This is a questions that we, as parents, often ask ourselves as our children move from childhood into the tween/teen years. “He used to talk to me all the time! He was happy, enthusiastic and respectful. Now he comes home, goes to his room, turns on loud music, stares at the computer screen, and barely says a word! What happened to my kid?
Whether or not that describes your kid, you have probably experienced some drama, confusion and frustration with your teen or pre-teen. Not many a parent enters the teen years without a bit of apprehension. These are years of many changes, and change can be confusing especially when you’re not quite sure what is happening or how things will turn out.
We can’t predict how things will end up, but there is a lot we do know about the changes. Having a better understanding of the changes can help reduce anxiety and gain clarity about how to handle these years. Then you can move forward with confidence and hope for raising your teen into a respectful and honourable adult.
So, what is happening to your kid?
During puberty, boys’ testosterone levels increase significantly causing vocal changes, hair growth, muscular development, testicle enlargement and more perspiration. For girls, progesterone and oestrogen cause breast growth, hip enlargement, pubic hair growth and menstruation. Significant, permanent and rapid changes like this can be confusing and scary for both a child and their parent.
Changes in the brain
During adolescence, the brain goes through a massive upgrade. Brain speed, pattern recognition and memory details grow by leaps and bounds. Abstract thinking becomes a possibility, though teens are unpracticed and therefore not good at it yet. They also begin to learn how to think from the third-person perspective and gain a limited understanding of paradox (two statements that seem to be in conflict but are both true). This massive brain development continues into the 20’s, but interestingly, the nucleus accumbens (the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward) is well developed early on whereas the prefrontal cortex (the area responsible for decision making, wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, planning and organization) is one of the latest areas to fully develop. It’s no wonder teens take more risks and lack inhibitions!
Teens are not always good at making decisions yet. They are wired to seek pleasure and reward without being able to think through the consequences very well. This would make it seem like there is no way that a teenager could make logical decisions, and it does help understand how they can seem so illogical. But, although we understand many parts of the brain and what they are responsible for, it is highly fluid and interconnected. What this means is that teens are in process. They need our patience. But they do need to learn responsibility, and we do them a disservice if we just let them off the hook during this developmental period with the idea that “they are not able to.”
As these physical and mental changes are taking place, teens begin to experiment with their changing thoughts and ideas. They see themselves as becoming adults physically and want the freedom that comes with it. Seeking pleasure and reward, they try new things and new relationships. The opposite sex becomes attractive in a new and interesting way, and relationships are tested – new ones are born, old ones change or end. Obviously family relations change as well! Additionally, many teens go through a change in the way they experience school during this time, moving from elementary school to middle school or junior high and then high school. Generally, this exposes adolescents to a whole new and larger group of peers to explore.
With all the physical, mental and relational changes, you can imagine how emotional this whole process would be! But, even more than that, the emotions teens are capable of is also growing rapidly during these years. Life used to be pretty simple. Before puberty, the range of emotions children were capable of experiencing was quite limited. During puberty, the emotional toolbox is growing rapidly. It’s almost like graduating from a box of eight Crayola Crayons with easily identifiable but limited colors to a box of 152 with an overwhelming number of options and colors that are hard to distinguish. A simple question, “what if ____ happened?” used to be answered with a simple “it would be good” or “it would be bad.” With the beginning of abstract thought, there are a lot more options and the emotions around those options are more expansive and less understood. Their capacity to feel what others feel rather than just what they feel adds to the emotional experience as well.
Imagine (actually you may be able to remember if you haven’t repressed the trauma of these years) what it would be like to go through any one of these major changes! It’s no wonder the teenage years are so interesting to navigate for a child, their parents, and even the whole family. However, knowing changes are normal, important and necessary for moving toward maturity is helpful. Also, understanding a little bit about what is happening helps us endure, support and guide our precious children toward the man or woman they are designed to become.
It’s natural and normal for your child to test you, push back and question just about anything you say. They are exploring their expanding bodies, thoughts, relationships and emotions without even understanding why. As parents, your job is to be patient and manage your emotions. Support from your spouse, friends, church, school, and others can be invaluable. Hang in there! Your precious children are going through a roller coaster of flips, twists and turns, testing everything they know. They need you to be an anchor of love, acceptance, truth and stability.