The key to survival is knowledge! Knowledge of what makes adolescents tick, what’s happening physically and mentally, of the confusion, explosive sexuality, intense crushes and disruption of relationships between parent and teen.
The material in thispost will make the journey from twelve to twenty (and beyond) more understandable and hopefully less painful. With understanding and knowledge, adolescence can be fun for both teens and their parents. So with this optimistic possibility as a starting point, let’s begin.
Adolescence begins with a well-defined, maturational event, puberty, and ends in a more nebulous manner. Chronologically, the end of adolescence is usually defined by the attainment of age 20. But as many parents know, as do those of us who never really want to grow up, adolescent themes and behavior can be found in any age group.
In a simplified manner adolescence may be defined as those years in which the mind catches up to the body and learns to deal with the profound physical, sexual and psychological changes which have taken place.
Puberty refers to the biological and psychological events which surround the first menstruation in the girl and the first ejaculation in the boy.
Mary knew it was coming but was terrified that her first period would occur at school. John’s first ejaculation was a wet dream. After thinking that he wet the bed, he felt a sense of excitement but was horrified to think that his mother would see the spots on his pajamas and sheets. No picnic, this transition to adulthood.
Puberty signals the beginning of a process of physical change which renders the mind of the elementary school-aged child inadequate to manage the physically and sexually mature body. It is a particularly difficult time for those who develop very early or very late.
Ten-year-old Sarah had her first period at age nine and had prominent breasts by the time she was ten. The boys teased her unmercifully, saying she needed bushel baskets for her breasts. Of course, they teased her because they were terrified of what she had become.
Sixteen-year-old Jeff desperately wanted to ask a girl he liked to the junior prom, but he had not yet gone through puberty and looked like he was eleven. He finally got up his courage and asked her. It pains me to say that she laughed at him. Jeff was a very late bloomer, at the end of the bell shaped curve of when puberty occurs (between the ages of eight and sixteen for almost everyone). He ended up being six feet tall, good looking and very successful with the ladies. But the memory of that horrible rejection still pained him in his forties.
Reactions to Puberty
Because of the outpouring of growth and sexual hormones, the comfortable balance between mind and body which existed in the elementary school years is shattered. Suddenly, the impulses are stronger than the ability of the mind of regulate and control them. This imbalance is similar in nature to that which existed between the ages of 1 to 3 and caused the developmental disturbances of the toddler. (If you’re interested, take a look at Guiding Your Toddler’s Development
Regression in the form of silliness and immature and unpredictable behavior is a common normative response. Thirteen-year-old Johnny, who had been a quiet, very
well- behaved kid, greatly embarrassed his parents one evening when he blurted out to a close family friend “You have a big nose!” The friend had been in an automobile accident and was very self-conscious about her changed appearance resulting from her injuries. Johnny would never have made such a remark when he was ten.
Another normative response which drives parents crazy is the shift from openness to secretiveness. At home, the secretiveness is manifested by increased demands for privacy such as signs on the bedroom door which read, “Grown Ups Stay Out!” and bathroom door being locked during the hours that are suddenly spent in that room for some unknown reason. Of course, we can guess what’s going on in there, can’t we?
Also, requests for information about the day at the dinner table are greeted with grunts or one-word responses. Sometimes, the changes in behavior from open and friendly to secretive and moody are so startling and sudden that parents are totally bewildered and dismayed. The teenager doesn’t always understand why he or she has changed so much either. But the old way of relating to parents just isn’t comfortable any more. At school and in their peer group the secretiveness is reflected in the formation of secret clubs, cliques, and ‘best’ friends with whom sexual information (and misinformation) and gossip is shared and pooled.
Clothing suddenly takes on an exaggerated importance. It is used to draw attention to, or away from, the newly sexualized body, as acceptance by a clique or club, and as an indicator of autonomy and independence from parents. Hot stuff on the football team, muscle bound Tony swaggered around the high school in a tight t-shirt and even tighter jeans. He was living proof that the currency of adolescence is the body, not the mind. He did graduate, but barely. Unfortunately, his senior year in high school was the pinnacle of his life. He ended up selling used cars to the nerds whom he had dominated in high school.
