Transitioning to the teen years can be confusing and exasperating, as well as exciting and enjoyable for both parents and children. There are so many changes taking place in your teen’s life that it can be difficult to keep up with the growth they are experiencing physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. And with these changes come new challenges, such as the way you communicate with your teen, how much screen time they are allotted, how much independence you are willing to grant them, as well as increased responsibilities.
Physical changes for boys and girls tend to begin at different times. Girls typically experience puberty at 10-11 years, but they can start as early as 8 and as late as 13 years old. Girls’ bodies change in shape and height; they begin to develop breasts, grow both body and pubic hair, and begin their menstrual cycles. Boys, on the other hand, tend to see changes a bit later, at 11- 12 years old, but some can begin as early as 9 or as late as 14. At this time boys begin to see changes in their body shape, increases in height and the size of their penis and testes, growth of both body and facial hair, and changes in their voice.
Some physical changes that are not visible to you in the teen years are the changes in their brains. The teenage brain goes through a remodeling process, starting at puberty and extending through the early 20s. The neurons in the brain’s grey matter that are responsible for thinking and processing get “pruned” if they are not used, while those that are used get strengthened.
This remodeling process is largely responsible for teens’ inability to think before they act, to consider the consequences of their choices or actions, or change their inappropriate or dangerous behaviors. Because their brain relies more heavily on the amygdala to make decisions and less on the prefrontal cortex during this time teens tend to be more emotional and impulsive. The amygdala is the oldest part of the brain, referred to as “the caveman brain” and is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response.
With the changes in the brain come changes in cognition. Over time, while the brain is remodeling, teens begin to develop more advanced reasoning skills that include the ability to think of a wide range of possibilities relating to a particular situation. They can think more hypothetically and follow a more logical thought process. They become more abstract thinkers and can imagine things without seeing or experiencing them.
There are also significant social changes taking place during the teen years, most noticeably in the your child’s relationships with family, friends, and peers. Social and emotional changes tend to look different depending on the individual. Teens are working to form their own personal identities and will begin to seek greater independence while developing their individual sets of morals and values. They will often seek out greater responsibility and will begin to explore their sexual identity as well.
In addition, you may notice emotional changes taking place during this time. Teens tend to experience stronger and more unpredictable mood swings. They often become more self-conscious about the way they look and the changes they are experiencing, which can also affect their self esteem. And sometimes they go through a stage where they feel invincible, sure that bad things can't or won't happen to them.
These social and emotional changes can significantly impact your teen’s relationships. Most teens want to spend less time with their family and more time with friends. They are also more prone to engaging in arguments with their parent because they see things differently and are craving more independence. Their ability to think more abstractly and question different points of view can often fuel increased conflict with you.
With these changes, new and more complex challenges can arise. One of the most common challenges is the way parents and teens communicate, because there is often a roadblock in understanding each other’s perspective. The use of screens is a hot topic, often the subject of debate. It’s an additional challenge for modern parents that previous generations did not have to contend with. What teens can engage in, how much, and how often are usually the places where they and their parents don’t necessarily see eye to eye.
Teens also tend to struggle with the need for more independence and responsibility. This is a major part of the process of separating and becoming an adult. As a parent, it can be easy to worry about every move your teen makes. It can be challenging to figure out a way to bridge the gap and find a balance that recognizes your teen’s need for independence—this is important to them and their development.
With this knowledge of the transitions, changes, and challenges that may occur with your teen and in your family, there are many ways to get support. No parent should have to go it alone and try to figure how to move through this time without the support of others. By seeking support, parents are able to move through this stage of their child’s development with greater ease and enjoyment.
Joining a support group, working with a therapist or parent coach, and using online resources are all ways for parents to find support as they go through this process. Many cities have support groups for parents of teens to normalize their experiences and get information and ideas from their peers. A therapist or coach can help educate parents and help them walk through the specific challenges they are experiencing with their teen. And there are so many wonderful resources available online or via apps! The Parenteen Connect app is just one example of how both parents and teens can access information, share ideas, and find answers to their questions. No matter what age or stage your teen is at, all parents can benefit from support during this exciting and exhilarating time.
This blog post was written for the Committee For Children blog.