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Parents and Adolescent Disorganization

As adolescence complicates life, more personal disorganization often occurs

Parents who prize household routine and regularity in family are likely to feel frustrated by the onset of their child’s adolescence. At this time (around ages 9 – 13) expressions of personal disorganization in their daughter or son often become increasingly apparent.

For example, the elementary student who keeps up with homework can becomes the middle school student who loses track of assignments. The 4th grader who confined personal disorder to their own room becomes the 8th grader who litters the entire home. The child who listened to what parents said becomes the young adolescent whose wandering attention is very hard to catch. “On top of things” becomes “absent-minded,” “careful” becomes “careless,” “focused” becomes “scattered,” “responsive” becomes “self-preoccupied.” Because this behavior change is inconsistent with what they have traditionally known, orderly parents can be particularly unwelcoming of this developmental disorganization.

“The wheels have come off the truck!” was how one frustrated dad described the change. With his 11-year-old son, the man was now contending with more forgetfulness, disorder, untidiness, impulsiveness, distractibility, loss of belongings, inattention, and general disarray. What was going on? The onset of adolescent change is a complicating factor in everybody’s lives. Feeling more confused about their changing child, parents naturally wonder, “What’s happening now?” “What should we do?” They are feeling more disorganized too.

One way to think about the beginning of adolescence is as a process for breaking boundaries of definition to allow more freedom to grow. Now the young person not only casts off some younger ways, but pushes to be treated in older ways as well. Forsaking traditional parental affection, the young person may reject the kissing and cuddling that went with being a child. Pushing for different treatment, the young person may argue for a later bedtime to signify advancing years. Trying to communicate with their more hormonally, emotionally driven adolescent, parents seeking reasonable discussion often discover it is harder to find a “thinking person at home.”

The problem for the emerging adolescent is that she or he can’t begin redefining themselves without giving up some of what was old and valued, facing what is new and different, thus feeling more disorganized, out of control, and anxious to some degree. The young person can’t begin to separate from the simpler, sheltered experience of childhood without entering the more challenging, complicated, older world of life experience. In the course of this transition, some slippage in self-management usually occurs, as the dad cited above correctly observed.

How the parent responds to these changes make an enormous difference. This is NOT a time for parents to become impatient, critical, or punitive. Early adolescent disorganization is a signal that it is time to coach the young person in strategies for more effective self-management as life grows more complex. Parents need to accept the growth process while holding the young person accountable for choices made, encouraging those that are constructive, countering those that are not.

For example, a common sign of disorganization in late elementary school or early middle school is faltering academic motivation, failing effort to accomplish work, and falling grades as competing personal and social interests can disorganize and change the young person’s traditional operating priorities. (See my 3/15/09 blog, “The Early Adolescent Achievement Drop.”) At this point, parents might have this to say. “We know there’s a lot more on your mind now that makes it harder to concentrate on completing homework and studying for tests, and you may even feel like working for good grades doesn’t matter. However, we will provide our supervisory support help you get school work done. We make this effort this because how you manage to take care of your schooling now will affect opportunities for doing what you want later on.”

Adolescence is disorganizing. It is meant to be, as growth toward independence and individuality, by intention and happenstance, unfolds. Of necessity, an adolescent becomes a much more complicated person required to function in a much more complicated world than did the girl or boy in childhood. It is this growing individual complexity of the young person (from puberty, for example) and the growing social complexity with which they must deal (entering secondary school, for example) that creates increased personal disorganization in early adolescence.

From what I have seen, at this more disorganized age, there is a temptation for concerned parents to seek help that recommends psychoactive medication for their child, to help restore focus and concentration, to reduce restlessness and impulsiveness, even to lessen anxiety or lift despondency from feeling in less self and social control. In response, parents should make sure that they are not resorting to a prescriptive drug for some kind of “quick fix” which substitutes for the increased daily effort of parental coaching that is now required.