Hairstyles, makeup and other body adornments such as tattoos serve similar functions to clothes. By allowing the adolescent to freely choose clothing and hairstyles—of course within parental limits, usually determined by what the parents can tolerate without going nuts—the understanding parent supports the drive toward autonomy and healthy sexuality.
Therapists look at the adolescent’s clothing, hairstyles and adornments as a source of insight into his or her dynamics and issues. One 13-year-old male regularly dressed in steel-tipped shoes, ripped jeans and a t-shirt proclaiming “Hitler’s Triumphant Tour Across Europe”, listing all of the countries that Hitler invaded. Add a menacing look which was always on his face, and it was no surprise that his appearance intimidated and disgusted peers and adults alike. The defensive function of such a presentation, covering feelings or rage and inadequacy because of having been rejected by both natural and adoptive parents earlier in life, gradually became apparent as we worked together in therapy. As Jeff came to understand his feelings of abandonment and unacceptability, the steel-pitted shoes, Nazi rings and offensive t-shirts gradually disappeared and were replaced by more conventional clothing. The transformation lead to increased social acceptance, girlfriends and greatly enhanced self-esteem.
So What Do Teens and Parents Need To Know
To Get Through Adolescence
You need to know about the developmental tasks of adolescence, those quasi-universal issues and challenges which confront every individual in a particular age group. I’m going to discuss four of the most important ones, knowledge of which should make these years easier for both adolescents and their parents.
Accepting the Physically and Sexually Mature Body
It all begins with the body. So let’s start there. The transition from lean, little boy to muscular man or from stick-thin little girl to well developed bomb shell takes several years. Although, to both the teen and his or her parents, it seems like the change occurs overnight. Twelve-year-old Carl suddenly developing blisters on his heals. They seemed to come out of nowhere and were unexplainable until Mom took Carl to get new shoes. The shoe salesman, who had seen this before, laughed. Carl’s feet had grown so rapidly that he was wearing shoes that were two sizes too small for him.
Because body growth is uneven and uncontrollable, it is accompanied, even in the most beautiful girl or handsome boy, by embarrassment and shame. As the adolescent compares his or her body with that of peers and adults, real or imagined differences are magnified and distorted. Legs, arms, and noses are too long; pimples too gross and obvious. And in private thought or conversations with best friends, breasts and penises are too small or too big. Fifteen-year-old Bob had finally mustered up the courage to ask Jan for a date. He had loved her from afar for about two years. On the day before the big date, which included a movie and a trip to the local teen hangout afterward, Bob developed a huge pimple on the end of his nose. “It was the ugliest zit I ever had and there was no way to hide it.” Bob almost cancelled but did go on the date after spending hours trying to unsuccessfully hide the pimple. He was mortified the entire evening. Jan was very kind and didn’t seem to notice Pinnochio’s nose. But Bob was too insecure to ask for the goodnight kiss he had dreamed about for months. He got that kiss a few months later.
The slowly growing, comfortable body of the elementary school years is gone, replaced by one of great, and potentially disastrous, unpredictability. In boys, spontaneous erections may occur at any time, most likely when called upon to stand up in front of the class or in the shower after gym class. Harold was a great student, but he was flunking physical education. His parents and teachers were mystified. Why would a well- behaved, successful student suddenly refuse to obey a simple rule to take a shower after gym class, even at the risk of flunking and ruining his academic record?
After Harold was referred to me for therapy because his parents believed that there must be something seriously wrong, it didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. Some explanation to Harold on my part and some flexibility on the school’s part solved the problem. As Harold integrated the physical and sexual changes that were suddenly occurring, he settled down and returned to gym class, showers and all. By the time he was a junior, he enjoyed walking around in his Speedo when he was on the swim team.
In girls, the menstrual cycle is not very regular at first. Consequently, one must be constantly on guard against mortifying spots of blood. Many a young lady has had her first period at school, sometimes supported by a sensitive teacher or nurse, and sometimes embarrassed by stains on her clothing. Signs that puberty is just around the corner, such as the development of breast buds and a rapid growth spurt, should be used by mothers to prepare their daughters for the onset of their first period.
