Why are many adults so quick to hate on teens? A quick search of “teens are the worst” reveals 38 million results, the first of which is an article from The New Yorker. It’s true that teens can be difficult to teach or parent, but instead of demonizing them let’s take a step back and try to understand what’s going on. As a psychologist, I work with teens in a mental health setting every day and find them to be pretty remarkable. Through my work I am constantly learning and being challenged by them to think in alternate ways. If others took a chance to consider all that teens are going through, such as the physiological and social obstacles which they must navigate, everyone would agree with me that they are pretty amazing.
Hormones in overdrive: Hormonal changes are the flagstone of puberty and can have a huge impact on teen brains and moods. Even the most even-keeled adult can become an emotional wreck if they’re forced to take too many hormones (while undergoing fertility treatment, for example). For teens who are also coping with many other transitions this overdrive of hormones can be extremely challenging. Under these circumstances a little moodiness is forgivable.
Developing Brain: Recent studies have demonstrated that the adolescent brain is still under construction. The frontal lobe (the planning and decision making portion of the brain) is not yet fully developed during the adolescent years. In addition, dopamine, the neurotransmitter which is involved in the pleasure pathways of the brain, seems to be ramped up during this period of development. This immaturity of the frontal lobe and the increased drive to experience pleasure (resulting from the higher levels of dopamine) may explain the impulsivity, risk taking, and irrational decision making that we often see in teens. In other words, they really cannot help it!
Changing bodies: During puberty bodies change at a rapid pace. As a result, teens are hyper-aware of their appearance, especially in relation to their peers. A girl who develops breasts too early or too late, or a boy whose mustache won’t grow in, can be shamed or ostracized by peers. Beyond the significant social impact during puberty, teens will have hair in new places, hear their voices sound different, and perhaps start to menstruate regularly. These changes alone are overwhelming.
Transitions at school: Tweens are making the leap from elementary school—with one teacher, who structures the day, knows all students well, and manages all of the homework via a homework packet—to middle school, with multiple classes, competing homework priorities, and teachers who have to remember 120 students instead of 25. Many teens who are accustomed to doing well in the smaller more structured environment see their grades plummet without the extra supports. This is a tough transition, a dive into the deep end that can cause frustration and irritability as teens adjust. Additionally, during this time there is an increase in scholastic workload and difficulty of assignments. Often times, parents are not able to help their children with homework, simply due to the fact that they have forgotten how to do it themselves! This can lead to teens feeling academically unsupported by their parents. There is also the additional pressure of juggling required extra curricular activities into their new schedules to position themselves for the very competitive college application process. All of these factors leave teens stretched far too thin and sleep deprived (which only makes things worse) in order to fulfill all of their responsibilities.
Emotional development: Teens start to rely more on their friends and less on their parents. While this is a normal and important part of development, many parents start to feel rejected or sometimes concerned that their children are being too influenced by their friends, resulting in tension at home. Conflict in the home can result in even more stress for teens who are yearning for independence and trying to find their own individuality. This might be especially poignant for a generation of mothers and fathers known for their helicopter parenting.
Let's show some compassion: Young teens may have a reputation for being moody and difficult, however, it is important to remember the many onerous changes they are dealing with before being quick to judge them as “the worst.” Parenting this population is not easy. When parenting a teen, give yourself a moment to take a deep breath and remember the many transitions teens are navigating. Support them by setting boundaries, guide them in planning and decision making, while continuing to provide them with emotional support. Remembering your own life as an adolescent can also be helpful when faced with the highs and lows of teenagers’ physiological and emotional growth, and can enable parents to steer their teen safely through this challenging and amazing time of development.