Parenting a Problem Adolescent, Part 2

Puberty generally sees the rise of pubic and underarm hair, of menstrual changes and desire for intimacy in girls, of ‘wet dreams’ and desire for intimacy in boys and with hormones being produced in massive amounts to meet changes in the body and brain. The prefrontal cortex of the brain for example has not yet developed properly upon which adult emotional, problem-solving and decision-making amongst other functions rely.

There may be a marked interest in the opposite sex or for some in the same sex (gay or lesbian) or both (bisexuality) or none at all. This is all a normal part of growing up, but can also be a time of great emotional and social confusion for the child. Views about body image and shape vary markedly in society, but can be a trying time for a teenager.

For a girl the size of her breasts and bra size, the shape of her hips and thighs and the onset of menstruation may be earth shatteringly important. For a boy the onset of pubic hair, the desire for muscular growth and strength and facial hair may also be important in the transition to manhood.

Males may be confused about how to impress a girl or what to say to girls. Some males may feel confused, guilty and scared about being attracted to or fantasising about other males.

Females may feel unsure or insecure about the intentions of boys or even how to attract boys and how to not get pregnant. Similarly some girls may also be confused, guilty and scared about being attracted to or fantasising about other girls.

Both girls and boys alike may despair with having pimples or not having the ‘right’ shaped nose or legs or hair colour and be fearful of never having any friends or being liked by a dominant peer group. What may seem to be insignificant issues or problems in the view of parents or adults may be major problems or issues for teenagers.

Some children may go through physical and emotional changes of puberty earlier than others. Their needs and experiences therefore will be quite different to others as they age from say 12 to 17 or even 18 years. The onset of physical and emotional changes of girls tends to occur earlier than in males, although as mentioned there will obviously be differences between child rates of maturational development.

For early bloomers, they may feel pressured to take on adult roles or to do adult things before they are mentally and socially developed enough to fully understand the consequences of what they are doing. Learning about life can have its dangers and pitfalls if one is not yet competent to understand the risks involved in so-called adult activities such as sex, living with a partner, going to clubs or parties where there is alcohol consumption, managing financial issues (especially related to mobile phone and credit card charges) and so on.

The transition from a child to early adulthood is an incredibly complex, worrying and yet exciting time for the adolescent and those around them including family, teachers and others who are affected by the change in the young person’s body image, thinking and behaviours and interactions with people of all ages.

Pressures of school, changes in body image, the loss of childhood status, pleasures, beliefs and behaviours, the tensions of new ways of thinking about the world seemingly overwhelming and sometimes full of injustices and lack of humanity towards others or intolerant of youth and so on can all affect self-esteem, self-worth and motivation to learn, to succeed or even live.

Many Indigenous communities have rituals that assist young men and women in coping with the passage from childhood to adulthood. Admittedly some rituals are seen as barbaric by western cultures such as female circumcision (not necessarily undertaken during adolescence but often in childhood), but generally rites of passage are ceremonies to acknowledge a change in status and role in the community towards that of an adult male or female.

Whatever the case may be, effective communication, commitment and understanding is going to be vital in understanding how to cope with teenagers and how best to support and nurture them. So what are the problematic situations faced by parents?

There are so many possible situations that it would be difficult to even briefly describe them here. ‘Problem’ adolescents may have a variety of different health and learning related needs, problems or issues. The most significant sorts of problems for parents and their children during early to mid adolescence relate to differences in the way the world is perceived and ways of coping with stress and bodily changes.

For example, how problematic is a child’s messy room with clothes, food wrappers and school work left strewn all over the floor and bed for example? Unless it is a public health or learning development issue, then a parent could recognise that this is the way that their child is coping with the world. Yes they may also be acting as rebellious, with outbursts of emotion and challenging of parental authority, but considering the massive changes that the child is going through they need more support and reassurance than condemnation.

The parent needs to show interest, to be actively involved with and to learn about their child and their new world rather than combat it or ignore it. The parent needs to know when to allow independence and when to intervene and this is not always an easy thing to do. Being a positive role model as a parent is perceived by some writers as important for a child’s development.