As these physical and sexual changes are gradually accepted and integrated, the body once again becomes a source of pride and pleasure. Hours are spent in early adolescence, always behind closed and locked doors, examining body parts, primping in private or in front of the mirror, and combing and re-combing hair. “What are you doing in there?” shouted her father. “I need to get in the bathroom!” Silence. Then in an embarrassed voice, “I’ll be out soon.” This drama is repeated in thousands of home throughout the land. Pity the family that only has one bathroom.
Feelings of doubt and desire to exhibit are often in conflict with each other. One 14-year-old girl sat across from me in her therapy hour alternately slumping in her chair, with her arms folded across her chest, and thrusting out her breasts, with no apparent awareness of what she was doing. Once the physical and sexual changes are integrated, there is nothing quite so grand as a 16-year-old proudly strutting their stuff for the world to admire.
Separating Physically and Psychologically from Parents
Just as toddlers must crawl away from their mother and begin to explore the world around them, so must adolescents begin the process of physical and psychological separation from parents and home which will allow them to eventually function as autonomous, independent young adults. Sometimes, they try to move too fast. Sixteen-year-old Michelle desperately wanted to go to the Olympics in China with another girl her age. Obviously, her parents said no. After nagging her parents to agree, Michelle seemed to give up, or so her parents thought. One night she demanded that her father sit on the couch. Thereupon, she handed him his checkbook and told him to write a check for a coach ticket to China. Fortunately, he was strong enough to again say no. Michelle finally gave up but told her Dad that she would never forgive him as long as she lived.
The attainment of physical and cognitive maturity makes it possible for adolescents to approach self-sufficiency. The onset of sexual maturity makes it imperative that they direct sexual feelings outside of the family. At the beginning of this transition phase, the child is dependent on his or her family of origin and is sexually immature. At the end of this phase, the young adult is independent and sexually active, ready in the not- too- distant future to create and guide the next generation.
Sometimes, the journey occurs in stages. Tim was very homesick when he left home for camp for the first time when he was eleven. He developed, as the counselor put it, “a pain in the tummy for his Mommy.” Tim came home in the middle of the week in disgrace. When he was fifteen, Tim was asked to serve as a junior counselor for the summer at a sleep over camp. He decided to go, but almost backed out on the night before leaving. Once he got there and got caught up in group activities, he felt better. As the summer went on, he began to really enjoy himself, particularly when he began to “make out” with one of the other junior counselors. It was a major turning point in his hesitant march toward independence. A few years later Tim went away to college. The first night in the dorm was tough, alone, not knowing anyone. Gradually, Tim settled in. He went home every holiday during the freshman year, not so many during the sophomore year. During the summer after the sophomore year, Tim decided to take a job at a resort across the country from his home. His emancipation was complete. Once again, he met a few girls along the way. Their warmth and friendliness made the transition easier.
Accepting Sexual Maturation and
Establishing an Active Sex Life
The course along this developmental line can be divided into three phases. In pre-adolescence and early adolescence, the tasks are to accept the sexually maturing body - particularly the growth of underarm and pubic hair and the enlargement of the genitals and breasts - and to explore through masturbation new sexual functions such as increased vaginal lubrication and ejaculation. Building on this still shaky foundation, adolescents in their mid-teens make tentative steps toward the opposite sex (or the same sex), but still handle most sexual feelings through fantasy and masturbation, rather than actual involvement with others. By late adolescence, most individuals are psychologically prepared for an active sex life which includes intercourse.
This normative timetable can serve as a guideline for parents as they struggle between wishes to protect their teen from potentially painful, premature sexual involvement and the recognition that dating and the establishment of a comfortable sexual life is an essential part of life. A good rule of thumb is to be available to answer questions when asked, monitor friendships and dating relationships, interrupting those that are clearly inappropriate or dangerous , and gracefully accepting boyfriends or girlfriends that you, the parent, would never choose in a million years but who appear to be relatively harmless.
