
Communicating with your adolescent child
If you are reading this and you are over 25 years old – congratulations, you survived adolescence! Whilst your adolescent child may be happy to hear about your values, opinions and your experiences as a young person no one appreciates being judged or talked down to.
Make the effort to listen without judgement and really try to hear what is being said. Jumping in with an immediate reaction will present a real challenge to having a meaningful discussion. Lectures are not heard. A young person who is upset or in crisis will not be able to absorb information unless it is delivered in a really concrete, specific way that they can follow.
Young people may express and exaggerate fleeting feelings, such as hating someone one day and being best friends with them the next. Empathise but first and foremost, be a sounding board. If you blast the friend they had the fight with you will be in the wrong when they are the best of friends again the next day.
Establish open and loving communication with your child but be consistent. Young people need boundaries and limits and whilst they will push these let them know that, if they do, there will be consequences. Give specifics, so ‘If you do X then the consequences will be Y, but you can still come to me if you are ever in trouble’.
Supporting yourself as a parent
Finally, look after your own wellbeing. Parenting through the early years of adolescence can be particularly stressful. Parenting babies and toddlers is recognised as a time when mental health issues, anxieties or depression can become an issue. These feelings do not necessarily end when your child turns one.
Create a support network rather than depending on the other parent: your relationship will not need the additional strain. Prioritise your feelings and make sure you are getting the love and support you need as well as giving it to children and loved ones.
Remember that counselling can support parents too.