Developmental delay and a 'compressed adolesence.'

A delayed adolescence can be more intense.

Posted Feb 07, 2011

With their daughter about to enter the transforming passage of middle school, the parents were feeling anxious about the abrasive adolescent changes soon to come. "We know this isn't elementary school, but we wish we could just delay adolescence a while longer and enjoy the good times of her childhood a few years more."

"Be careful you don't get what you wish for," I replied. "The longer adolescence is delayed, the more intense it is likely to be."

Why did I say that? Because with highly attached children, highly sheltered children, slow maturing children, often with an only child -- all children who are reluctant to break with childhood, the onset of adolescence can be delayed beyond its normal starting date, around ages 9 - 13. Now it may not begin until the early high school years, and when it does can proceed to unfold faster than parents and adolescent are comfortable with.

What results from this developmental delay is what I call a ‘compressed adolescence,' when the stages of growth unfold in unusually quick, overlapping succession as the young person appears to be in a desperate hurry to catch up to her age.

Now the drives for separation, differentiation, and opposition that empower more independence seem to fire off all at once and parents are usually caught off guard by the sudden, massive change.

"We can't understand it," parents may say. "Up to the end of sophomore year in high school she was the same motivated, focused, fun to be with child we had always known. Then it's like a bomb exploded inside her and all that caring and concentration, all those good times together, were blasted away. That's when she started treating us like we were against her and not for her the way we've always been. And we do disagree with her more because of the worrisome new choices she is making. Now she wants less to do with us. And time we do have together is spoiled by her complaints about what we don't understand or arguments about what we want or don't want her to do. All that seems to matter to her is freedom to be left alone and to be with friends! What's happened to our child?"

In a compressed adolescence, what happens is that the first three stages of adolescence, instead of spacing out from late elementary into high school, are ‘collapsed' into a couple of very intense high school years. Now the negative attitude, active and passive resistance, and limit testing that are the hallmarks of early adolescence (usually 9 - 13) have no sooner begun when the conflicts over more worldly freedom, need to be with peers, and tyranny of now of mid-adolescence (usually 13 - 15) kick in, almost immediately followed by the desire to act more grown up, experience older adventures, and act more socially independent of late adolescence (usually 15 - 18.) For both teenager and parents, this can be a wild ride.

Sometimes parents wonder if the young person's dramatically altered behavior is the result of alcohol or other drugs. While substance use can certainly add to the confusion, the major culprit is usually rapid developmental change.

During their teenager's compressed adolescence, what the young person needs from parents is stability from the consistency and constancy of their steadfast care. They must hold to the guidance, supervision, and structure they have traditionally provided, empathizing with the teenager's plight while continually insisting on responsibility, all of which are very hard to do.

And they need to expect that the young person is not going to appreciate their firm support during this frenzied time, a time that will calm and subside after development has been caught up with and sufficient individuality and independence has at last been gained.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Adolescence and teasing.