Teen Week:: The Process of Adolescent Development

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Being a teenager is tough. This period in a young person’s life brings about many changes, both physically and emotionally. It can also be challenging for their parents. This week marks a national initiative called Teen Week, to raise awareness about both teen health and behavioral health.

There are many myths about teenagers, including that they are angry and moody trouble makers who dislike their parents. As an adolescent medicine specialist, I find this stereotype to be inaccurate. I love teenagers! To appreciate teens for all their marvelous qualities, it is helpful to consider the developmental tasks they are instinctually accomplishing.

Teenagers looking at their phones

Cognitively, teenagers are moving from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, which includes the ability to imagine the future consequences of their actions. Physically they pass through puberty into adult bodies with full reproductive capacity. Socially and emotionally they move from a parental or family based sense of self to a clear and independent self-identity that is strongly rooted in relationships with friends and romantic partners, but still includes family.

Desiring Freedom.

At the heart of all these goals is emancipation, or freedom, usually from their parents.  Teenagers are working hard to become strong, thoughtful, independent adults able to manage their own relationships, finances, and families. This is a long and challenging process with the brain development required to achieve self-reliance lasting into the early 20’s.

Adolescent brain development is patchy with the emotional {more impulsive} limbic system developing before the more rational prefrontal cortex. Further, dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for the euphoria associated with pleasurable or exciting experiences, is lower in the adolescent brain, but released at higher levels when triggered.

Why are teenagers impulsive?

Teenagers are driven to try new things, take risks and be impulsive without fully realizing any risks or consequences. Parents need to lovingly set boundaries while allowing teenagers to make independent choices {and mistakes} provided they will not be in danger.

In early and middle adolescence, friends and social connections will become more important than family. Guardians need to remember adolescents are not rejecting them, but instead stretching toward emancipation. Encourage healthy social connections, invite teenager’s friends along, and do not take their peer preferences personally.

Teenagers still need you.

Although it may feel like teenagers do not want or value their parents’ opinions, they actually do. Offer non-judgmental influence, and keep in mind that the best strategy, when it comes to managing a situation, is to listen rather than talk. For example, before launching into a discussion about a bad grade or a messy room, ask about their day, listen to them, and establish a positive connection.  Remember, once adolescence is over, parents who have ideally supported and loved their teenager, will discover a capable adult who will once again value their parents and guardians.

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Dr. Jennifer Feldmann has been a pediatrician at Legacy Community Health since 2014. She completed her Pediatrics residency and Adolescent medicine fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine.  Following her training, Dr. Feldmann was an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston followed by a faculty position with Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Adolescent medicine. At Legacy she helped found the organization’s multidisciplinary Gender Health and Wellness Program, the most comprehensive gender health and wellness program in the southwestern United States, providing medical care, social services, behavioral health, and advocacy services for transgender and gender diverse people of all ages.

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