Health and learning related problems/situations may include:

  • ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • Anxiety, distress, phobias and obsessions and even anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders such as Anorexia nervosa or Bulimia or alternatively poor diet leading to obesity. Often eating disorders are gender related body image issues and a desperation to have a sense of control over one’s life and to avoid rejection by peers or to relieve boredom, anxiety or depression by not eating properly, purging after an eating binge, over eating nutritionally poor quality food, or body building to excess with or without chemicals/drugs.
  • Bullying and abuse
  • Grief and loss (e.g., death of loved ones or favourite pets, loss of childhood and innocence, grief or apprehension regarding changed body image)
  • Poor literacy or academic skills
  • Aggressive physical or acting out behaviour from males
  • Gender identity and role confusion or marginalisation especially re sexuality
  • Depression and withdrawal
  • Suicidal or self-harming thoughts and actions
  • Lack of sexual knowledge leading to risky or unsafe sexual behaviours and practices

Each one of these problems/situations can cause grief, fear or despair for the adolescent as well as for the parent. Situations may be exhibited in a power play – a means to an end for the adolescent in terms of control over one’s world and one’s life and those in it – ‘I’m growing up’ or ‘I’m an adult…you have to start treating me like one…you cant tell me what to do and how to live my life’…You have no idea how I’m feeling’…’you can’t tell me what I like or dislike… it’s none of your damn business’.

The parent(s) in the face of what may seem to be some alien that has taken over their son or daughter’s body and mind may feel a desperate need to overly control their son or daughter.

In some respects the temptation to be controlling these days may be partly based around apprehension and confusion relating to child safety fears or even paranoia expressed in the community, often fuelled, dramatised and overstated by some parts of the media, politicians, social commentators and so on. The reaction against authority may be expressed in episodes of rebellion by the adolescent or feelings of alienation, hopelessness and desire to self harm or to withdraw with an eating disorder.

On the other extreme, the parent(s) may be the opposite and not care particularly where their son or daughter is or what they are doing and that can be just as problematic in setting their child up for failure (e.g., get into trouble with authorities, have an unwanted pregnancy, become drug dependent, or contract a sexually transmitted disease) in the community or with their studies or neglect of their current and future welfare or safety.

Obviously there is a delicate balance at times in trying to achieve a satisfying quality of life for the adolescent and for the parents as well as sustaining healthy interactions with significant others such as brothers, sisters, grandparents, other family, close friends, school mates, and teachers and so on. Anxiety relating to the way people live including pressures from school, peers, parents, teachers, bullies at school and so on is significant in many of the conditions or behavioural and cognitive problems in children and adolescents.

It also has a potential impact on the physical, mental and social wellness of parents and significant others and can create relationship problems and tensions that like a ‘Catch 22’ situation may further heighten a child’s insecurities and feelings of vulnerability or abandonment. The parents may feel as though they are simply unable to cope anymore – exhaustion and frustration start to set in.

Their child may have so many mood swings and challenge just about everything a parent says or does. Parents may feel guilty about their lack of skills and abilities in the parenting role and blame themselves harshly for their child’s problem thinking and behaviours. Parents may feel isolated and confused, especially if they have few social networks and supports and financial resources or live in a socially isolated environment or community.

Some families with say an older relative living with them with dementia or a mental health problem, may become overwhelmed by the behaviour, and particularly children stressed and confronted with say a confused grandparent going into their room and pulling out their clothes or personal items.

An adolescent’s needs at this stage become those related to respect, trust, dignity and privacy. Tensions can increase if parents suspect their child of taking drugs for example and yet feeling obliged to respect their son or daughters privacy in their room and to trust them. Clearly transparent or open family communication is an important key to understanding and resolving such conflicts.

It is important to remember that the building of a positive child-parent relationship especially but not exclusively during the early periods of adolescence is crucial. Irregardless of the way that the child and parent respond to change, this will be long lasting, especially for the child’s development into adulthood.

The strong desire for being independent and all grown up must also be tempered by the child’s need for some stability, comfort, love, guidance and understanding. This will be a compromise that both parents and the child can agree to and live by, albeit with undoubted hiccups along the way.


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