As a teacher, house parent and a parent, not necessarily in that order, I have often wondered at the seemingly irreconcilable differences between an energetic, impulsive, complaining, 'immature', angst ridden adolescent and the staid, 'mature', orderly adult. Both adolescents as well as adults also quite unconsciously nurture this difference. We were once the same confused adolescent and now we are quite confused adults. Where do our sympathies lie - with the adolescent, without actually realising what the adolescent is going through (a harking back to the carefree youth) or with the 'adult world/society' we are very much part of?
At the risk of stating the obvious, one can see that adolescents are, developmentally, morally and psychosocially, in a turmoil. This turmoil plays itself out in front of our eyes. Yet we need to recognise the fact that these young adults are actually in the throes of growing up, akin to the labour pains a mother experiences as she is delivering. The pain is worth the end result, in most cases!
Adolescent angst, an acute feeling of anxiety or apprehension that is often accompanied by depression, is a frustrating, painful, and occasionally frightening dilemma for teens and parents alike. One needs to be aware of the difference between potentially harmful behaviour patterns and normal mood swings, which are so much a part of adolescent life.
The Norms of Adolescent Angst
There is a wide difference in normal behaviour at ages 12 or 16 or 21. Broadly speaking adolescence covers three stages each with its own variations in moodiness and interaction with parents.
Early Adolescence (females: 11-13 years; males: 12-14 years) Many children experience transient wide mood swings, moving from euphoria to sadness in minutes. In most cases there are no predisposing factors. These changes could last for hours or days and are characteristic to this stage of development.
This is the age where the peer takes on an overwhelmingly important role. Friends are in, and parents and teachers - forget it!
Quite often argumentative with a disregard for rules, they challenge parental authority and tend to test the different values systems of society and school. The importance of the school as a place where value systems originate cannot be underestimated. Same-sex best friends are crucial, and some early teens may engage in transient harmless homosexual experimentation. Sexual feelings develop in general, creating desires to watch sexually explicit movies or televisions shows, read sexually explicit magazines, tell sex-related jokes, and use foul language.
Teens are preoccupied with their selves and are intensely concerned with 'being normal'. They are also chalking out their own spaces and quite jealously guard their own privacy. Young teens spend hours in front of mirrors scrutinizing their appearance and grooming. The changes of puberty cause them to become extremely body conscious, creating worries about acne, menstruation, nocturnal emissions, and body size. They become hypercritical of themselves as they compare themselves to friends and the unrealistic images portrayed in the media. Young teens can easily become confused and frightened by the changes they are experiencing. Emotional reactions may overwhelm their ability to understand and cope. They look for role models and it is not uncommon to find them in a fantasy world - daydreaming about unrealistic goals, being a hero, a pilot or a fireman, doing all sorts of 'saving the world stuff'. Celebrities are often the focus of their fantasies, whether sexual or as a role model. In fact it is a common sight to see adolescents walking around wearing TShirts with Che Guevera written on them. Most have no idea of what this iconic cult figure of the 60s/70s stood for. Football stars, Hollywood and Bollywood beauties and hulks could actually cover bedroom walls much to the disgust of the adult community. This interest, as well as their preoccupation with peers, may result in a temporary drop in academic performance in classes 5-8.
Middle Adolescence (females: 13-16 years; males: 14-20 years) : At this stage rules get rewritten as never before. Adolescents start asserting their authority, their feelings of self and identity. Naturally this brings them into conflict with the 'regulated' adult world. Conflict with parents peaks, authority is consistently challenged and they are forever arguing and attempting to negotiate/renegotiate rules. Peers are the most important and all strive to conform, though in their minds they are rebelling against authority and conformity! Designer gear, outlandish hairstyles and a weird dress sense leaves many an adult gasping. The peer group dictates communication style and conduct, and nothing can be done without the peers accepting or okaying it. In fact many children find it difficult to stand up against the enormity of peer pressure, and though they would like to be different they often buckle under it.
This is also the age when sexual drives peak, leading many into dating and sexual experimentation, with intercourse starting earlier than ever before. In India, statistics are hard to come by, but a WHO document puts the age of first sexual contact (about 16 - 20% of this age band) at 15-16 years and sexual intercourse at between 16 - 18 years (about 20 - 3 0%). The latter figure includes those adolescents who have been married off, as is the case in rural India. Recent surveys of city schools tend to confirm this picture of early experimentation with sex. Risk-taking behaviors like experimentation with sex, drugs, and dangerous activities occur more often at this stage of adolescence than at the other two stages. These behaviors result from feelings of omnipotence and infallibility and a belief that 'no one understands them.'
