In 2001 a unique report was published by the Harvard school of public heath on “Raising teens, a synthesis of research and a foundation for action”. They reviewed over 500 summaries of research and clinical observations identifying the common themes relevant to the parenting of adolescence. Parents were defined as any adult with the responsibility for raising children ( excluding parenting by adolescence) and adolescence as individuals within the approximate age of 11 to 19 years old living in the united states. The report outlines the 10 tasks of adolescence and the 5 basics of parenting teens as a contribution to parents understanding their role in positive outcomes for youth.

Understanding the developmental tasks of teens can help parents to view the sometimes so called negative behaviour of our teens as normal and help us refrain from taking these behaviours so personally. Rebelliousness, mood swings, self centeredness, aggressiveness and showing off, argumentativeness and being critical of us will often push our anger buttons which can lead to unnecessary conflict, misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Let’s review in more detail these all too common annoying behaviours.


REBELLION, defiance of authority or display of identity?

In many ways teens tell parents “I AM NOT YOU” and here is how I will show you!
(messy rooms, loud sometimes vulgar music, outlandish hair, alternative styles of dress or piercing.)

It is important for parents to remember that in rebelling, teens are fulfilling an important psychological need to establish KEY ASPECTS OF THEIR IDENTITY, which we all know, can be a lifelong process but is forged at adolescence. Another aspect of this task is developing a positive identity around gender, physical attributes, sexuality and ethnicity. Teens struggle to identify a true self amid seeming contradictions in the way they feel and behave in different situations and with different levels of thought and understanding. Even though rebellious behaviour can be annoying, tolerating some of these behaviours for the sake of your teens development and perceiving it as a display of identity rather than defiance of authority will leave you room to respond more firmly to truly destructive behaviours.


MOOD SWINGS, being rude or “hormonal” or is it brain development?

Teens change from day to day sometimes moment to moment, being cheerful to agitated to withdrawn. Attempts of sympathy or helpful suggestions are often rebuffed. Teens are adjusting to bodies that can double in size over a relatively short period of time. Sexually maturing bodies in girls often begin at 9 to 14 years old and in boys from age 11 to 14 with the time between 13 and 14 being the greatest spurt. They are acquiring sexual characterises and learning to manage biological changes and sexual feelings. Quoted from an article in time magazine in May of 2004, What makes teens tick “psychologists for years attributed the intense, combustible emotions and unpredictable behaviour of teens to the biochemical onslaught of hormones. Ovaries and testes pour oestrogen and testosterone into the bloodstream, which accounts for all reproductive systems, hair growth and pimples. Also testosterones like hormones are released by the adrenal glands. These adrenal sex hormones are very active in the brain and influence serotonin and other petrochemicals that regulate mood and excitement. Dr. Ronald Dahl a psychiatrist from the University of Pittsburgh states “not only do feelings reach a flash point more easily, but adolescence tend to seek out situations where they can allow their emotions and passions to run wild, they are actively looking for experiences to create intense feelings. This hormone brain relationship contributes to the appetite for thrills, strong sensations and excitement.” Parents, understanding these biological changes can learn to avoid overreacting to these unhappy moods and not take them personally.


SELF CENTEREDNESS, Disregard for others or Psychological self protection

Teens are often preoccupied with themselves which as I’m sure, many of you have noticed and self centeredness is often a common trait of people under stress. This increased self consciousness makes them feel that everyone around them is also focused on them too. Teens have fragile egos and will spend a lot of time grooming themselves and be preoccupied with making sure they look cool or have the latest brand clothing. Parents can try to encourage their youth to take up a new sport, hobby or activity that benefits others, as a way of moving thru their self centeredness. Parents can help teens learn to accept themselves and help them find activities and interests that will enrich their lives and that don’t require a perfect body. Giving encouragement, highlighting their strengths, and giving your teen appropriate responsibilities that ensure success, can help support building the youth’s self image. It is important for parents to understand that this self centeredness is not a disregard for others but a form of psychological self protection. One of the tasks of adolescence as they mature is too begin to develop a more complex level of perspective taking. In time they do begin to acquire a powerful new ability to understand human relationships and to put themselves in another’s shoes and move beyond their self centeredness to resolve problems and conflicts in their relationships.


AGRESSIVENESS & SHOWING OFF or Insecurity with peer friendships?

Teens often mask insecure feelings by acting aggressively or by showing off. Girls can be aggressive too but more likely shun and make fun of other girls to assert their power rather than display aggression physically as many boys do. Teens worry about how they stack up with their peers or feel insecure in their social roles. At 11, 12 and 13 years old, sometimes their best defence is offence, i.e. talking loudly, acting rowdy, shoving ,pushing or “talking back” at home. Eventually peer friendships take on new meaning and become more intimate, more stable and more central to teen lives. Even though research suggests that teens prefer to turn to parents for advice on major life decisions, peer friendships form a cornerstone for learning more about adult relationships. Teens need parents who can keep their cool in the face of this “know it all” attitude and use their communication skills to bring the teen into awareness of how this behaviour affects others at home and in school.


ARGUMENTATIVENESS or Development of problem solving skills and conflict resolution?

