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Understanding Adolescents

by Lisa Baron, LCSW

Adolescence is a time of change. Of primary importance to adolescents is their developing independence and autonomy, being heard, their friends, and their developing interests. For example, my neighbor’s fourteen year-old son is a drummer. She reports how there are times she feels he lives and breathes for his drums, and how when he is playing, nothing else matters. He has his moments of being self involved, where it is as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist. However, when a social opportunity is offered to him, he will compromise what he is doing as that social world is of utmost importance to him.

She also describes how in the midst of this burgeoning independence, there comes moodiness and volatility. One moment he appears to be calm, and settled and peaceful. He is happy to be part of the family. Another moment, he cannot tolerate the sight of his sibling or parents, and wants to get as far away as possible. It’s as if he fears he will be engulfed by these beings that are in a sense “cramping his style.” There are times he describes that he doesn’t know what he feels. Her descriptions sound like he may experience his inner moods like Chicago weather; volatile and forever shifting from sun to wind to snow, and on from there.

She also describes her adolescent daughter. While her son goes to the drums for stress relief, her daughter tends to run to friends. When her friends let her down or are not available, she becomes quite dramatic and has a harder time calming herself down then my neighbor’s son.

Sometimes she describes standing in her kitchen with her adolescent, feeling like she is in those adolescent shoes all over again. Holding on to her center, and trying hard not to do the “verbal dance” helps her to keep her perspective, most of the time. She finds, that her daughter tries to engage her in this verbal dance, more than her son.

Her son tends to storm out, and after playing the drums, exercising, or finding some other outlet, he appears to be able to calm himself down. Her daughter tends to want to discuss, banter and analyze. This may be that particular household, and not a generalization over all. However, it is hard not to get pulled into the dance, with its familiar ring from her past experiences in her own upbringing.

My neighbor also described the roller coaster ride that she sometimes experiences while living with adolescents. There are times when they open the garage door and she doesn’t know what mood they will come home in. At one moment she may feel quite popular with them, and at another moment you would think that she was invading their space by just being an inhabitant under the same roof. This volatility can sometimes be painful particularly when she is going through other angst, as anyone does in their day-to-day living.

She says it’s hard not to take personally at times. When she approaches her adolescents, again, the Chicago weather analogy applies. It can be a calm, sunny moment, on a peaceful beach at sunset. Or, the volatility can become apparent when her adolescents are shocked and insulted at the thought that she would believe she was worthy of their precious time. My neighbor describes herself as “tough skinned” and feels that this quality has helped her to roll with the punches during the roller coaster ride of parenting adolescents. She tries not to sweat the small stuff, and says to me, “After all, when I am old and grey, will I be thinking about the music they listened to or the ears they pierced?”

Periodically, she feels that warm bask of light shining in her window, as she does with her adolescents as they reach out to talk, connect, hug, or just be.

She sees them making responsible choices, saying please and thank you to relatives, learning more self control. She begins to hear other people say, “Your children are so kind” and “they have such nice manners.” She gets feedback from teachers about how resourceful and wonderful they are. Sometimes, this is a glimpse of what’s to come. These growing, developing, burgeoning people will
become adults that are most likely likeable, pleasant and kind. However she describes current day as a bit of a testing ground.

“How do you do it, on the hard days?” I ask her, as I ask myself. She replies, “The best I can.” Keeping her sense of humor, and knowing that every moment of every day she loves them for all they are and will become, helps her get through the ever changing winds of adolescence. She feels that when she can keep her own sails steady in the wind, it helps them to spread their wings in the way they need to in their process of change.

For therapists working with adolescents and families, I would make the following recommendations:

1. Appreciate teen’s uniqueness. The moment a parent tries to form a teen into what they like the teen to become, the opposite is likely to occur. It’s common that the teen will dig in their heels, to maintain their autonomy and independent voice.

2. A parent should remember back to their own adolescence. You may feel you are re-living some of your previous experiences, but you are not. Your teen is a separate being from you. Engaging in a verbal “dance” with an adolescent could be a recipe for disaster. It is likely that the conversation will continue to escalate, and that the parent
will begin to feel and act adolescent themselves.

3. Having one’s own life will increase the adolescent’s chance of developing their own autonomy and vision. Being happy with yourself and your own choices will help your family in more ways than you know.

Lisa Baron, LCSW is a therapist in private practice in Northbrook, Illinois. Lisa sees adults, adolescents and children in her practice. Lisa is in the process of earning her Doctorate in Clinical Social Work from the Institute for Clinical Social Work in Chicago, Illinois. Lisa is also the proud parent of three spirited teenagers. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory.

3 Responses to “Understanding Adolescents”

  1. farouk Says:

    i also believe that parents should give more space to their teens in order to help them discover their identities instead of forcing them to act in a certain way that suppresses the development of their personalities

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