+263 4 744580

by Margi Grobbelaar

(In the interests of simplicity the teenager is referred to throughout this article as ‘he’. However this should be taken to mean ‘he or she’.)

A recent newspaper report stated that two teenage boys, from a low density suburb, armed with guns, ambushed and shot up some vehicles at an intersection in Avondale, wounding at least one person. This has had the community of parents of teenagers in a state of shock, thinking, among other things, ‘What were those boys thinking? Their poor parents.’

Actions like these, although an extreme example, are typical of adolescent behaviour in that they show poor decision-making, complete disregard of others, excitement-seeking, succumbing to peer pressure – and they tap into parents’ worst fears. How does one protect ones’ teenagers from themselves and get them through this time of their lives unscathed?

Teenagers frequently complain that their parents do not understand them – and they are right! Parents find the actions of their teens quite incomprehensible sometimes and despair of knowing how to handle them.

A psychologist said that having a teenager was like having a sweet child, and then one night, while he is asleep, extra-terrestrials come down and steal him and leave a look-a-like alien in his place. Overnight your darling child becomes an incomprehensible monster!

There is no doubt about it, being the parent of a teenager is a difficult time – one can expect to feel irritation, fury, bewilderment, fear, frustration, exhaustion, and intense love –all in one day! One minute they criticise and snap at you and hurt your feelings, the next they are affectionate and sweet and you feel loved, then they do something stunningly self centred and you are furious, and then next you’re roaring with laughter at their ridiculous sense of humour.

This fear and lack of comprehension leads to a lot of conflict between parents and teenagers, but could be avoided to some extent if parents had a better understanding of what is actually happening developmentally in their adolescent. What is ‘normal’ behaviour? Most people know about the physical changes, but what of the psychological ones?

Developmentally, human beings go through different stages of life – babyhood, childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and so on, and during those stages we have important ‘tasks’ to complete before moving on to the next stage.

What are the teenager’s ‘tasks’?

The purpose of adolescence is to move the dependent child to becoming an independent adult and there are three main ‘tasks’ which need to be successfully completed.

Basically, they are

1. to separate from the family and develop a personal identity,

2. learn how to form close relationships with the world outside the family and

3. to form goals for their life’s work.

The first ‘task’, then, is for the child to separate from his parents and develop his own different and personal sense of identity.

Initially, the child sees himself as part of the family unit – not a separate being. They all do things together, the child believes what the family believes, he behaves like the family behaves and he is closest emotionally to his family. His view of himself is generally what he perceives the family to think of him. To become a successful adult the child has to learn to separate from the family – to become an individual with his own identity, his own opinions, own beliefs, friends and activities. So the teen starts to separate himself and this is where the trouble begins.

It is a painful time for parents. Firstly, we are about to become redundant – once our child is independent we are no longer needed – and it is natural to, at least sub-consciously, resist that situation.

Secondly, to develop his own beliefs and opinions, the teenager has to question ours. Not having learned the social skills needed to tactfully question a person’s dearly held beliefs, it can be very trying when a surly teenager acts as if you know nothing and are stupid into the bargain! Mark Twain summed it up delightfully : ‘When I was a boy of 14 my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in 7 years.’

Your opinions are disregarded for those of the likes of some inarticulate pop singer or semi-literate reality star and your spiritual beliefs thrown aside and replaced with something that seems to stem from the current craze for vampire and werewolf films. All part of the process of developing his own independent life philosophy and spiritual beliefs. This is a time of huge introspection and, therefore, absorbs ion with self. Our teen starts to wonder ‘Who am I really? What type of person am I?’

Up until now, he has taken his family’s view of himself as the answer to that. Now he starts to wonder how the rest of the world sees him and what he is really like. He becomes terribly self conscious and convinced the whole world is looking at him and focussed on him.

Then he wonders ‘What sort of person do I want to be?’

To arrive at this answer, having rudely discarded you as his previous role model, he casts around for others heroes, who can vary daily – one minute he comes out looking like a vampire from ‘Twilight’, the next prancing about like Usain Bolt.

This is a period of crushes and hero worship. So, when a parent is driven to distraction by the sight of their teen lying apparently aimlessly staring at the ceiling, listening to awful music, it may help to realise they are actually working hard on one of the ‘tasks’ of adolescence.

A difficult part of this stage is the stunning selfishness a teenager can display, especially in pursuit of his own ends. All the introspection required by this phase contributes largely to that, but I have a personal theory that it is also a survival strategy. If a teenager were to be too worried about his mother’s ‘empty nest syndrome’, he might never be able to leave home. To separate oneself from others requires a cutting of the ties and this cannot be done easily and the teen needs to be ruthless to do this.

