Just mention of the word teenager can strike fear in the hearts of parents everywhere. They somehow imagine one of two scenarios; that the teenage years between 13 and 19 will be a parenting nightmare, or that their child is completely immune from the affects that hormones, environment and popular culture can have on a young person.  The reality is likely somewhere in the middle. There will be good days, great days, and really awful days for both teenagers and parents as they both navigate the developmental years of the second decade.

What is critical to success – for both parent and child – during this tumultuous decade, is to be thoughtful, reasonable, and communicative about expectations, concerns, and how actions have very real consequences both now and in the future.

Teenagers in Today’s World

Young people today are living in a world that is very different from the one in which their parents lived. Rapid changes in technology, access to information, social media, social norms, and educational and professional expectations are all components of modern life that have an impact on everyone, especially teenagers.  Add the physical and emotional development that causes teenage problems, and the pressure of middle and high school to the mix and every day can feel like an event in itself.

Problems facing teenagers today can include emotional disturbances such as depression, bullying, anxiety, and eating disorders, to exposure to drugs, peer pressure to engage in risky or undesirable behavior, academic pressure and negative influences from social media.

Developmentally, teenagers and young adults are supposed to expand their horizons and discover situations that will help them mature into responsible members of society. Part of this development is trial and error – discovering what does and doesn’t work, or theoretically learning from one’s mistakes – but the added pressure from exposure to negative influences can make this normal developmental cycle a minefield for parents and teens.

Too Old Too Soon

Young teens, those age 13, 14 and even 15, show up emotionally on a broad spectrum. Some children have a physical and mental maturity at 13 that can make them appear to be much older. Conversely, older teens can be late to develop – late bloomers as it is commonly referred to – and they come across as childish and immature when more is expected of them. Both scenarios are normal, but any real concerns should be brought to the attention of a doctor or practitioner who is familiar with teen development.

However, a young teen that presents as older than their years may feel pressure to act older and engage in activities that are beyond their actual development.  Exposure to drugs, alcohol, media influences and sexual activity at too early an age can be confusing and overwhelming for young people. Talking about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior with their parent or a trusted caregiver can help a young teen feel more secure about their choices.

Older teens may also feel socially challenged if they look to be several years younger than they are. But in many cases, older teens have had more experience navigating the social order and can be less impacted than younger teens by the availability of options available to them.

Communication Is Critical

One of the greatest dangers facing teens today is misinformation. Because many kids fear having a conversation with their parents about the very real dangers of drugs, alcohol, and sex, they rely on one another to get the facts. Sadly, much of the information they pass amongst themselves can be inaccurate or wrong. Having access to good information in an informative and non-judgmental environment can make a big difference in how teens make choices about friendships, behaviors, and habits.

It’s important to regularly establish what is and isn’t acceptable behavior according to the family. It’s equally important to give teens latitude to make more independent choices once they have demonstrated a willingness and ability to meet expectations. And taking this one step further, providing a safe space for a teen to call when they are in a dangerous situation can not only save their lives, it gives them a reason to trust that they can rely on their family for support in challenging circumstances.

Remembering that you were once a teenager can help put things in perspective. We all made – and make – mistakes, and teenagers are no different. But consider, too, that the teen years can be an amazing time of growth and discovery. New talents and passions can spring from experiences, and the ability to articulate thoughts and feelings can cultivate a strong bond between parent and child.

And at some point, perhaps sooner than you think, your teenager will turn 20 and the challenges of the teen years will be behind you.

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