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A Roadmap to Adolescent Growth

Here's what to expect from your adolescent.

For both parents and young people, adolescence feels like a very confusing process because so much that happens is unexpected. However, confusing at it seems, I believe adolescence is also a lawful process.

That is, certain changes, tensions, conflicts, and problems do tend to unfold in a somewhat orderly progression. Thus, anticipating the stages of adolescence as briefly outlined below may help ease some of the "bumps in the road" for parents and smooth their way.

Stage One: Letting Childhood Go.

Early Adolescence (around ages 9–13) problems are characterized by:

Personal disorganization increases as more messiness, forgetfulness, distractability, inattention, and losing things begin. Now the self-management structure that fit childhood becomes inadequate to effectively cope with the more psychologically and socially complex adolescent experience.

A negative attitude—increased dissatisfaction from no longer being content to be defined and be treated as a child, less interested in traditional childhood activities and more boredom and restlessness from not knowing what to do, carrying a grievance about unfair demands and limits on personal freedom that adults in life impose.

Active and passive resistance—more questioning of authority, arguing with rules, delaying compliance with parental requests, letting fulfillment of normal home and school responsibilities go (chores and homework let slide.)

Early experimentation—testing limits to see what can be gotten away with, including such activities as shoplifting, vandalizing, prank calls, and the beginning of substance experimentation.

For parents, this stage is when behavior seems to undergo a change for the worse, so their challenge is to insist on responsible behavior while maintaining a positive connection to the young person during a more negative time.

Stage Two: Forming a Family of Friends.

Mid Adolescence (around ages 13–15) problems are characterized by:

More intense conflict over social freedom with parents, particularly the freedom to be with friends.

More lying to escape consequences from wrongdoing or to get to do what has been forbidden. (More deceptive communication with parents.)

More peer pressure to go along with adventures and risk-taking in order to belong, including more pressure to use substances to be accepted.

For parents, this stage is when the young person has become ruled by the need for immediate gratification and social belonging with peers, so their challenge is to take hard stands for his best interests against what the young person wants, generating more conflict in the process.

Stage Three: Acting More Grown Up.

Late Adolescence (around ages 15–18) problems are characterized by:

More independence from doing grown-up activities—part-time employment, driving a car, dating, sexual experience, and recreational substance use at social gatherings.

More significant emotional (and often sexual) involvement in romantic relationships.

More grief over the graduation separation from old friends (and perhaps leaving family) and more anxiety at the unreadiness to undertake more worldly independence.

For parents, this stage is when the young person pushes for adult freedoms that can be dangerous to manage, so their challenge is to insist on adequate communication so they can inform understanding and insist on commensurate responsibility.

Stage Four: Stepping Off On One's Own.

Trial Independence (around ages 18–23) problems are characterized by:

Lower self-esteem from not being able to adequately support all the demands and keep all the commitments of adult responsibility.

Increased anxiety from not having a clear sense of direction in life or the self-discipline to consistently pursue it if they do.

High distraction from a cohort of peers who are slipping and sliding and confused about direction too, partying more to deny problems or escape responsibility, as the stage of highest substance use begins, hard drugs beginning to enter the picture.

For parents, this stage is when the young person faces the harsh realities of separation from home, independent living, and self-support, so their challenge is to respect decisions and allow consequences, to give mentoring advice (when asked) but not to rescue from bad choices, and to express faith in the young person's capacity to learn and recover from mistakes.

Of course, this description of the four stages of adolescence is only an approximation; but better a rough road map than none at all.

More from Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
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