Adolescence is a significant phase when a child becomes more independent and begins to develop his own identity. Unfortunately, during this pursuit, several actions are often misinterpreted as ‘behaviours’ by parents and teachers. Parents should recognise these changes and identify ways to help regulate them rather than focussing on so-called ‘behaviour problems’. Many adults feel they can no longer ‘control’ their child’s behaviour as they did when the child was younger. This inability makes parents label their teen’s behaviour as problematic.
Changes in adolescence
The adolescent brain and body undergo tremendous changes just as they do in the toddler phase (the other period of development that involves so many changes), and adults are often unsure about how to react to them. While a toddler would perhaps manifest these outcomes with incessant cries, an adolescent’s demeanour comes across as questioning, defying authority or refusing to do what he has been asked to. This leads to more pressure from parents and teachers.
The specific changes that take place in adolescence start with hormonal fluctuations, which greatly affect choices and moods. Also, the teen brain equates risk with reward and, often, causes to do things without considering consequences. Teens go through a phase of hypocritical thought where the rules for others differ from those that they follow themselves. They also tend to gravitate towards their peer groups. And, most normal teenagers will resort to ‘gang behaviour’ during this period. They will also get into trouble with figures of authority at school. As a result of the numerous changes that occur in the amygdala (a part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions), most teenagers struggle with emotional regulation as well. This causes relationships to be both tricky and stressful for them. These are, however, only the internal pressures that they face. Externally, from their school and home environments, they face pressures on academics, career choices and conforming to societal norms. Added to this are pressures from the media on body images and brands, and those from their relationships and other choices.
Understanding these changes
As parents, the best way to understand and handle these common issues is to make sure you spend quality time with your teen as often as possible. This encourages a healthy two-way communication where he feels supported and can trust enough to share what is happening in his life. The difference between a developmental challenge and a behaviour problem can then be easily ascertained. If you hasten to judge, label, advise or condemn behaviour, he is then likely to hide or distort incidents to win your approval. Sometimes a single incident could just be a phase of exploration. But, with your support, he will feel confident enough to learn his lesson and stop indulging in behaviours that are potentially harmful.
Common teenage behaviour problems
Repeated violence, truancy, lying, relationship conflicts and drop in academic performances can be considered behaviour problems. In addition, children who have experienced prolonged academic stress from childhood may often resort to defiance or ‘acting out’ in their teenage years. Addictions to drugs, alcohol, porn and gadgets are also some of the most common problems that teens face. This is augmented by their easy access to addictive substances or habits as they spend a considerable amount of time away from home. And, since they cannot be monitored constantly, the peer pressure and interactions that they encounter regularly lead to strong changes that become addictive. These problems require immediate professional help and support.
Tips to help deal with teenage behaviour
1. Listen, don’t lecture: An adolescent may never admit to you that she is stressed as she would rather handle her problems independently. However, if you listen to her, you are more likely to understand her need for your support and trust. If you lecture to her, she would instead find opportunities to avoid your company.
2. Structure, don’t control: Create clear boundaries and structures so that your teen can explore but, at the same time, be aware of his limits. At this age, he needs the freedom to move towards his peers and away from family. If your structure allows this balance, he is likely to develop appropriate skills in a supportive environment, else his behaviour might seem troublesome.
3. Model and mentor: Ensure that your own routine and habits include the values that you would like to nurture in your child. When she makes mistakes, help her understand the lessons learnt and identify possible areas for change and growth.
4. Support, don’t shame: Even when your child misbehaves or gets into trouble, never shame him, especially when he is blamed by the school or others. Also, don’t blindly take your child’s side. Listen to what the school or others have to say, and then spend time listening to and observing your child. Get as many perspectives as you can and then work with your child accordingly.
5. Understand, don’t overrule: Understand that the neurological and physiological changes that a teen goes through are normal. They also cause tremendous stress that results in moodiness, risky behaviour, inconsistent habits, relationship turmoil and academic fluctuations. Avoid comparing your teenage life with hers as lifestyles across two generations are hardly similar. Instead work towards helping her adapt to a healthy diet, exercise, balanced relationships (modelled at home), and a good choice of academic and leisure activities that include a non-technology-assisted hobby.
6. Support, don’t judge: Understand the difference between an error and a crime, and work accordingly when problems arise.
7. Seek help, don’t neglect: Never ignore struggles like depression, severe anxiety, relationship crisis, exam-related stress, and addictions in your teen. Seek professional intervention.
With these tips, hope you and your teen will be able to sail through this phase smoothly.
Aarti C Rajaratnam is a psychologist specialising in childhood and adolescent mental health, a best-selling author and an innovative education design consultant.
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