Just as a child goes through many stages of development, adults go through “stages” in their role as parents. First-time parents typically go through the fantasy stage when expecting their child. Everything is new and a parent tends to think of little else for about nine months. Expectant parents (first-time or otherwise) often fanaticize about what their child will look like, plan for a nursery, buy tiny clothes, and purchase toys the child will not even enjoy for months to come! Those plans are the first steps in our child’s life, and our first steps as new parents. In essence, many parents carefully prepare for a newborn to enter their lives.
This planning does not seem to continue as children grow, especially between the elementary years and adolescence. We can get so caught up in the fastmoving daily routine of family life, and children seem to grow right before our eyes. Our offspring seem to be children one day and on the brink of adulthood the next. There is a stage in between, though: Adolescence, the transition from childhood into adulthood.
In developmental terms, adolescence is the stage from 13 to 18 years. As a mother of six now-adult children, I asked for guidance at every stage from my parents, friends, pediatrician and a variety of books on child development. The resources and references for babies and younger children seemed plentiful. The amount of information about development of children from 13 to 18 years old seemed to be much less readily available. I think it is true still today that no one seems to tell us how to relate to teenagers. According to a recent article on adolescence development in the ERIC Digest this quote seems to ring true: “It seems like everyone, even teachers and neighbors, have problems understanding them.”
Maybe that’s because this stage is so complex and challenging–our pre-teens are not quite children, but definitely not yet adults. How do we relate to children in the tween and teen years? On what level do we relate? And how do parents acquire the skills to relate to adolescents in terms they will understand?
Theorists theorize and parents practice
Esteemed psychologist Erik Erikson refers to the ages of 13 to18 years as a time when children are working on mastering a crisis of identity versus role confusion. Their significant relationships go from the greater world of people and things during the elementary school years to that of peers and role models. They are constantly asking themselves, “Who am I? What can I be?” They are concerned about social relationships.
Parents Know Best
That is why as parents we sometimes think our adolescents are here one minute and gone the next–sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. For example, once I asked one of my sons, a teenager at the time, over the phone to do a specific chore before I got home. Although he indicated step by step that he was doing what I was asking at the moment, it seems it only got done in his mind, and when I got home it was not done. That is what I mean by adolescents are sometimes “gone” right in front of us. Teens are working on what is important to them at this stage of their life: Social relationships and seeking their own identity and they aren’t always present to attend to our parenting needs or requests!
This stage of identity the teenager goes through is a synthesis of earlier stages and an anticipation of later ones. Each stage is marked with its own identify crisis, and this one is especially significant because it marks the stage from childhood to adulthood. In our society children are considered adults at age 18; even though research shows that the brain is still developing in the teen years. Emotionally, adolescents think they are ready to face the challenge of the world outside the comforts of their home and family, yet they are still not sure of who they are or where they are going. How can parents put this knowledge of Erikson’s theory of identity crisis challenging situations you face with your teen. Perhaps you’ve experienced your teen’s hair that just seemed to change color or gain a few streaks of red, blue or green overnight! What about that teenage idol they can’t resist imitating or those loud concerts teens insist they just cannot miss. Proactively navigating these challenges calmly and with open discussion with your teen can make all the difference in moving this child from a sometimesconfused teenager to thriving adult, while keeping your sanity.
To accept or not to accept . . . that is the question
It can be hard to endure that blue hair, or look at those ragged jeans, and listen to that blasting sound they call music. As a family, you have your personal beliefs and values that you strive to pass onto your children, and sometimes this will come into conflict with what a teenage perceives to be his preferred course of life. Adolescents are reestablishing some of these values for themselves. This is not only difficult for parents, but also for teens faced with grown-up choices such as choosing college over work, marriage over a single lifestyle, and what political and religious beliefs they should espouse. This role confusion can be, according to Erikson, supported positively through having enough space and time to freely experiment and explore, so that what may emerge is a sound sense of identity, leading to a deep emotional awareness of self to answer the questions of “Who am I” and “Where am I going?” How much is enough space and time? That is for you as a parent to answer. Read the research, learn about what the “experts” say about this stage of development. Ultimately, however, you know your child best and know what works and doesn’t fit in with the reality of your family and with your child’s personality.
The next step: putting it into perspective and practice
No matter what we read, think, or feel about the teen years, the fact is that adolescents face a range of developmental issues, including making work and relationship choices. There is ample research on the theories of adolescent development and unlimited theories and opinions. And, of course, every child is unique and every family dynamic slightly different. As a mother and grandmother and child development specialist, I can suggest the practices from my own experience that align with what I know from research and have experienced firsthand.
Most important, show your children you love them by listening to their ideas and guiding them in making their decisions. These decisions may range from hair style and clothing choice to college majors to choice of friends to post-high school plans (and any number of things in between!). Ultimately, these little daily decisions–and the bigger ones–are helping the adolescent transition into adulthood. Studies (and my own real-world experience) show that many factors ease this transition into adulthood: supportive families; time for meaningful leisure activities, satisfying studies, or work; earning money; and, most important, acceptance for who they are now and who they will become in the future. Regardless of what theories you learn about or how much research you do about the teen years, it’s important to remember that you are your child’s first teacher and you are the “expert” when it comes to knowing, understanding, and, most important of all, unconditionally loving and accepting her. You can be accepting without condoning every behavior your adolescent displays.
Understanding is the key. You can acknowledge the intent with empathy and verbal expression (that is, actually talking with your child in an open, honest, and respectful way) to help guide your adolescent to safe experimentation and exploration in life at any age. Understanding a little about this stage of development and what motivates adolescents, can give you more confidence in parenting your tween or teen. The teen years can be a challenging time for sure, but take heart that your challenging teen may one day become your best friend! The safe and nurturing environment with unconditional love that you provide, from infancy all through adolescence, will be the foundation for your child’s next step in life: The transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Carol Osborn is the Director of the Virginia Preschool Initiative with the Department of Family Services Office for Children in Fairfax County and Piedmont Family Magazine’s Parenting Matters columnist.