It’s been said that the only thing normal about adolescent development is that there are very few norms. Stephanie, a 14-year-old girl, is four feet eight inches tall, weighs 86 pounds and measures 26-24-26. Her best friend, Katie, also 14, is five feet eight inches tall, weighs 125 pounds and measures 34-26-34. Brian, a friend of Katie, started shaving last week, while his best friend, Trevor, is still intently gazing in the mirror hoping to find even a remote sign of facial hair. And, just when you think you have the wonderful world of teenagers figured out, your son or daughter changes – again!
Parents often ask, “Why do they act the way they do?” Unfortunately, most of us have forgotten the changing developmental world of the adolescent. Adolescence is a time of transition and change. Many of us had a difficult time as teenagers, and so we have effectively blocked out lots of bad memories. As a result, it is easy as adults to simply forget what it was like to be a teenager.
Teenagers move rapidly from childhood to adulthood. Not only their bodies, but their minds, emotions, friendships–even their faith–are making major transitions. Most of the decisions teenagers face today are over issues that we seldom had to deal with at their age. Today’s teenagers are faced to grow up too fast and too soon, and their decisions may impact them for the rest of their lives. It’s no wonder that many adolescents struggle during the teenage years. Each day brings them a new round of unexpected and sometimes bewildering changes. The chemical makeup of teenagers changes almost daily, and as a result, they can be significantly different from week to week.
Parenting teenagers can be very difficult. But, parents can be better prepared for the task if they took the time to understand the important areas of adolescent development.
Physical Development: Body Under Construction
The advance of puberty carries with it the difficulty of coping with all the physical changes that are occurring. The adolescent’s body grows in rapid spurts and then slows and finally stops growing. Even muscles and bones are growing at an uneven rate. Coordination problems sometimes exist. For example, when your son reaches for his glass of milk and knocks it over onto the table, you might have thought, “Why can’t you be more careful?” In reality, because of the physical changes of adolescence, an arm may have grown a bit overnight – and that longer arm reached past the glass instead of to the glass – and ta da – the glass gets knocked over!
Both young men and young women are also extremely aware of their sexual development. The size and shape of their sexual organs are very important to most teenagers. Be sensitive to these physical changes, as well as to the pace of change. Here again, there is no set norm for the timeframe of physical development. For example, your teenage daughter may experience uneven growth in breast development. This could be a horrifying situation to your daughter. But, a simple reassurance of, “I know it may be troubling for you, but it is completely normal for a young woman your age. Don’t worry too much, everything will even out in time,” can go a long way toward soothing a troubled teenager.
Teenagers are very much aware of the physical changes underway in their bodies. Often, they can become totally self-absorbed in the transformation. Most teens experience the “imaginary audience” phenomenon, where they incorrectly assume that everyone is looking at them. You and I may know that the normal skin problems of adolescence will eventually disappear and be forgotten, but try explaining that to your 15-year-old daughter who refuses to leave the house because of acne on her chin, forehead and nose! Most teens desire to measure up to the cultural norms. They do not want to stand out in the crowd among their peers. Do your best to help your kids to realize that God has made them uniquely and specially (see Psalm 139:13-18 and Ephesians 2:10,) and that adolescence is just a process along the way to adulthood. Encourage them whenever possible that God isn’t finished with His original masterpiece yet; He is still molding them into finished products.
Social Development: “Everybody’s Doing It”
Adolescents are social by their very nature. It is during the teenage years that their social lives begin to blossom and develop, often becoming the most important area of their lives.
The need for acceptance and belonging drives some young people into lives of moral compromise. Unfortunately, the desire to belong can sometimes be greater than the desire to live a life of noncompromise. Kids can view compromise as well worth it if the end result is that their social group will accept them.
Ever hear the response, “Everybody’s doing it” or “Everyone’s going to be there?” Is it true that everyone does that? Is it true that everyone is going to be there? What teenagers mean by those responses is that everyone who is of influence in the teens’ world or social group is involved in or values this or that or is going to be at this or that happening. Sociologists tell us that kids build their world and values around these social groupings and that their most important peer influence comes from a still smaller, more intimate group of two or three best friends.
