Teenagers often act in ways that parents cannot understand. Unknown to parents much of this is rooted in normal developmental patterns. During adolescence teenagers are learning to make age appropriate choices. While developing these skills they could make “silly” mistakes which parents may label as signs of “irresponsibility” or “immaturity”. This often happens because necessary competence has not developed. However when poor choices have material impacts on academics, social success and self-esteem it is important to understand the underlying reasons for such outcomes.
The adolescent brain
The prefrontal cortex of the brain controls choice and decision making. It is responsible for planning, organising and emotional regulation. Between the age of 13 and 18 this part of the brain is still developing (fun fact - it continues to develop till the age of 25!). As a result it is normal at this age for teenagers to
- Display reluctance in studying “boring” subjects.
- Struggle in choosing competing priorities e.g. attending a party a day before an exam.
- Lying and not taking responsibility for their actions, but owning up when confronted.
- Drag themselves to do chores e.g. cleaning their cupboard or helping at home.
- Be protective of their online/ social life but share difficulties at times of distress.
- Trying to fit in socially at times to their own discomfort. e.g. being very focused on their appearance, wearing clothes that are trendy but they actually dislike.
Accountability structures like schools, supportive parents and teachers play a critical role in providing the necessary scaffolding for teenagers to navigate this period. Ensuring that they stay safe and continue to progress on the path of developing into healthy adults.
The story starts changing if there are negative impacts in day to day functioning. This deviation is often observed for one or more of the following reasons.
- Over protection or lack of expected accountability from the child at home.
- Low self-esteem resulting in poor social choices which may be in conflict with home rules or the law.
- Impulse control difficulties caused by biological predispositions.
Parents may find themselves observing behaviour along the following themes
- Low interest in academic proficiency with a dismissive attitude towards studies.
- Occasional reminders from school regarding academic or disciplinary difficulties.
- That they (parents) are working harder than the child for college admissions.
- Lying with higher frequency, leading to erosion of trust and conflicts at home.
- Emerging social difficulties with limited friends or intense, short lived friendships.
At this stage it is recommended that parents are curious and try to understand their child's struggles. It is important to engage in an open and disarming tone, allowing the child to safely express what might be troubling them.
Parents should under no circumstances label their children using phrases like “pathological liar” or “you are untrustworthy” or “nobody in the family is like you”. These reinforce negative self-perception and tend to perpetuate even poorer behaviour.
Deeper struggles around taking responsibility don’t happen overnight, they build up over a period of time. What may have started as acceptable shortcomings now feel out of line and become established norms of behaviour. Mostly due to the amplification of pre-existing difficulties (over protection, low self-esteem, biological pre-dispositions) and may manifest as
- Shocking inconsistencies in academics. e.g. missing exams due to lack of preparation, falling short of attendance or not showing up for scheduled tutor sessions.
- Complete breakdown in parent-child relationship around screen usage, sleep regulation, non-adherence to reasonable home rules.
- Strong disciplinary action from school leading to rustication or suspension.
- A gap year after school due to lack of planning and execution for college.
- Patterns of high risk behaviour without taking responsibility for any actions.
- Significant impulsivity including stealing, physical aggression and using abusive language.
In these circumstances it is imperative to seek professional help. Interventions typically include the following
- Developing a systemic understanding of the problem as it emerged (from childhood to adolescence) versus focusing only on the current symptoms.
- Working with the child and parent to build strategies and support structures.
- The use of medication in case of impulse control disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
- Leveraging academic or cognitive assessments to identify any learning disabilities.
- Psychoeducation to develop empathy for the struggles of the child and the parents.
As overwhelming as the struggles of a child may be timely interventions, parental support, patience and healing are the only cure.