When Sonya was in ninth grade, she developed a crush on a popular senior who starred on the football team. The boy seemed interested in her, but her father was sure the interest was for some very selfish, sexual reasons. After all, Sonya was very pretty and well-developed for her age, and her father had been that teenage boy once himself. Father put the kibosh on any dating between the two. Sonya cried for weeks, slammed doors and refused to talk to her father for months. Sonya enlisted her mother in the cause, but her father remained steadfast. Several months later, as Sonya approached her sixteenth birthday, a boy in her class asked her to go to the movies.
This time her father consented. The boy seemed as unsure of himself as Sonya did. That was good news to her father. He greeted the young suitor at the door with a smile (not with a shotgun), asked where they were going and set a curfew. Sonya returned home with a smile on her face. Ten years later, in her mid-twenties and happily engaged, Sonya jokingly told her father that she still hadn’t forgiven him for not getting the chance to date the “hunk”.
Choosing a Career
When a five-year-old says he or she wants to be an astronaut or a garbage collector, adults smile. But when an adolescent expresses preferences, everyone listens seriously. In a sense, it is ironic that adolescents are forced to make major decisions about work and career (by exclusion or choice) which will affect the rest of their lives at a time when they are so preoccupied with physical, sexual and social interests. In some countries, adolescent assessments of potential become final determinants limiting career choice. In others, the options remain open indefinitely. Hence, opportunities for growth and change continue well into adulthood.
Preparing for an adult career during adolescence is dependent on numerous strengths and capabilities such as the ability to delay gratification, channel impulses, sublimate, develop cognitive capacities and motor skills, visualize the future, and conceptualize oneself as an adult at work rather than a child at play.
The degree to which work during adolescence stimulates or impedes the expansion of developmental potential varies enormously from individual to individual. For some, particularly those who are planning to enter a trade or non-college-related work, experience gained on the job during the adolescent years may be highly valuable and gratifying. For others, regardless of whether or not their future plans require higher education, spending time working during adolescence may impede the development of social, emotional and sexual skills and attitudes which will be highly useful in the adult workplace.
Sixteen-year-old Ben was a great student. To be truthful, he was somewhat of a nerd. When he told his father that he wanted to work, Dad pulled some strings and got him a job working the night shift at a nearby factory pulling newly-washed pans off a conveyor belt. Ben lasted two nights! He didn’t like to be awake when everyone else was sleeping. And the job was so boring that he couldn’t stand it. He quit in shame, afraid of what his parents and friends would think. They weren’t kind. His reputation as a nerd, which he hated, was exaggerated. His desire to be a man in a man’s working world was crushed. This was clearly not the right first job for a boy like Ben. He was still feeling the emotional effects of if twenty years later when he came into therapy for unrelated issues.
On the other hand, Sally, a very pretty and feminine sixteen-year-old got her first job, part-time on weekends, in a clothing store. Her job was to sell clothing to other teenagers. Sally loved the job. She got to dress up for work and loved the feeling of knowing more about the clothes for sale than her customers did.
There are other ways to build character during adolescence than formal work. Participating in organized sports is certainly one way. So is volunteering at a hospital or homeless center. For others, the best way to “work” is to have plenty of time for study and enough time left over for social development. Parents and teenagers should not lose sight of the goal. The developmental task in adolescence in regard to work is to prepare the teen for a successful transition into further education or a solid job after high school.
The Role of Friendships during Adolescence
From elementary school onward, friendships play a pivotal role in normal development, since they are shaped by the mutual need to engage and resolve major developmental themes and challenges.
Girls usually begin their maturational spurt one to two years before boys. Suddenly, they tower over their male classmates, who are still little boys. These “young Amazons” often belittle their male peers and are attracted to older boys, who don’t seem to mind the attention at all. Moms and dads need to be aware of this mismatch and see to it that their physically developed but emotionally immature daughters are not taken advantage of by senior high school boys.
Ann and Claire showed up at the local mall after having been away for the summer. At the end of the preceding school year, both girls had been part of a group of boys and girls who went to the same birthday parties and sat near each other in the school lunch room. When they swaggered into the mall at the end of the summer with lip stick, nail polish and bras covering breasts which suddenly seemed huge in size to their classmates Mike and Ralph, whose appearance had not changed much over the summer. The boys were blown away by what they saw and that they were ignored by their former friends, who acted as though they didn’t know them and were quickly surrounded by older boys. In reality, Mike and Ralph were terrified by what they saw and felt. But what they talked about was how “stuck up” Ann and Claire had become.