I read in an article in National Geographic that scientists have detected physical changes in the area of the brain that deals with empathy and compassion during adolescence which indicate a reduction in ability to experience those characteristics. Fortunately that ability improves as one approaches 30. Another unpleasant part of this ‘task’ is that the teen has to slowly take control of his life, so one of the issues are self-control and self-power. ‘What decisions can I actually make and implement about my life and future? How much control do I really have over my own environment?’

This leads to a great deal of testing of limits and power struggles as he tries to see how much control he has over his life. This can vary from outright defiance and disobedience to more subtle assertions of independence. My son nearly drove us crazy by always breaking his curfew by coming home a bit late – not late enough to openly signal defiance and invite punishment, but just enough to give us the message ‘You can’t make me do exactly what you want. ’ Parents in this phase tread a difficult tightrope – give the teen too much control and he becomes insecure, too little and he becomes rebellious. One minute he wants to be grown up and totally in control of his life, the next he reverts 6 years old, in need of reassurance and comfort. (And probably money……)

The second ‘task’ relates to establishing relationships with both sexes outside of the family.

Up until now the main relationships in a child’s life are with his immediate family, but as he moves towards adulthood, he needs to start having meaningful relationships outside the family and learn to relate to the rest of the world. This really does cause arguments between teens and parents – this baffling and infuriating devotion to their friends. How many parents can own up at some stage to saying ‘Well if they’re so great why don’t you go and live there?’ or ’You care about your friends more than you do about your own family.’

Another article in National Geographic presented the theory that this is actually a survival strategy. A child is dependent on his family for well being and even survival. However for an adult other relationships become important – not only his future spouse but the people he will network with as he makes his way in the world and career. That is why the adolescent invests so much time and energy into relationships outside the family – he will need them to survive in adulthood. Family is about the past, friends about the future.

A lot of discord involves the teen’s appearance – it suddenly becomes necessary to dress exactly like the herd – and the word ‘herd’ is used advisedly. Again, this is a survival technique. In a herd of, for example, wildebeest, one of a different colour, such as an albino, will soon be singled out by lions and killed. Similarly, the predators in the teen’s jungle quickly single out anyone who is ‘different’ and attempt to destroy them.

A major factor in this period is romance. This facilitates learning about the opposite sex in order to make a good choice of future spouse. This preoccupation with love and the opposite sex is not a modern phenomenon. In Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’, in his ‘Seven Ages of Man’speech the Bard describes the teenager as

…………..the lover, Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.’

It is easy to dismiss teen romances as ‘puppy love’ and not to be taken seriously, however there is no doubt that these feelings, whilst not necessarily long-lasting are very intense and overwhelming and often a factor in suicide attempts.

The final ‘task’ is Goal Formation – a time of moving towards selecting and training for one’s adult occupation. This was easier for earlier generations as the options were somewhat limited – now there is a bewildering and ever-growing array of career choices. I was at a meeting where it was discussed that teachers are having to educate children for careers that do not yet exist.

Early adolescence involves a great deal of fanaticising with the teen being unrealistic about his future – ranging from professional golfer (he does not actually play ) to Zimbabwe’s first astronaut to a rock star (having been asked by the choir teacher to mime). I urge parents to tolerate this period of fantasy. The harsh realities of life, economics and the teen’s limitations soon rear their ugly heads and force the teen to make more realistic choices.

Teens who are confused or ambivalent about their choices can appear not to be focussed or committed to their studies and if you add to this the other ‘tasks’ – introspection, selfishness, boundary challenging, the need to engage in power struggles with authority, peer pressure, all-important social life and probably being in love – requited or not – it will not be surprising that attempts to get him to do his homework or study for an exam are met with a bewilderingly over-reactive tantrum!

All this does not mean we excuse unacceptable behaviour. It is vitally important that during these turbulent years parents set limits and  discipline and teach their teenagers better ways of behaving and making decisions. However the way you do this will be so much more effective if you are able to understand that “strange animal”  with which you are dealing and the teenager will be more inclined to respond positively if the relationship between you is relatively good.

James Dobson, the Christian psychologist, likened adolescence to the family being in a small boat at sea in a storm. It is essential to hold on and make it through without the boat capsizing. I hope that a better understanding of ‘normal’ teenage behaviour from this article may help you to get through the storm – drenched, seasick, exhausted – but still in the boat!