Roxy Krawczyk, Middle School Teacher.
Never fear! The transition from childhood to adolescence is indeed a marked one, but it is simply another phase of normal human development. Knowing what changes are taking place inside your adolescent’s body and brain can help you understand what to expect, and being aware of their shifting needs and priorities can help you keep your own expectations in check. The tween years can look different for each child, but there are some developmental markers that are universal. Knowing what’s coming will help you maintain your sanity, and theirs.
Jean Piaget (1896-1980)
One of the first scientists to propose that human development happened in stages, as opposed to a singular, uninterrupted progression, was the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Still prominently studied in child development education today, Piaget’s theory suggests that children progress through four distinct stages of development: sensorimotor (0-2 years), preoperational (2-6 years), concrete operational (7-11 years), and formal operational (11 years-adult). In each of these periods, the individual develops a specific set of skills and becomes capable of new levels of thought which were previously inaccessible. The adolescent falls into Piaget’s final stage of formal operational thought. In this stage, Piaget proposed, adolescents begin to reason abstractly and think in hypothetical terms.
Another leading developmental psychologist was the German-born American scientist, Erik Erikson, known for his theory on psychosocial development. According to Erikson, people go through eight stages, confronting (and hopefully mastering) a new personal and/or social challenge in each. Erikson is perhaps most famous for coining the phrase “identity crisis,” and in no other stage is this particular challenge more evident in the adolescent stage. During this period, the adolescent is working on developing his or her personal identity. This is a critical time for individuals to determine who they are, where their values lie, and in what ways they can contribute to the communities around them.
The next prominent American psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, is best known for his theory of moral development. According to Kohlberg, moral reasoning (which provides the basis for ethical behavior) has six identifiable developmental stages, each stage being more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than its predecessor. Kohlberg proposed that the process of moral development is principally concerned with justice and progresses from an initial stage of obedience (acting to avoid punishment and gain reward) to one of conformity (acting in according with the majority opinion) to one of law and order (acting out of a feeling of duty to society). In the penultimate stage, a person enters the stage where morality negotiates between a social contract and individual rights, recognizing that rules and laws may exist for the good of the majority, but that they will also sometimes act against the best interest of the individual. Kohlberg claimed that only 10-15% of adults function at this level of morality. In the final stage, an individual develops a personal set of moral guidelines that may or may not fit with the laws of the land, but which can be universally applied to everyone. Kohlberg doubted that many people ever reach this stage. According to Kohlberg, the adolescent can be generally found somewhere within the conformity or the law-and-order stage. However, experience has shown that some adolescents are also capable of examining the idea that the general rules of society are not always for the best of each individual.
Preceding all of these lauded psychologists, yet proposing a theory of human development which in fact encompasses them all, Maria Montessori was an Italian physician who spent decades observing children and constructing developmental models that informed her educational pedagogy. According to Montessori, individuals go through four stages of development on their path to adulthood: infancy (0-6 years), in which they expand their physical horizons; childhood (6-12 years), in which they expand their intellectual horizons; adolescence (12-18 years), in which they expand their social horizons; and maturity (18-24 years), in which they expand their moral and spiritual horizons. In the first three years of each “plane of development,” individuals absorb information from their surroundings and form critical understandings of the way things work. In the latter three years, individuals learn how to act, interact, manipulate, and create with the concepts and tools that they have been developing.
By nature of their developmental task, the third-plane child is highly self-concerned. As much as they are watching others to determine the rules of the game, they are also constantly evaluating themselves to see how they match up. This piece of Montessori’s philosophy on the adolescent is critical for parents, teachers, and caregivers to remember: if your tween or teen seems completely self-obsessed, it’s because they are. Self-assessment is a necessary tool for the developing adolescent, and – if used successfully – it will phase out as easily as it crept in.
Changing Brains, Changing Needs
Recent neuroscience has provided us with much new information about how the brain changes and grows from infancy to adulthood. The old view that adolescents are driven crazy by hormones raging uncontrollably throughout their bodies is being phased out in favor of new evidence that shows that brain changes influence the behavior of adolescents far more than the endocrine system. In fact, aside from infancy, adolescence is the time of the brain’s greatest lifetime growth spurt.