Pre-and early adolescent boys have been threatened by the young Amazons for eons. They cover their emerging sexual feelings and fears with bravado, boasting, and even physical attacks. Remember Norman Rockwell’s painting of an imp putting pigtails in the ink well? Boys at this age maintain, for the most part, the elementary school attitude of ‘hating’ girls and are most comfortable in same-sex peer groups. Group activities, such as Boy Scouts, camping and organized sports help the boys separate from their parents and channel sexual and aggressive energies within a structured framework. Not to worry guys, in a couple of years Ann and Claire will be coming after you.
Within the same-sex peer group, girls are often exceedingly cruel to each other, shifting loyalties on a day-to-day basis and openly attacking competitors and enemies. One of the main reasons for such behavior is low self-esteem caused by feelings of insecurity about physical and sexual changes and uncertainty about how to relate socially to both sexes.
Early adolescence is a time of “normal” homosexual experimentation. Both sexes compare physical changes and sometimes engage in mutual masturbation. The basic purpose of such activity is to gain reassurance about the momentous physical and sexual changes which are occurring. In those individuals whose sexual orientation is primarily heterosexual, such behavior ceases as the changes in the body are psychologically integrated and gradually replaced by involvement with the opposite sex.
The Relationship Between
Adolescents and Their Parents
Parents, I know, it’s not always fun. Pre- and early adolescence brings an uncomfortable change in the relationship between parent and child. Gone are the easy openness, affability and mutual admiration of the elementary school years. In its stead are avoidance, secretiveness, and public embarrassment on the part of the adolescent. “Mom, please drop me off a block from school. I don’t want my friends to see us together!” These are met with bewilderment, hurt and anger on the part of the parent. The degree to which these attitudes are present varies. Often they alternate with the long-established closeness and mutuality, which form the basis of the normal relationship between parent and child throughout childhood and adolescence.
The powerful hormonally-driven emerging sexuality of early adolescence affects all relationships, including those with parents. What was a comfortable, easily managed emotional interaction just a few months ago is suddenly contaminated by an unwelcome sexual component. Alex loved to have his ‘little girl’ cuddle up close to him as they watched TV together. Rose often kissed her dad and told him that she loved him. At about age twelve, shortly after her first period, Rose’s attitude toward her dad changed radically, at least from his perspective. Rose insisted on sitting on a chair rather than on the couch with Alex, and shied away from kisses or even hugs. Alex took his daughter’s change in behavior as a rejection, which in a sense it was, and reacted with hurt and anger. He might have handled the situation differently if he understood early adolescent development.
Hugs and kisses, indeed any form of contact with a mother or father’s body, may stimulate feelings of discomfort which, although often not recognized, are sexually based. The body can no longer be counted on to respond to closeness in predictable ways, since a fleeting touch or extended hug may produce erect nipples or an erection. Privacy becomes paramount as a way of distancing parents from the pubertal body.
The changes which are taking place physically and psychologically are often expressed concretely in the adolescent’s bedroom. Signs on the door, such as “No Adults Allowed!” or “Stop! Stay out!” are clear evidence that something is different. So are wild décor, black paint, suggestive posters, and the absence of neatness and cleanliness as a means of creating a semblance of independence from parental space and values, while remaining in their secure, protective midst. Wise parents may gag, but they will tolerate all but the most outlandish and extreme remodeling efforts, recognizing the benign aspects of such rebellion and standoffishness. When confined to the home, such behavior, although not conducive to parental peace and equanimity, facilitates the adolescent developmental process and is self-limiting.
“Are you talking about my son?” asked a disbelieving mother. A neighbor was speaking glowingly of how polite fifteen-year-old Abner was. “He actually said ‘Please and thank you’ and put his napkin on his lap at lunch,” said the neighbor. “You must have mistaken him for somebody else,” said mother. Parents should be reassured when they discover that their son or daughter’s obnoxious behavior is reserved for them alone. The expression of glowing terms from neighbors, friends and teachers is clear evidence of the emerging presence of judgment, responsibility and civility in the midst of developmental regression and turmoil.
