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Dear doctor,
How do I understand my teenage child, 13 to 15 and 15 to 17? Please give me ideas so that I don't go wrong with my teenager and completely lose him in the process of bringing him up. I don't want to make mistakes. I desperately want to understand his world, his reasons for defiance and disorder. Thank you.
- A desperate mom

This is a very broad topic, so I'll try to highlight on some areas that might be helpful in your desperate state.

Physical and psycho-social changes that mid-teens (14-17 years) and late teens (17-20 years) have to go through are quite drastic and unique to this stage of life. Parents understanding themselves and their teenagers will eventually help to build a good family environment.

Growth spurts in height and weight are evident from the outside and usually draw lot of attention from others. Adolescents are very sensitive to these changes and are often comparing themselves to the others. Even a medically insignificant deviation from the average standard (e.g. delayed or precocious growth, acne, small or large breasts, etc.) can have significant psychosocial impact on an adolescent.

Self-image largely depends on how one views self in respect to the others; it also depends on the kind of feedback or remarks one receives from significant others. Self-image and self-identity tend to be shaky at this time while cognitive process is developing and personality formation is consolidating.

To help build positive self-image: praise efforts and achievements, give them real responsibilities, listen to their opinions, allow free expression and encourage friendship.

Awakening of dormant sexuality makes them curious; they learn to see themselves as sexual beings and start enjoying a new kind of relationship with other human beings. Sexual feelings and fantasies are something they start learning to cope with. Most parents avoid discussing sex with their children because they are embarrassed or they don't know what to say.

Adolescents tend to rely more on their peers for information. Consequently the influence would be good or bad depending on the group they are hanging out with. Substance abuse is another issue that parents rarely want to discuss with their children until it is too late. However, it is recommended that parents talk about these sensitive issues (not in great details though) when the adolescent is ready to hear but at the same time respect your child's privacy. At least parents should try hard to get this message across to the adolescents that they are willing to be there whenever they need them.

As a result of intellectual development, adolescents are now capable of reasoning and might even flex his/her intellectual muscles at times of conflict. So dear parents, expect to have a two-way conversation and an exchange of ideas. Because adolescents are learning new skills and facts that parents have already forgotten or never knew, expect that they will test or challenge your old ideas and traditional beliefs. Instead of feeling threatened by that, try to enjoy the conversation and learn from them.

Sometimes they are argumentative for no good reason (probably just practising the new found power of logic!), at other times they tend to slam the door on your face and refuse to talk (probably after momentary realisation that the world is not so simple as they had thought!). At times, setting rules or disciplining them with adequate explanations will be essential to maintaining the family equilibrium.

However, some screaming match or silent treatments are not out of the ordinary experiences of living with mid and late teens. Authoritarian parents find it more difficult to deal with this intellectual individuation process of their children.

In order to foster moral development, appeal to the adolescent's better self by using effective words (not just good or bad, right or wrong- they are already tired of hearing those!), which might appear to them as cool.

Encourage them to use their moral reasoning power by drawing their attention to their sense of responsibility, empathy for others, being a productive member of the society etc. However children learn more by observing your lifestyle not just by listening to what you are saying.

Moodiness of adolescents is sometimes out of proportion. They are upset for no apparent reason and attribute all their discomfort to a particular comment, being unaware of the exact source of all these feelings. They also tend to displace their anger or frustration on parents and siblings when they are actually feeling stressed out or anxious about something else.

This is because deep inside they believe family is the safest place to do that and try to test it by pushing the boundary. In these situations, do not over react but draw a clear line by stating what is acceptable and what is not, put your foot down when needed and teach them a logical consequence for their actions. It is also important that you model them what is the right way of dealing with difficult emotions.

Some children who sail through easily in elementary school start faltering in middle and high schools. It is important that parents base their demands and expectation on a realistic appraisal of the child's capability. Your excessive demand or over involvement could become a deterrent factor in his personal growth.

Don't try to impose your decisions and choices on your adolescent, let them express their own interests. Make sure your child knows that you love him or her for who s/he is and not just for what s/he achieves.

Separate the deed from the person. If your adolescent is an underachiever, try to find out if any physical, emotional or social problem is working behind it. Sometimes mid teens are too old to work hard in school to please their parents and teachers; too young to realise its possible impact in college admission. They however tend to wake up by grade 9 and 10. Wait and hope for that moment of epiphany instead of nagging all the time.

If the adolescent becomes a handful and is a constant source of concern, then watch out for signs of problematic behaviour. If the attitude and actions of your adolescent indicate serious disturbance, do not overlook it. Get professional help as quickly as possible. Some common problematic behaviour in adolescents' are-

Sexual acting out: Promiscuity and excessive interest in sex are signs of serious problems. Usually there are underlying reasons. Young people, who use sex for wrong reasons, miss out the opportunities to learn how to give and receive pleasure.

Remember adolescents are often rebellious about traditional values around sexuality (e.g. they may debate that fidelity not chastity should be the rule) but the vast majority still choose school work as a priority and are ready to postpone sexuality (in its stricter meaning) to a later stage.

Defiance: Frequent aggressive outbursts and violent temper tantrums are signs of trouble. Adolescents normally suffer from mood swings but explosive emotions could be a sign of emotional dysregulation. A highly oppositional teenager is a vindictive and unforgiving person. It can lead to serious conflicts with parents, siblings, friends, school etc. Instead of butting your head always with your adolescent, take a step back and allow new energy to flow in. These are high maintenance kids.

Delinquency: Literally means law-breaking tendencies. Adolescents are prone to rebellious behaviour, which can get out of control. These law-breaking tendencies can manifest different ways like: breaking the rules of school, cheating in the exam, vandalism (of course political parties take advantage of these kids!), and serious physical fights with peers etc.

Running away: How many children run away from home every year at this stage of life only statistics can show. Although many of them return after a few days, the tendency to repeat is always a reason of concern.

Truancy and school phobia: Adolescents deliberately dodging school and hanging out with other alienated children or older friends are also warning signs. Research shows that children who repeatedly fail academically for some reason (e.g. learning disability, depression etc.) develop a hostile attitude towards school and authority. They always feel misunderstood and school becomes a threat to their self-esteem. They are more likely to get involved with drugs and delinquent behaviour too.

Self-harm behaviour: Any tendency of deliberate self-harm like- cutting or slashing wrist, overdosing with pills, suicidal attempts etc. should be addressed immediately at a professional level. These are often regarded as a cry for help.

Last but not the least, parents must acknowledge that behavioural problems in adolescents and family can form a vicious cycle. Pointing fingers only to the adolescent is not likely to solve the problem. Having the courage to address parents' own issues interplaying in it should not be minimised at all. It is a difficult and agonising process but people make it possible for their own future. After all your child will grow up anyway and will eventually leave home, you can only do your best so that s/he has pleasant memories of growing up in a safe home.

That is the best gift you can give to your child. Also learn to forgive your mistakes, after all that makes us all human! Perfectionism (I can't make mistake), pride (I can't be wrong)- these are usually the flip side of shame and guilt. Healing from toxic shame and debilitating guilt is another chapter!



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