Navigating Adolescence

By Michelle F Moseley, MS, LCMHC, NCC (she/her)

The pre-teen and teen years can be difficult for both an adolescent and the adults who care about them.  Teenagers are experiencing physical changes, awakening to sexual interests, developing their own opinions, beliefs and identity, considering future plans, and navigating social interactions.  All of this may be occurring while also trying to balance academics, extracurricular activities, and family relationships.  That is a lot to maneuver, particularly when considering that the portion of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) which assists in balancing reason with emotion is not yet fully developed in adolescents.  How can parents and other caregivers assist adolescents in navigating these challenging, but exciting years?

Family Time.  Despite what your teen may say, they often desire to maintain connection with family.  Make an effort to include them in making decisions about family time.  Perhaps allow them to choose the activity as an opportunity to share their interests with you.  Consider their schedules and preferences when making family plans.  For example, they may not appreciate a family outing on Friday evening if they enjoy attending football games with their friends.   It’s important to allow them to be part of the discussion without making judgements of their choices and preferences.

Pick Your Battles.  Adults and teens do not always see eye-to-eye.  It is important to allow adolescents the opportunity to express themselves and explore their values.   Parents can provide a safe place for this exploration.  Take some time to consider your willingness to allow your teen to have freedom in things such as changing their hair color, expressing themselves with clothing, or following a vegetarian diet.  Identify the areas where you feel strongly – perhaps academic efforts, faith involvement, holiday traditions, or use of social media – and focus your attention there.  Allowing your teen freedom in other areas may decrease the discord in the areas about which you care most.

Listen.  Teens are capable of critical thinking and many have active thought lives.  You can build a stronger relationship with your teen by listening with a focus on understanding your teen’s thoughts and opinions, rather than a focus on responding to them and defending your own positions.  Teens often share the most important statements amidst the seemingly mundane.  They are keenly aware of others’ verbal and nonverbal responses, often shutting down when they sense they are being judged or attacked.  Avoid “I’m right because I’m the adult” thinking and seek to hear what your teen is saying.  When you’re not sure what they mean, ask with curiosity and allow them to offer their own insight.

Establish boundaries and stick to them.  Boundaries provide a sense of safety for people, teens included.  A clearly stated boundary allows them to know what is expected and what will occur if the boundary is not respected.  It is developmentally appropriate for teens to test boundaries.  However, if a boundary is stated and not enforced, the teen faces uncertainty in what to expect and how to behave.  This may increase your teen’s tendency to test the limits in an effort to determine what truly matters.

Be willing to seek help from a professional.  Your teen may benefit from speaking to a trustworthy adult who can help them sort through the challenges of adolescence and sort out their worries.  You may be concerned that your teen has mental health or substance use issues that would be best addressed by a licensed professional.  Your family may benefit from learning skills to navigate current challenges.  You may desire to speak with a licensed professional about your own mental health concerns and how that may be affecting your relationship with your teen.   Speaking with a licensed mental health professional may offer needed support and can assist you with these and many other concerns.