What's Going on With My Teen?: Understanding Your Teenager and How to Better Support Them

What's going on with my teen?: Understanding your teenager and how to better support them

Ever wonder why does it seem so difficult for your teenager to comply to your instructions? How could he listen to his friend more than you? When will he start being responsible for his own actions?

These are a few of many questions that parents of teenage children are grappling with. If you're one of them, it's normal to experience such uncertainties. As adults, we have all went through this phase in the past too. But how is it different now and then?

Psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1904) characterized the adolescence as a period of ‘storm-and-stress’. An adolescent’s pace of development is also second to that of infant. Imagine how fast the changes can be!

In this article, I will highlight some key changes that teenager go through, and provide you with ideas on managing the challenges that arise from these changes.

1. Let's start with the biological changes.

Yes. Puberty. Pubertal changes cause your teen’s hormones to be a little bit haywire. The relationship between hormones and behaviors is complex as it affects one another (Susman, 2006, in Santrock 2008). How so? For example, the concentration of testosterone (a hormone associated in boys with the development of genitals, a change in voice and an increase in height) has been related to social dominance (Rowe & others, 2003). Likewise, a stressful event can trigger a teenager to 'fight' the situation, releasing certain chemicals including testosterone that can influence him to be dominant.

2. The maturity of the brain.

A teen’s brain tends to be an emotional one, partly because the amygdala matures earlier than the prefrontal cortex (Baird & others, 1999, in Santrock, 2008). The amygdala is an almond-sized structure that is part of the lymbic system that handles the processing of information about emotions. Prefrontal cortex is involved in higher level cognitive functioning, such as planning and consequential thinking. So the moment you ask your teen to do something (instruction that requires thought processes), he may take some time to respond logically as he might be processing his feelings first, e.g. whether he will feel good about the information that he has received and his perception of your tone towards him. Thus, how you speak to him and the way the message is framed matters. For example, the likelihood of him tidying his room will improve if he was told "It would great if you can tidy up your room", instead of shouting, "Stop being lazy and clean up your room!"

As your teen grows older, you won't need to reason out to him as much as before. Thank God! Then again, that doesn't mean he can be excused from understanding the consequences to his actions. Your teenagers have to learn to be responsible for their actions. The brain's plasticity allows education and training to takes place, which I believe with the right guidance, can help teenagers be aware and mindful of their actions.

3. The formation of identity.

Psychologist Erik Erikson (1950) said that failure to form an identity in this adolescent stage can be termed as identity confusion. When forming identity, teenagers start to ponder question about themselves, such as their values and goals. Furthermore, they have reduced dependency on parents especially in matters of self-care. They spend most of their time in school and with friends, and so their identity is shaped by various environmental influences. A school which provides a balanced approach to academic achievement and socializing (which also creates a sense of belonging to teenagers) would be ideal for the teenagers. Schools that encourage prosocial behaviors among peers than punishments to inculcate discipline in their students will hopefully create a positive identity of kindness and teamwork. Parents also play a significant part in your teen's identity formation. Your trust in them is important as they grow up to be responsible young adults. Spend quality time with them on dinner table or few hours on weekends to talk about each others' lives and ideals. They will appreciate you if they know your hopes of them and your sacrifices too. This way, your teens will establish a positive sense of belonging from interactions in the family and at school.

4. Rise of infatuation and attraction.

Relationships create a huge worry to parents. As shared earlier, teenagers spend most of their time in school with friends. The interactions may result into feelings of love and care to a special one. Socioemotionally, teenagers start to have their first crush and explore sexual feelings in this stage, but that doesn't mean that they will engage into sexual behaviors. Parents who communicate their values of relationships to their teenagers will be able to give their teens guidelines to what they are supposed to do. This has to be done much earlier before puberty. It goes back to how we parent our children. From how we separate our girls and boys at young age from sleeping in the same room, what we allow them to watch on tv, how we explain certain scenes as we watch tv with them, and many other opportunities to communicate such values.

When you feel that your teenager are ready for a relationship, they should be informed of your expectations for them. One common, but reasonable rule, that Singaporean parents have of their teenagers in relationship, is to not let their relationships affect their studies. Other rules may include letting you know their whereabouts and not going home beyond a certain time at night (e.g. 10pm).

What if you feel that your teenager is not ready, or if you disapprove of the relationship? Tell them how you feel, but do not force them to end it. Forcing them may affect your relationship with your teenagers, and encourage them to keep more secrets from you.

5. Technology and social media.

"Eh I did that already but now my teen is always on his handphone!", shared a mother of 15-year-old teenager to me as she struggled with the adversities of social media. Parents in this digital era have to be mindful because certain technologies and media portrayals can influence teenagers negatively, even young children. There is also a term called Social Media Anxiety Disorder coined by cyber relations expert Julie Spira, that is said to occur when social media starts taking over one’s life and dominating every aspect of it. What parents can do are to manage the usage of these tech tools (games, handheld devices, etc):

a) Set boundaries, for example, the laptop is to be placed in the living room, or handphone may only be used after homework is done and it is for the right purpose. It is best that you also adhere to these boundaries yourselves to set a good example to your teens.

b) Choose the right phone and dataplan, and use access control software if necessary.

c) Be there for your teens so that you are the person whom your teens could look up to in sharing their problems and answering their curiosities. This will reduce their feelings of isolation, and provide them with a healthy source of emotional support.

There are many other challenges that teenagers are facing, and parents can feel it too. That's the strength of parents that we all can't deny about, and the ability to not give up for their children. Ultimately, parents want their teenagers to be able to plan for their future and overcoming possible consequences of their decisions successfully. I hope this article have provided you an insight into better understanding your young ones, and you will grow to be stronger and confident parents through the process of guiding your teenager through adolescence.



The notAnoobie mobile app (2014), developed by Singtel and TOUCH Cyber Wellness.

Rowe, R., Maughan, B., Worthman, C. M., Costello, E. J., & Angold, A. (2003). Biological Psychiatry, 55 (5), p. 546-552. Santrock, J. W. (2008), Life-Span Development (11th ed.). Published by McGraw-Hill.

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