Teens are developing intellectually and testing out their mental powers. Parents often find themselves in frequent arguments trying to get a point across with little success. Teens need a lot of opportunity to learn to think things through for themselves. Although it may be tempting to use an argument to “set them straight” parents would be better off listening to their teen rather than try to win a debate. In time you will notice surges of new sophistication in their ability to think in abstract ways. This can be a time of great introspection and reflection, acquiring a deeper understanding of issues like friendship, justice, identity and religion. They begin to challenge and question beliefs from childhood with interesting perspectives. They develop a more complex understanding of moral behaviour and the underlying principles of justice and care. Their understanding of what is right and wrong is no longer based on concrete rules as offered by parents but rather an increasing awareness on the principles of justice, fairness and what is morally right to guide their decisions and behaviour. In Ontario, the new high school curriculum requires 40 hours of community service work and many youth are being provided with an opportunity to identify meaningful moral standards, values and belief systems through their volunteer work. Young adults develop a greater capacity for relationships; begin dating, working and pursuing further academic studying in which their problem solving and conflict resolution skills are being put to the test.

The area that appears to be of most concern for parents is our teens abilities to problem solve and make wise, healthy decisions and choices. I became a nagging crazy person when my child’s safety was at risk, especially if my children could not perceive the consequences of their actions.

Most teens feel immortal. Do you remember the time in your life when you rarely felt fear?

Most of us are fearful for our teens today because we do remember, as we look back on our teen years, reflecting on some of the stupid choices we ourselves did make and we are thankful that we survived. We are so aware today of how a single accident can take a life and we are now much closer to the reality of death. Parents worry when their children begin to drive or date the older boy who has a car. Parents worry when their kids take off on their bikes or skateboards without a helmet or safety equipment. Parents worry when their children begin high school with the fear that their teen will hook up with a drug, drinking crowd of new kids. These kinds of situations are the ones that often bring up the most conflict and arguments. Many of us are at work during the day and cannot monitor our teens every move.


New research into brain development might just support our concerns. MRI studies on teens developing brains reveal that the pre frontal cortex, the part of the brain, that plans, sets priorities, organizes thoughts, suppresses impulses, the part that weigh the consequences of one’s actions that makes teenagers more responsible, has not finished maturing like we once had suspected. Psychologist Lawrence Steinberg said “The brain regions that put the brakes on risky, impulsive behaviour are still under construction and the parts of the brain responsible for things like sensation seeking are getting turned on in big ways around the time of puberty.” He says “…so you’ve got this time gap between when things impel kids toward taking risks early in adolescence, and when things that allow people to think before they act come on line.” So, where does this leave us? We know that we are probably justified when we assess certain consequences of out teen’s choices but it is important that we as parents model appropriately. Parents who have modelled safe and healthy choices throughout our children’s growing years, parents who wear helmets riding bikes, parents who don’t excessively drink or drive after drinking, parents who don’t speed in their cars or motorcycles, parents who don’t yell and scream at their spouse cannot, at least, be accused by their teen of the “DO as I say, not as a do” approach that teens so clearly take note of. They watch, they see, they want to respect our point of view but if we cannot practice what we preach, we don’t have a leg to stand on when we ask our teens to do the very things we as adults are not modelling. The old days of parenting that reflect the attitude “NO, because I say so, I’m the parent” are long gone. This approach is to be saved for the most serious and risky situations and is proven ineffective in dealing with the day to day issues that so frequently need to be discussed and talked about with our teens.

The whole movement through the developmental tasks of adolescence can be seen as “separating” from parents. The notion of “separation from parents” is more widely seen today as adults and teens working together to negotiate a change in the relationship that accommodates a balance of autonomy and ongoing connection and communication. However, it can be a painful time for some parents to see their affectionate and co operative sweet boy or girl suddenly turn into this argumentative, free thinking individual who no longer makes choices to please and get approval from their parents but rather makes decisions to experience their life in a new way that they can call their own. Leaving home, getting their own apartment or heading off to go to college, university or work in a new city can be a sad time for mothers and fathers because they love and will miss their children. Appropriately moving on reflects that you have done your job well in encouraging their autonomy and supporting their self worth to have the confidence to move out into the world without you right by their side.

The 10 developmental tasks of adolescence evolve over time gradually, separately and in combination with pauses and regressions along the way. Ultimately most teens navigate the developmental tasks quite successfully but there are a number of factors that can put teens at risk. Teens with learning disabilities, special needs, lack of adult support, physical or emotional trauma, mental and physical illness, poverty, family dysfunction, and discrimination regarding class, immigrant status, or sexual orientation may need significant support from professionals and community programs.

To summarize the 10 developmental milestones that has emerged from an analysis of the Harvard research reviews are:

  1. ADJUST TO SEXUALLY MATURING BODIES and FEELINGS
  2. DEVELOP and APPLY ABSTRACT THINKING SKILLS
  3. DEVELOP and APPLY A MORE COMPLEX LEVEL OF PERSPECTIVE TAKING
  4. DEVELOP AND APPLY NEW COPING SKILLS in areas such as DECISION MAKING, PROBLEM SOLVING and CONFLICT RESOLUTION
  5. IDENTIFY MEANINGFUL MORAL STANDARDS, VALUES, and BELIEF SYSTEMS
  6. UNDERSTAND and EXPRESS MORE COMPLEX EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCES
  7. FORM FRIENSHIPS that are MUTUALLY CLOSE and SUPPORTIVE
  8. ESTABLISH KEY ASPECTS OF IDENTITY
  9. MEET THE DEMANDS OF INCREASINGLY MATURE ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
  10. NEGOTIATE RELATIONSHIPS with ADULTS in PARENTING ROLES.
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