On the positive side middle adolescents demonstrate increased creativity, the start of lateral thinking, of the ability to process information in multiple dimensions. They start to look at issues not just in black and white but also in shades of grey. They could also show signs of settling into adult patterns of behaviour and thought, making career options. In short, the first steps towards being a 'responsible' adult.
Late Adolescence (both sexes: 17-25 years) are on the verge of adulthood. Their level of peer relationships changes, and they rekindle their relationships with parents in a more adult-like manner. Many establish their sexual identity and commit to an intimate relationship.
Reasoning skills are at an adult level, allowing them to understand the consequences of their actions, make sophisticated judgments, and comprehend inner motivations. Late adolescents are future oriented. They enter careers, start families, and pursue education or other higher goals. They thus tend to complete their developmental tasks in a supportive, structured environment.
When Angst Becomes a Serious Concern
Since there is a fine line between angst and problems like violence, depression, and substance abuse, we have to be watchful in our observation. We could suspect problems when any of the following or a combination reach worrying proportions.
- Lack of peer group or best friend (confidant)
- Moodiness that persists more than a couple of days
- Extreme mood swings
- Constant complaints of boredom or being treated unfairly
- Spending prolonged periods of time in their rooms or withdrawing from social contacts
- Lack of concern over appearance
- Decreased energy levels or fatigue
- Persistent defiance; lying; stealing, and other delinquent behaviours 100
- Gang membership
- Diminished ability to think clearly and make decisions
- Feeling worthlessness or hopelessness
- Self-destructive behaviours
- Unreciprocated romantic obsession
- Signs of substance abuse (paraphernalia, secretive peers, school failure or absence, aggression, apathy)
- Preoccupation with violence or death themes (thoughts, music, art, movies, television shows, video/computer games)
- Cruelty to animals
- Rel i ance on violence to solve problems
- Fascinat ion wi th weaponr y or explosives
Helping Parents Manage Adolescent Angst
In the domain of parenting research, it has long been understood that parents who are (1) clear about rules around acceptable behaviour but (2) accepting and responsive to the child are likely to raise children who are more psychologically healthy and socially competent. This parenting style characterized by clear structure and high responsiveness is known as the 'authoritative' parenting style. This contrasts with parents who are 'permissive' in parenting style (low expectations; high responsiveness), parents who are 'authoritarian' in parenting style (high expectations; low responsiveness), or parents altogether unengaged (low expectations; low responsiveness).
Although both authoritative and authoritarian parents may be clear about their values and beliefs about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, the authoritarian parent is more likely to engage in efforts to control the behaviour of the child through psychological techniques (eg, guilt, shame, coercion). Authoritative parents, on the other hand, are clear about their values and beliefs, but do not attempt to engage in psychological control.
Here are some tips for parents to respond constructively to their teen's angst.
- Stay calm.
- Praise more than criticize.
- Overlook little mistakes.
- Use 'I' statements - 'I feel angry when you...'
- Listen carefully to opinions and foster decision-making skills by providing opportunities and choices, but set limits. Oppositional behaviours may relate to egocentrism and independence seeking, but they are not socially acceptable. Despite protest, most adolescents recognize discipline as a sign of caring.
- Respect privacy needs.
- Take your teens' concerns seriously, no matter how trivial they sound.
- Encourage interaction with friends and get to know their teens' friends and parents.
- Tolerate peer-imitating behaviours within reason. Behaviours should be safe and permissible under family/ house rules.
- Nurture independence and self-esteem by encouraging responsibilities, such as chores and volunteering.
- Spend time with them. Engage in mutually enjoyable activities. Have frequent heart-to-heart talks, letting them know that you're always there when needed.
- Do be watchful of them - children internalise the adults' watchfulness.
Here are four simple questions to ask your teen when she is leaving the house.
- Where are you going to be?
- Who are you going to be with?
- Will there be an adult present?
- When will you return? Please . inform me of any changes.
Understanding Adolescent Minds
Over the past few years there has been a tremendous amount of research into the adolescent brain. Much of this research has overthrown long held paradigms of why adolescents are so much more prone to 'risk taking behavior' as compared to adults. In the following paragraphs I will try to outline some of the research work that has taken place.
Sense of Invulnerability: People in general and adolescents in particular, quite often make incorrect judgments regarding risk. This cognitive bias has been found in early adolescents too and in part may explain why statutory warnings do not carry the weight that they should. Adolescents today are probably far better informed than we were at a similar age. However, adolescents tend to think, for example, unprotected sex is dangerous in general but not for me.