Needs of the Adolescent
So, what do all of these psychology and neuroscience models tell us about the needs of a developing adolescent? To put it simply, adolescents need to feel increasingly independent within a framework of safety and support. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on three areas of adolescent needs, and the balance required by each.
Structure and Freedom
Adolescents, like all developing children, need freedom within limits. Just as when you baby-proof a room so that you can let your toddler explore it on his or her own, so do you need to set up a physically and emotionally safe environment for your adolescent and then give them the space to make their own choices. No matter the physical location, a safe space for an adolescent is a stable environment in which clear, honest, open communication is encouraged and where the feelings and thoughts of the adolescent are valued and respected.
If a solid support system is in place, the adolescent will feel confident in venturing out on his or her own, making independent decisions while knowing that there is a soft place to fall if things don’t go as planned. Learning by experience – trying, failing, and rebounding – is often the most effective method of education. As adults our job is to set adolescents up for success and then step back and let them make their own choices, while at the same time staying just close enough that if they need us, we are available.
Responsibility and Accountability
Adolescents crave real, meaningful tasks. They want to contribute to their larger communities in ways that mean something. They can recognize busy work a mile away, and they will have none of it. Adolescents will tell you in no uncertain terms that they are no longer children and can handle far more than their younger counterparts.
Adolescents also need clearly defined structure; they need to know what the boundaries and expectations are of the adults around them. When setting up the parameters of a task or experience, do not assume that anything is obvious or “common sense” – spell it all out for them. Give an explanation of what the successful task or decision looks like, and then tell them how and when you will follow up. When you set clear expectations and limits at the start, you minimize the chances of miscommunication and set yourself up for success in holding your child accountable.
Once you have established the expectations, walk away. Don’t hover; don’t critique; don’t advise. Give your child the chance to actually do it on their own. Adolescents are highly sensitive to feeling trusted and competent, and whether or not they really are capable of achieving the goal, they need to feel that you think they are. Montessori once said, “It is better to treat an adolescent as if he had greater value than he actually shows than as if he had less and let him feel that his merits and self-respect are disregarded" (From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 72). Adolescents tend to act the way you treat them. Raise the bar, and they will rise to the challenge.
This does not mean, however, that you walk away for good, simply trusting that the adolescent will carry out their duties fully and faithfully from that point forward. There will be times when the bathroom is not cleaned, the dog is not fed, and their homework is not done. Check back in when you say you will and take them through the parameters that you previously established. Ask them to check the boxes of what they did and did not do, and guide them through examining the quality of their work or decision-making process.
Connection & Relationships
Above all else, adolescents need real, meaningful connections with the people around them. In their study of how to be an adult, adolescents need safe relationships in which they can try on various hats, communicate their needs, and experiment with new thoughts and feelings. Although safe, responsible, trusted adults are absolutely essential to this process, you will most often see adolescents placing the majority of their focus on their peer social group. Their friends, classmates, teammates, cousins – these are the faces that provide adolescents with the most parallel mirrors of themselves. In their hyper-aware state of who they are becoming and how they fit in, adolescents look to their peers for near-constant validation that they are doing okay. It is important to facilitate these relationships and to allow your adolescent the space and emotional energy to care deeply about their social network. If and when these relationships hit a bump in the road, listen to their concerns, validate their feelings, and value their very real experience. Just because you know that things will look different down the road doesn’t mean that what they are going through isn’t as real to them now as that future will be later.
Suggestions for Parental Adjustments
Allow for Independence
Do your best to step back and give adolescents the chance to make their own decisions. Allow them to try, even if it means they fail. Use check-ins instead of constant dialogue, but do check in. Adolescents are in the process of differentiating themselves from their closest adult role models (most often their parents), but they are still new at the game. Don’t let them fool you – they still need you, even if they sometimes claim that they don’t.