It is no secret that we become like the people we spend the most time with–even Paul warned that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). So, it is important that parents understand the “rule of friendship” that teenagers live by. The fact is that all social groupings have rules of behavior by which acceptance in the group is determined. No young person will remain in a social grouping where they do not “live” by the group’s rules. Let’s say, for example, a teenager consistently hangs out with a group of friends whose behavioral focus is drinking alcohol. The “rule of friendship” would contend that the teenager in question also drinks. Still, many parents have lived in a state of denial when they confront their own son or daughter about their friends’ behavior, when the teen admits that their friends are indeed involved in the behaviors, but contend that they themselves are not. The “rule of friendship” would contend otherwise.
The priority of social development of adolescents is a good reason why parents should do whatever they can to get to know their teen’s friends. Strive to make your home into a safe and welcome place for your teen and their friends to hang out. Without being overbearing, get to know your child’s friends. In the process, you will learn a lot about your own teenager.
Emotional Development: The Roller Coaster of Extremes
Few young people come out of adolescence without a time of intense emotional responses. For many teenagers this period of life can be summarized by an increase in chaotic extremes and contradictory intense inner feelings. Emotions like anxiety, worry, anger, inferiority, passion and fear can occur with ferocious intensity.
Sometimes, if we are not careful, parents will only react to the volume of their teens’ emotions and fail to help them understand and channel those emotions. In a time of emotional intensity and instability, teenagers need their parents to be role models of emotional stability and consistency. Parents should do their best to not become frustrated by the emotional swings of their children. While we need to be willing to listen to their hurts and feelings because they are real, we also need to help balance out their tendency toward emotionalism.
Intellectual Development: Exploring the Mind
One of the greatest areas of change from preadolescence to adulthood is in the area of intellectual development. At some point in early adolescence, kids move from a concrete approach to thinking (where they think in terms of “black or white”) to a more abstract way of thinking (where they being to see the possibilities of “gray areas”). Adolescents who are always asking “Why?” (or seem argumentative) are testing their new intellectual development in the world of abstract thinking.
This new period of intellectual development has important implications for parents because kids are beginning to ask themselves questions like, Who am I? Who do I want to be? What is true and real in life? What is life all about, anyway? In childhood, parents find it easier to tell their kids what to do without explanation or to convey their view of the world or of morality or of truth without discussion. However, in the adolescent years, discussion and explanation becomes a necessity for good learning. The wise parent will realize that adolescence is a time when kids learn best by discussion and discovery rather than giving them easy answers or resorting to responses like “because I told you so.”
Faith Development: “Who is God and Where Does He Fit into My Life?”
We live in an instant society, one in which we tend to want instant spiritual maturity. This, however, is definitely not God’s plan. Faith develops in stages. Becoming spiritually mature is a lifelong process. During childhood, our kids will likely respond to faith because we believe and because we have surrounded them with a community of faith. Yet, at that point our job is still not complete. Our goal as parents should be to help our kids own their faith and enable them to grow in Christian maturity. A firsthand faith–one that is experienced personally and is not just our faith–is essential. Adolescents need to touch, feel and handle the Christian life. That is why involving our kids in areas of mission and service is so necessary. Through experiences like these, our kids can gain faith through personal, practical involvement. Partnering with your church’s youth ministry is normally a tremendous asset in helping your teenager mature in the Christian faith.
Many adolescents have great difficulty in relating their spiritual life with the other important areas of their life, such as home, school, work, relationships and dating. It seems as if their spiritual life has no bearing on how they live their lives. A compartmentalization takes place: this is my life at home, this is my life at school, this is my life at church. One of our main tasks as parents should be to help our kids to see that their faith is their life, in its entirety. To follow Christ is to follow Him with every part of our lives. Your teenager is watching your life! They are looking for how you integrate your faith with real life. What a tremendous opportunity (and responsibility!) we have as parents to help our kids develop a genuine and enduring faith!
Parenting an adolescent is not easy. If you are the parent of an adolescent and you are having an easy time, either something’s wrong – or you just need to wait a little longer because a challenge IS coming!
In the end, some parents will simply not experience the severe challenges of parenting an adolescent that others will experience. Like adolescence itself, there are few certainties of experience in parenting an adolescent. What is certain is that God has given parents an important task – to help daughters and sons make the transition from childhood – to adulthood – as a functioning, independent person. Understanding the areas of adolescent development is an important tool for helping parents help their kids through this critical time of life.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Youth Builder by Jim Burns, Ph. D. and Mike DeVries.)