Temporal Influences: Adolescents may actually have a limited capacity to understand what they are doing, particularly the connection between present actions and long-term complications, or they simply may not place any value on these long range outcomes.
While considering sexual intercourse, long-term consequences of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and HIV probably do not even enter the consciousness as at that time they are probably more strongly influenced by the anticipated positive outcomes of pleasure, sexual gratification and self worth. Longterm risks are at best nebulous and the only reality is the present.
Relationships in Adolescence: The normative influence of peers cannot be underestimated. When an adolescent has a strong attachment to a group, she tends to blindly follow the norm that is emanating from that group. However, parents also have a strong influence on adolescent behaviour. Children of authoritative parents are likely to have lower rates of risk taking behaviour than children of authoritarian parents or neglectful parents.
The Biological Perspective
Almost overnight a sweet, cheerful, obedient child mutates into a churlish monster, prone to recklessness and unpredictable mood swings. This statement reflects a sense of hopelessness and despair in understanding adolescent growth. Thus far 'raging hormones' have been blamed for this change. Technological advances in brain research have yielded evidence that gives new perspectives on adolescence.
In the course of early adolescence, the grey matter thickens, peaking at 11 years for girls and 12.5 years for boys. Many new neuronal pathways open up, in a sense reflecting the influence of multiple environmental cues and also the choices that adolescents face. However, more pathways need not necessarily be more efficient, in fact they actually slow brain functioning. As the adolescent grows, these pathways prune down and the grey matter approaches adult size by about age 20 years. As the grey matter is lost, there is a simultaneous strengthening of connections (synapses) within the brain. In this important stage of brain development, what teens do or don't do affects them for the rest of their lives. If a teen is doing music, sports or academics, these are the cells and connections that last. If on the other hand they are couch potatoes, playing video games or watching MTV, then these are the cells and connections that will survive.
Research at multiple levels (brain areas, neural connections and chemicals) has also indicated the following important characteristics of the adolescent brain.
- Adolescents have a poorly developed sensitivity to rewards. This prompts them to seek higher levels of novelty and stimulation to achieve the same results.
- They are more impulsive, choosing smaller immediate rewards over larger delayed rewards.
- They find it difficult to self regulate - i.e. interrupt a risky behavior pattern, think before acting or choosing a different course of action.
- The ability to recognize other people's emotions simply nosedives in early and middle adolescence, returning to normal only between ages 18 - 21.
- Teens are much more sensitive to emotion altering recreational drugs.
- Stress in any form during adolescence - particularly domestic, familial or social - could lead to greater susceptibility to substance abuse.
In this article, I have tried to weave in many threads which may further our understanding of this fascinating stage of growth. Where does all this leave us? Confused? quite possibly so. Somewhat better informed? hopefully so. Nothing new? hopefully not. In spite of, or perhaps because of the amount of information available, one is still left in a quandary on how to deal with adolescents. One could refer to the 'tips' enumerated in the article as guidelines. Probably more important than tips is the recognition of the fact that brain changes can be subtly but definitely altered by the environment to which the adolescents are exposed.
Here I would make a strong case for opening up the atmosphere in our schools. I am concerned about the fact that our schools are too academic, caught in inventing and reinventing the wheel. For most adolescents this overemphasis may seem like verbiage and hot air rather than anything of substance. We should of course look at rigour and excellence in our teaching. Among other things, I would also look at improving our dramatics, fine arts, music and dance programmes (this will counter the MTV onslaught!). I am sure that we all would like our children to be 'wired correctly' and not go out with empty heads. Adolescents need a strong, supportive yet flexible framework within which to grow up. Let us move forward towards helping children grow healthily, allowing them to explore their limits through education.
- Piaget J (1975) The Child's conception of the world. Totowa NJ, Littlefield Adams
- Kohlberg L (1984) Essays on Moral Development Vol 2. The Psychology of Moral development. San Francisco, Harper and Row
- Erikson EH (1987) A way of looking at things. Selected Papers. 1930-80 (S Schlein Ed.) NY., Norton
- Robert A Baron. Human Development I & II. Psychology 5th edition, Prentice Hall 2004.
Dr Karthik Kalyanram graduated from Rishi Valley in 1978, and has an MBBS from Armed Forces Medical College, MD in Aerospace Medicine from Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Bangalore. He is presently Coordinator of the Rural Health Centre of Rishi Valley Education Centre, and teaches Biology for class 12 and is a house parent for senior girl.