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Adolescence and the Growing Complexity of Life

As life grows more complex in adolescence, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

One fact parents can explain to their adolescent is this: as the young person grows older, life is going to keep becoming more complex.

What this means for the adolescent is that she or he must keep developing a more complicated self-management system to cope with this increasingly complicated world of experience. How will life get more complex? Many are the ways. Consider ten.

There will be more information to process about all that is going on.

There will be more attention to be paid to all that is going on.

There will be more working parts of life to keep track of.

There will be more need to prioritize what is most important.

There will be more competing and conflicting needs to resolve.

There will be more decisions and more hard decisions to be made.

There will be more self-discipline required to get everything done.

There will be more responsibility for consequences of choices made.

There will more serious problems never experienced before.

There will be more to remember that must be kept in mind.

I frequently see young people who are struggling to cope with the challenging next step of complexity, particularly at the opening and end of adolescence – separating from childhood in the first stage of adolescence, and stepping off into more independence at the last stage when adolescence starts drawing to a close.

I think it’s important for parents to be there to help the young person develop a more adequate self-management system at each of these hard stages, coaching the younger adolescent and mentoring the older when the growing variety of demands can momentarily feel overwhelming. Why are the first and lasts stages of growing up so fraught with complexity?

Start with early adolescence and the separation from childhood (ages 9 – 13.) Consider a twelve-year old. So long as she was living primarily within the simpler and sheltered family circle at home, she felt in confident control of her life, comfortable being defined and treated as a child, feeling close to parents who feel close to her, caring about her grades in school, content to play out her family role.

Separating from childhood and entering adolescence, however, she starts feeling dissatisfied with her childish identity, wants something different for herself, wants more independence from parents, is less focused on academic performance and more on friends, and seeks a social family of peers to belong to and fit in with as she transitions from a small elementary school to the push and shove of a larger middle school. In addition, now she is trying to figure out how to be more womanly since puberty has started to reshape her body -- how to look and act older. Developmental change has upset and reset the terms of her existence. She can’t go home to childhood again, she can only grow ahead. Suddenly life has become much more complicated to manage than before.

Next consider the eighteen-year-old. High school was great. There was enjoying a close circle of old friends, successfully taking care of his studies, playing team sports, acting more socially grown up by doing older things, driving and dating and partying and having a good time, having parents who managed his home and helped keep him on track by keeping after him to get things done.

Leaving to live apart from family and friends for the first time, however, he finds himself socially demoted from being Mr. Somebody in high school to becoming Mr. Nobody on a college campus where he feels disconnected and unknown. In addition, he has to motivate and direct himself in an impersonal world where no one seems to care about how or what he does. There to prepare for his future, he has no idea what that future is. And away from family, he has no parents to rely on for daily supervision and support which he must now provide for himself. In addition, he must assume full responsibility for meeting a host of new life management demands that come with living more independently. Change has upset and reset the terms of his existence. He can’t go back to high school again, he can only grow ahead. Suddenly life has become much more complicated to manage than before.

So how might parents tell when the complexity is getting on top of the young person at these vulnerable stages? From what I have seen, both younger and older adolescents commonly show the same four psychological signs when overburdened by complexity.

Disorganization: there is slippage of commitments everywhere because there is too much to keep track of.

Distractibility: there is inability to consistently focus anywhere from looking everywhere at once.

Disturbance: there is emotional upset at feeling overwhelmed, undermining the ability to effectively function.

Diversion: there is more reliance on electronic entertainment and social escape to avoid having to engage with real world demands.

Of course in our pharmaceutical age, psychoactive medication may be sought to help to such a young person gain more control, concentration, or calm to help cope with the complexity. And, so long as there is little sign of dependence or little evidence of harmful side effects, this may be useful, assuming counseling accompanies the chemical prescription.

Otherwise, I believe medication without some psychological education often wastes a precious opportunity to help the adolescent develop the self-understanding and self-management skills she or he needs to grow.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at:

Next week’s entry: When Parents Call Their Adolescent “Lazy”