Medication can at times be helpful, but without education is a wasted opportunity because no one is daily helping the young person learn to organizes and self-manage more effectively. And it is risky. Who knows what side effects it may occur, or what long lasting effects reliance on psychoactive (mood and mind altering) drugs at this young age may bring. This is also why medication must be regularly monitored.

How can parents organize the organizational help they give to their adolescent? One way is to consider disorganization as a time management problem. Their job is to help the young person organize themselves in three arenas of time -- managing time past, time present, and time future, each requiring its own set of skills.

TIME PAST MANAGEMENT has to do with effective Record Keeping that develops strategies to recall what must be remembered -- how to keep track of ongoing commitments, and profit from past experience.

TIME PRESENT MANAGEMENT has to do with creating an Operating System that oversees the scope of current needs and responsibilities – how to maintain a functional oversight of everyday demands.

TIME FUTURE MANAGEMENT has to do with Planning Ahead to partly direct the course of one’s life – how to form a sense of future worth working for, and prepare for challenges that might or will arrive.

At this point, assuming parents have helped their daughter or son strengthen self-management capacity to cope with early adolescent disorganization, they may think their job is done because the age of overwhelming complexity is over. WRONG!

There are TWO ages of dramatically increasing complexity in adolescence, both times of high personal disorganization and major psychological adjustment. The first is during the age of leaving childhood and entering adolescence (around ages 9 – 13), and the second is during the age of getting ready to enter adulthood, Trial Independence (around ages 18 – 23.)

If parents think that the world of adolescence is daunting for the young child, it is generally less so compared to how overwhelming stepping off into the world of functional independence is for the older adolescent. With so much more to do at one time, there can be a disabling sense of disorganization: “I can’t keep all the parts of my life together!” Not knowing what to do first, not able to attend every demand at once, always running behind, constantly anxious from feeling out of control, now the young person can operate under continual stress. I wrote the book “Boomerang Kids” (2011) to explain how this greater complexity and increased disorganization can be so, and what parents can do to help.

Testimony to how hard engaging with the more complex demands of a functional independence can be and how tempting it can feel to disengage from these responsibilities, are several ways young people commonly resist the challenge. For example, they do so by denial (“I don’t want to think about it”), by procrastination (“I can do it later”), and by escape (“I want to get my mind off my troubles”.)

So there is that sobering statistic (see Journal of College Retention): on average about 50% of students who enter college don’t manage to graduate. (Retention rates vary college to college, so young people and parents should always ask before applying and investing and obligating their money.) I believe the inability to cope with the increased complexity of life, and an increasing sense of personal disorganization, is a contributing factor to this statistic. For many young people, it takes a lot of scrambling and some hard consequences from unwise decisions to learn the requisite self-management skills to support independent living.

Of course, parents can’t “supervise” an 18-year-old floundering at college the same as they would “parent” a 12-year-old floundering in middle school. With the younger person, they can exercise management responsibility – structuring and supervising the girl’s or boy’s conduct to help organize and focus effort. Separated from their older adolescent, however, they are in no daily monitoring position. And if they did intervene and attempt a “rescue” the likelihood is that the young person, feeling too old to be managed by parents anymore, would resist their intervention and oppose their “help.”

At this last adolescent stage, when acting adult can be really hard to do, it can be useful for parents to remember that coping with the growing complexities of adulthood is even hard for adults to do. Consider the transitions from living single to living partnered to living as parents and the quantum increase in life complexity and more need for organization that comes with these common changes. And herein lays the key.

With their last stage disorganized adolescent, whose footing has been temporarily lost and who is feeling badly as a result, parents can move from being manager to offering themselves as mentor. This means respecting the young person’s right to make her or his decisions and to take responsibility for dealing with the consequences. What they can respectfully offer is counsel gained from longer life experience.

“From our trials we may have learned some things that can be helpful to know. Like you, we are just students in the Great School of Life in which no one gets all A’s because at times everyone feels overwhelmed by challenges and changes, stumbling along the way. We certainly have. However, for what it’s worth, we are open to sharing our hard earned knowledge and advice if you would like. You have only to ask.”

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

Next week’s entry: Communicating with Your More Independent Adolescent

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