Give your adolescent real responsibilities and hold them accountable. If they did the work they said they would do, offer them genuine validation of their efforts. Avoid platitudes of praise, and instead focus on the value of the work they did and the positive effect it will have on others. It is okay to tell them you are proud, just don’t make that the focus of your feedback.
If they did not meet the expectations of the task or they made a poor choice, talk them through what happened. There are three standard questions that can facilitate this conversation in almost any situation: 1) “What worked well?”, 2) “What didn’t work?”, and 3) “What might you do differently next time?” As with praise, it is okay to express your genuine disappointment when an action or decision affects you or the family. It is important for your adolescent to know that their actions (or inactions) have a direct impact on others. It can be helpful to focus on the natural consequences of their decisions. For example you might prompt their thinking by asking: Why do people clean bathrooms, and what is the problem with not doing it? How do you think the dog feels being forgotten and hungry? How will missing this homework assignment affect your learning and/or your grade?
Try to remain calm and neutral when talking about slip-ups. If you need to, let them know that you need a few minutes to process your feelings and you will come back to the conversation. Your adolescent is usually not making mistakes with the purpose of irritating or disappointing you – all people everywhere want approval and validation. They just may not have developed the empathetic maturity yet to think through how their choices will affect others. Do your best to offer them a mirror in which they can see and evaluate their own behavior. The results will be far more impactful and long-lasting. And if your adolescent really misses the mark, it may be that he or she was not quite as ready for the task as either you or they thought. It’s okay to take a step back and aim a little lower or provide more direct support the next time.
Resist Giving Unsolicited Advice
Remember: sometimes adolescents (like all people) don’t want advice – they just want to be heard. Instead of feeling like you have to somehow fix the situation, focus on active listening: give them your full attention; use engaged body language; repeat back what you hear them say; and emphasize the validity of their emotions. If they are ready to problem solve, encourage them to think through the process, reinforce your confidence in their capability to handle the situation and make the best decision, and remind them that your support is there whenever they might need it. It’s okay to offer potential solutions, but hold off until they ask; or, at the very least, ask if they would like some advice. They will tell you quite clearly if they don’t want your help, and you will save yourself the wasted breath and frustration of trying to solve a problem for someone who really just needed to express their feelings.
That said, there are times when your adolescent (like all people) will sulk, wallowing for just a little too long in an emotion or mood that they have already talked through. Chances are that you will know instinctively when the conversation has turned from productive to repetitive. This is a good time to give your child space. Let them know that you think they might now just need some time to work through the particular feeling, and tell them where they can find you if they need to talk more once they have calmed down or shifted their emotional state. (This is also a good technique for dealing with the occasional adolescent [or adult] tantrum.)
Use Other Adults as Resources
At times, you will not be the person your adolescent wants to talk to. You will be too close, too familiar, or too alike to be their confidant. Despite needing strong family connections, adolescents are also strongly compelled to separate from the flock, and sometimes they will have a very different emotional response to a situation than what they know you will have. This simply does not make you the ideal person to communicate with at that moment or about that issue.
Try to remember that this is not a personal affront, and seek out other adult mentors that your adolescent can talk to. Older cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, family friends, teachers, coaches – any responsible, trusted person who has more life experience than your adolescent can be a great resource for you both. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t worry that your adolescent won’t come back. Sometimes they just need a little space, but you will always be their main support and closest ally.
Adolescents may seem like a different species at times, but they are really just in the process of transforming from the caterpillar of childhood into the butterfly of adulthood. Keeping a long-term vision of their developmental process and knowing that these stages are just that – temporary phases – will help you both through these sometimes challenging years. Remember that what you do is just as important as what you say (and sometimes more), and continue to set an example that shows the kind of person you want your child to grow into. Be okay with the idea that they will struggle sometimes, and have faith that everything you have taught your adolescent up to this point has set them up for success in the challenging task of growing up.
- Inside the Teenage Brain (PBS FRONTLINE)
- Being 12: The Year Everything Changes
- CNN's Anderson Cooper 360° Breaks News About Teens And Social Media In Provocative Two-Year Long Investigation
- National Institute of Mental Health: “The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction”
- Psychology Today: “Adolescence”