Tantrums, the sulks and rebellious behaviour? Sounds like your average teen. Ciska Thurman investigates what’s normal – and what’s not
Teenagers get a pretty bad rap. We love to stereotype them as sulky and sinister sloths who reject authority and raise hell. The trouble with teens, however, is that they are transitioning from childhood to adulthood: from having every need met to having to do it all for themselves. Sure, we need to cut them some slack, but there are times when it’s necessary to intervene.
Fundamentally, adolescence is all about achieving independence. So, by its very nature, it will involve behaviour that seeks to separate the child from the parent – having a contrary opinion, wanting to be somewhere else, resisting obedience. But sometimes, this behaviour can go beyond what’s natural. What are the warning signs that something deeper is wrong, and how should parents get involved?
Minnon Holtzhausen, a Joburg-based counselling psychologist, defines adolescence as ‘a time of self-exploration and experimentation’. Adolescents all endure ‘a period of physical, intellectual and moral growth as they attempt to find a place within their world’.
As young children mature into pre-teens, they start to think a bit more abstractly about who they are and how they’re perceived by others, especially by their peers. Peer approval begins to trump parental praise, so in an attempt to fit in, ‘early teens often explore by “trying on” new identities and different looks, such as dyeing their hair or going for different clothing,’ explains Minnon.
This newfound freedom can also translate into being too reactive or less studious, and making big, bold displays like playing provocative music or being careless with possessions.
Despite all the distress and conflict this can cause, Minnon points out that this rebellion and risk-taking is normal. Pushing boundaries and questioning authority is still healthy developmental behaviour. ‘As effective parents, we will need to allow teenagers the space to discover themselves while keeping the important boundaries firmly in place,’ says Minnon.
The degree of behavioural change is what should alert parents to a teen in distress. Minnon warns: ‘If you perceive your child’s behaviour to be excessively volatile, morbid, abnormal or secretive, professional help may be necessary.’
Here’s a list of a few of the warning signs that could signal trouble:
• Extreme weight gain or loss
• Sleep problems (not sleeping, sleeping too much)
• Extreme disrespect for people and property
• Angry outbursts or vulgarity
• Running away from home or repeatedly skipping school
• Talking or joking about suicide
• Substance abuse/addiction
• Getting in trouble with the law.
Do remember, however, that certain changes are part of the process – it is only when the changes are extreme or long-lasting (six weeks or more) that there’s reason for concern. Additionally, consider the change within the context of your child’s life: an A or B student shouldn’t suddenly start failing, nor should an extroverted, sociable child become persistently withdrawn. ‘Early adolescents will, by nature, display irresponsible behaviour, get distracted and forget things,’ Minnon reminds us, but excessive change is more than just a phase and should be addressed – sooner rather than later.
Navigating adolescence is a challenge in itself. Add to that a broken heart or a failed friendship, both of which are regular rites of passage, and your teen really needs your support (not your silence or opinion).
When external factors, such as an underlying emotional disorder, peer pressure, bullying at school, mental illness, an unstable home environment or substance abuse wreak havoc, it’s time for you to enlist professional help.
As parents, we need to seek out an intervention that will heal or manage pain that, if left untreated, could lead to lifelong deviant or defiant behaviour.
How parents can participate in their teenagers’ lives:
Ask yourself these questions:
• What are you doing to prompt your child’s behaviour?
• Are you giving your child enough freedom and space to establish his or her own individuality?
• Do you allow space for your child to develop opinions, beliefs and values that differ from your own?
• Are you overly controlling?
• Are you, within reason, respectful of your child’s privacy?
Provide a platform within which your child can safely experiment with (harmless and impermanent) changes. But don’t just sit idly by – talk to him or her about what is motivating the changes and try to understand what your youngsters are going through and feeling.
Don’t be afraid to set reasonable, fair boundaries around what is expected of them academically, socially and at home. Although these ‘limitations’ may be met with disapproval and resistance, boundary-assertion shows our children we care about them.
Have the difficult conversations with your son or daughter about sex, alcohol and drugs. This will empower them in sticky situations, rather than looking to their peers for guidance. Also, be aware of pervasive technology – continual exposure to uncensored influences via smartphone, tablets or laptops. Set ground rules: parental settings to control content, no screens in the bedroom and limited screen time during certain hours.
Top 6 warning signs in teens
1. Eating disorders
2. A dramatic change in their personality
3. Sudden change in friends/social group
4. Self-imposed isolation
5. Self harm (mutilation and/or cutting)
6. Sudden drop in marks