Written by: Melena Postolowski, MA
Short answer: yes, yes they do.
I regularly meet with concerned parents who wonder whether or not their adolescent is “normal.” We review concerns such as mood fluctuations, sleeping in late and engaging in risk-taking or more “defiant” behavior. Without taking away from the difficulties parents are having with these changes, I do get to reassure them that, in many cases, these are expected behaviors for teenagers. Understanding what is going on in the teenage brain in addition to reviewing the developmental tasks teenagers face can help in understanding this behavior with more empathy.
Brain changes in adolescence:
There are two times in life when our brains go through the most growing and refining: toddler and teenage years. Not surprisingly, both stages are accompanied by similar behaviors. Impulsivity. Regulating emotions. Risk-taking.
Internal changes taking place inside adolescents (including brain and hormonal changes) are responsible for these widespread behaviors. This can be confusing for parents/caregivers because adolescents are so much more cognitively adept than their toddler selves, but there is still a lot of maturing to be done. The onset of puberty is accompanied by this second wave of major brain development. Teenagers do not have the same level of impulse control as adults, including how and when they choose to express emotions. Additionally, just like a toddler may not understand the consequences of jumping off the back of the couch, your teenager may not have the skillset in place to determine potential consequences of their risky behavior.
Developmental tasks of adolescence:
Toddlers and teenagers have something else in common: thoroughly enjoying telling their parents/caregivers ”no.”
While toddlers are learning for the first time that they are separate people from their parents and are discovering the ability to do things for themselves, teenagers are tasked with navigating the space of being no longer children, but not yet adults. Adolescents are testing new boundaries and feeling pressured to meet expectations they have never faced before. This can be exciting and simultaneously induce fear for adolescents and parent/caregivers alike. The more parents/caregivers can act as an encouraging guide through this process, turning mistakes into learning opportunities, the more confidence adolescents are going to build regarding their own abilities.
Tips for parents/caregivers:
So all of this being said, how should you be responding as a key adult in the life of an adolescent?
*Expect that your adolescent will sometimes act without thinking of consequences, react impulsively and share changing emotions freely. Practice patience.
*Stick to a structured parenting approach, which includes rules and consequences with some room for negotiation, stable leadership, balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the family as a whole, and respecting both parental and child opinions. Basically, you need to be able to draw a line when behavior becomes unacceptable but otherwise cut your child some slack to avoid a constant power struggle.
*Create a support network for yourself, including other parents/caregivers with children around the same age.
Oh, and the sleep? The body just needs a lot of rest and time to recharge as it goes through all of these changes.
Even if teenager is displaying what would be considered normal behavior, it doesn’t hurt for them to have someone to talk to. Adolescence brings about a lot of big changes (for both parents and teens!) and having an outsider help you sort through these issues and find ways of communicating better can definitely be beneficial. Also, it’s always a good idea to seek out a professional opinion if you do feel like there is something going on for your teenager outside of the normal changes we’ve discussed. Finally, attending family therapy can help improve communication keep the bond between children and their parents/caregivers strong during this complex time.