Understanding Your Teen

By Gail Schwartz, MS, MSW, with Eve Kessler, Esq.


The teen years are notorious for being challenging • They are marked by confusion and uncertainty, which helps explain why teens often make life difficult for those around them, and themselves • Add learning disabilities or attention issues to the mix, and the challenges may be even more difficult to manage

Adolescence is a time of change and growth coupled with uncertainty and insecurity. As parents, it’s important to understand how adolescents think and how best to respond in order to help your teenager—and yourself—get through this tumultuous passage successfully.

Studies show that the decision-making centers of the brain are not yet fully developed in adolescence. The part that controls impulses and emotions (the frontal lobe) does not reach maturity until adulthood. Not surprisingly, this is the same area where decisions about right and wrong and cause and effect are processed. In addition, the area of the brain involved in instinctive “gut” reactions (the amygdala) is highly active in adolescents.

Combine an immature frontal lobe with an overactive amygdala and the end result is poor control over behavior and emotions, coupled with excitability and reactionary decision-making—in other words, typical teen behavior that drives parents crazy.

The adolescent brain is a work in progress, not yet equipped to apply rational processes to emotional decisions.

The LD/ADHD Factor

Studies suggest that individuals with ADHD and learning disabilities may have even poorer frontal-lobe functioning than their typical peers. Their inattention, disorganization, impulsivity and executive functions may worsen during their teen years, putting them at greater risk for using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco than those without ADHD. In addition, these teens have a higher rate of depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorders.

Evolving Process

Prior to adolescence, children think in a linear fashion. In adolescence, however, they are able to deal with multiple ideas at once. These new thinking skills allow teens to examine their beliefs, frequently revealing inconsistencies and uncertainties. One day life is clear; the next it is confusing.

Suddenly every important belief is open to scrutiny. Reality sets in along with the realization that parents are not perfect. Teens feel betrayed by the people they trusted most. Power and control issues surface, and they must now live with new uncertainties.

Questioning of parents leaves adolescents concerned about their own autonomy. One moment they are childlike and needy; the next they are independent. They are confronted with other major uncertainties and inconsistencies, as well. Whether caused by unfamiliar situations, the unpredictability of the future, or inconsistencies in ideas, beliefs, and behaviors (e.g., believing you are an honest person, but telling a lie), adolescents often find themselves in a confused state.

Am I OK?

Unsure of how parents, peers, and society will view them, adolescents may wonder, “Will I be accepted?” Concerned with mastery issues, they might ask, “Will I make it?” Issues of sexual adequacy and orientation abound: “Do I accept my own sexuality? Will others accept and love me?”

While uncertainty may create excitement when a positive outcome is probable, psychological pain often occurs when a negative outcome seems likely. When uncertainty becomes too painful and belief, whether real or imagined, turns negative, adolescents may act out or become depressed, internalizing extreme pain and guilt. Anger can be misdirected and neither the adolescents—nor the adults around them— know what is happening. Their feelings are too strong and they want to blame others to make themselves feel better.

Parents’ Role

Teens must learn to handle the pain of uncertainty. As parents, you must help them—not protect them. You must learn to respond appropriately to their growing need for control and independence in the face of uncertainties, inconsistencies, and confusion.

Uncertainty creates a chance to look at oneself in a positive way. For adolescents, their “crises” are their opportunities to mature into productive adults with their own belief systems. With parental vision, reframing, listening, and love, you can empower your teen to forge a separate identity from the chaos that surrounds him and emerge from adolescence as a unique adult.

This article is based on a presentation by Gail Schwartz, MS, MSW. Eve Kessler, Esq., an attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is the President of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), Ltd., and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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