In California, you can get a license to operate an automobile (a lethal weapon, as far as I am concerned) at 16, vote and die for your country at 18, but you can’t buy a beer until 21. Daily, teenagers are told, “grow up, stop acting like a baby,” and “no…don’t do that, you aren’t old enough.” When does a teen become an adult? Or, more importantly, if not yet an adult, what is expected of teens in the age of high tech? Both teens and parents are confused.
One way to think about adolescent development is in terms of developmental tasks. A term originally coined by Conger, developmental tasks are age appropriate, social expectations required to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Developmental tasks vary from culture to culture and from time to time but some of them are universal. They include: achieving independence from parents, adjusting to sexual maturation, maintaining cooperative relationships with peers, selecting and preparing for a vocation, and developing a sense of identity. When you stop to think about it, there is more rapid physical and psychological change taking place during adolescence than at any other stage in life.
Becoming an adult is not easy. In developing a sense of identity, a teen may try on several before finding the identity that fits. This explains girls who dye their hair orange, then purple. They are experimenting. Teens fight with their parents. This is a way to separate from their parents and establish their independence. They may not know what they want but they know what they don’t want. They don’t want to be like their parents. Unfortunately, many parents take this push away from them personally.
Peer acceptance is crucial to most teens. But how is a young, inexperienced person supposed to navigate the delicate balance of competing for acceptance to a prestigious college and still being liked by their close friends and competitors? When you stop to think of all the difficult psychological transitions that adolescents complete in becoming adults, in our very competitive and individualistic culture, it is very impressive. And, often they make these changes on their own with little support or direction from village elders. Of course, they make mistakes. In simpler societies, fathers’ apprenticed their own sons to become farmers like them and take over the family farm. Or, girls had large extended families with mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who helped them give birth. Roles were defined. People knew what was expected of them. It is no longer like this. Unfortunately, too many young people to off to college and feel they have to find their way all alone.
I find that thinking in terms of developmental tasks, is helpful to me clinically. For example, the definition of addiction, substance abuse, and mental disorder is “social or occupational impairment.” In an adult, this is pretty straightforward. It means they can’t keep a job or stay in a relationship. But what does it mean in a teen? Well, their occupation is school and their social relationships are friends. So, a very clear indicator that something is wrong is when a young person’s grades go down and they change friends. Also, withdrawing and spending a lot of time alone may be a concern. Once a child leaves home and goes off to college, parents often don’t know what their kids are doing. But good grades are an indicator that the teen is making a smooth adjustment.
Some teen problems are difficult to diagnose. How does normal acting out differ from serious rebellion? When does binge drinking move from being fun with friends and develop into chronic alcoholism? Which kid tries stealing a candy bar, gets caught and stops? And who ends up with a record in the legal system? These are all very delicate and subtle decisions that our kids make. For example, some college students sell pot to help finance their education and other ones get caught and have a felony on their record. Also, intervening is very delicate because confronting a rebellious teen may push them toward further rebellion.
The road to adulthood is bumpy and what parents expect from their children is often ambiguous. Stanley Hall, an early writer on the scientific study of adolescence, in 1904 referred to the teen age years as a time of “storm and stress.” Anna Freud thought a teen who didn’t act- out was abnormal. Teens have been compared to ships afloat in a storm without a sail or rudder. Yes, it is true. Many of them feel lost. One of my teen clients aptly called adolescence, “no man’s land.” The really amazing thing to me is not that they feel confused, overwhelmed and lost at times. I mean, who doesn’t? But, what amazes me is that most of them navigate this difficult channel to adulthood very successfully!