Teens need adults to help them through many changes and challenges of adolescent
On Oct. 4, I wrote about teenagers and how we can understand the importance of sticking with them to help them learn to keep themselves safe. But the apparent conflict is wider than that, since many kids and parents today feel estranged from each other and think that’s how it’s supposed to be.
We read a newspaper article the other day that talked about “why your teenager needs to be defiant.” That’s been conventional wisdom for quite a while, with current brain research often cited to support the idea.
But the situation is actually both more complex and more hopeful. My husband and colleague, Jack, and I just attended an international conference where we gave a keynote speech about adolescent emotional development.
Some of the world’s foremost researchers in brain functioning, genetics, and behavior were also on the program. They reported fascinating findings, like the way adolescent brains keep changing until they are 25 or 26. Along with that ongoing plasticity, well into what is usually considered young adulthood, there is growth in the need for novelty and stimulation. Increased risk-taking coincides with a dip in neurological control mechanisms (See the Oct. 4 column for more on supporting the development of good judgment in teens).
Another strand in adolescent growth is a surge in the wish and need to connect with other people. These affiliative needs are there from birth, but teenagers feel them very strongly and are capable of putting them into action. Adolescents need friends to practice the relationship skills they will use lifelong; friends are an important source of emotional nourishment, reality-checking, and pleasure.
One problem is that kids take many more dangerous risks when they are with others than they do when they’re alone. So how do we help teenagers balance the complex forces operating inside their developing bodies, brains, minds and feelings?
Grownups can supply the needed counterbalance to the built-in changes that teenagers are going through. Instead of backing off and abandoning kids to an indiscriminate search for stimulation and novelty, parents and teachers should stay involved in teenagers’ lives.
It isn’t always easy to stay open and interested in the new pathways teenagers may lead us into. Parents really need to call on their emotional muscles of flexibility, patience and respect to avoid knee-jerk negative reactions to new styles of music, clothes and activities. It steadies kids if you have standards for mutually-respectful ways of talking with each other, letting each other know where you are going to be when and so forth. It’s a two-way street.
When you share your enthusiasms with your teen, you are providing safe channels for her need for novelty. Going on a hike in new terrain, seeing a movie in another language, learning a new skill together — these keep your teen connected to the whole range of relationships and possibilities, rather than restricting her only to the knowledge base of peers or the unstructured stimulation of the internet, partying, or substance use.
In a way, your teenager needs you even more than she did earlier, in order to take inside and practice her own emotional muscles of balancing her different needs, regulating her feelings, making good judgments and using relationships with people of all ages to expand her personality.
Parents can enjoy welcoming their teenagers into their interests and skills, while expanding their adult repertoire with the creative exploration kids are bound to engage in.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, and author, with Jack Novick, of "Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children," available at amazon.com or through