“I won’t go in that pig sty anymore,” one mother told me. “I don’t care how bad it smells. She’ll just have to live in the filth. She doesn’t seem to mind anyway, and she has those awful pictures of nearly naked men plastered all over the walls. I can’t stand it.” My advice -- heed the sign on the door. Stay out and hold your nose if the smell gets too bad. Think of the revenge a generation from now when you’ll watch her experience the same thing with her adolescent son or daughter.
Boys are just as bad. Although John’s father liked to take a peek himself when nobody was around, he worried about the fact that his John’s room was practically plastered with Playboy Bunnies. Not just the walls, but the ceiling too. Was sixteen-year-old John turning into some kind of sexual addict? No, but he was fantasizing and masturbating about as often as his father, who had conveniently repressed some of the memories, did when he was sixteen.
The Transition to Heterosexuality
Falling in Love
During the middle years of adolescence, around fourteen or fifteen and sometimes before, there is a gradual move toward involvement with the opposite sex. These early efforts are both thrilling and frightening. When one’s affections are returned, the result, immortalized in song and verse, is the experience of falling in love, more properly called adolescent infatuation. A necessary prerequisite to, but quite different from mature, adult love, infatuation furthers developmental progression by loosening emotional ties to parents and providing experience with loving and sexual feelings in a non-incestuous relationship.
Sam was madly in love with June, and she with him. Try as he would, he could not stop thinking about her ,nor could he sleep at night. They spent endless hours texting, even during class, and talked on their cell phones from the moment they left each other at school. When Sam talked about it years later, he swore that he pictured June in his mind as a goddess with a long flowing gown and flowers in her hair. She was perfect, the most beautiful woman in the world. No one, not even Helen of Troy (he was reading the Iliad at the time) was more beautiful. They dated for a year and eventually broke up. But twenty years later Sam sheepishly admitted that every girl he dated after June was compared against his first love—and didn’t measure up. That applied to his wife as well. He loved her, but not like that incredible feeling of infatuation that he had for June.
In a sense, the adolescent falls in love with the idealized version of Father or Mother, characteristics of whom are projected onto the boyfriend or girlfriend. This necessary developmental step in the process of emotional separation from the parents makes it difficult to see the new loved one in a realistic light. Who would want to, anyway. This is one time when premature understanding might ruin one of life’s most glorious experiences. But the idealization of the loved one (I’d prefer a young Sophia Loren to Helen of Troy) explains the overwhelming sense of disillusionment when the relationship ends. It must end so that others similar in nature, but not nearly as intense, continue the thrilling, painful march toward maturity.
The ability to engage in a number of infatuations is a sign of strength and resilience, indicating the ability to rise above the despair of rejection and “get back up on the horse.” Parents should be concerned about the absence of infatuation, often indicating neurotic inhibition, or the rush into an intense relationship which continues throughout middle and late adolescence, sometimes leading to premature marriage. Both experiences tend to be defensive, protecting the adolescent from the loneliness, uncertainty, and rejection which are inevitable aspects of adolescent infatuation. Healthy adolescents have many sources of comfort to cushion the pain of loneliness and rejection between infatuations. Sports, music lessons, increased time spent with family and friends and various hobbies all provide non-sexualized pleasure and facilitate the acquisition of valuable skills and abilities which will serve the adolescent well in adulthood. By late adolescence, most individuals have accepted the body as a sexual instrument, partially replaced the parents with others, and begun an active sexual life. For others, work on these themes continues well into young adulthood. I think it’s fair to say, that this work, to one degree or another, continues throughout life.
Do's and Don’ts for Parents
So our brief journey through adolescence comes to an end. Of course, we could spend hours, days, even months on the subject without doing much more than scratch the surface. Hopefully, the information that I’ve provided will make these years easier for adolescents and less frustrating for parents. Parents need to be aware that raising an adolescent forces every adult, both consciously and unconsciously, to relive their own youthful experiences. Think of it as a second chance to work through the pleasures and the pains of adolescence, which remain with all of us as long as we live. Would you really prefer to forget this incredible time in life? I hope not. Was there ever a time when you were more alive?