The Adolescent Monster
"What happened to my sweet little baby?" Every parent has or will ask that sometime during the middle school years. It's the same question our parents asked of us, their parents asked of them, and so on. Adolescence a curse everyone has to live through, then lead their children through. It is a traumatic time for everyone involved-the family as well as the student.
Kara was a student in my middle school group. She is my twin-only we are 10 years apart and not related at all. I felt privileged to be the person in her life I only wished I had at her age. Although she didn't enjoy it some times, I spent as much time defending her parents' actions as commiserating with her.
Her eighth grade year was especially difficult for her. During one weekend retreat with our church group, we went to a side room because she wanted to talk. She told me that she hated her bouts of being "a typical emotional teenager." She was frustrated she couldn't keep a level mood. She said she hated how her friends could seem nice one day and complete jerks the next. She saw that in herself, and she didn't like it. She was not sure what was going on.
What I told her, I will now share with you.
The teenage years are traumatic for all of us. Bodies are changing and maturing. Minds are doing the same. The family dynamic changes. Students start breaking away from their previous identity as part of the family to start gaining their own.
I assured her that what she was complaining about-not being the same person from one day to the next-is absolutely, completely normal! She and her friends were doing the same thing that children had been doing for millennia. She and her friends were trying on different personalities to see which one fit best. (This is why the sweetest, most obedient child can-literally overnight-turn into a raging monster.) Just like Kara, most of them don't know why this is happening, and are as frustrated with it as parents.
Another thing that happens around this time is the mind changes from thinking in concrete terms (yes and no, black and white) to abstract thinking. When children are younger, they believe pretty much everything you tell them. As children age and have more life experiences they begin taking everything with more and more grains of salt. This phenomenon explodes during adolescence. Children start doubting everything-even their parents' love. They need to find things out for themselves and start believing only their own experiences. This is a strange time because there will still be some things the children take on faith, but it is different for each child.
Students begin pulling away from their parents and family emotionally during this time. This helps them later in life to be independent and take care of themselves. It is still traumatic for parents to, in the span of a few years, have their child go from saying "I love you and I always will," to "I hate you and I always have!" But kids would never dream of doing this to their best friend. Never. This is another one of the things that concerned Kara.
Acceptance is important to everyone-children, adolescents and adults alike. If a student went to his best friend in anger and yelled at the friend the same way as he does his parents, he would lose the friend in an instant.
But parents will always be parents, and always love their children. A teen who yells at her parents won't have to worry about losing their love and acceptance. She knows that her parents are not going to leave her and will always love her. This isn't something that kids think about, it's something hard-wired into our DNA-just like a parent's love for their children.
An adolescent yells at his parents because they are safe. So, Mom and Dad, take comfort when your teen yells and slams his door-he's really telling you that you're the only one to whom he can trust to vent his frustration at life.
Another way students tear away from their parents is by defying authority and making their own decisions. This is when most of the experimentation takes place. Just because Mom and Dad say "no" doesn't mean that I don't have to, they think. Saying "no" with no explanation doesn't work the same way it did when she was seven. You need to give information-the why behind the no.
Information is key at this stage. To keep your student from making the same mistakes you made at their age is by giving them all the gory details. Some parents don't want to because of embarrassment, or the fear that their teen will think, "It worked out for Dad, so I can do it and it will be okay for me, too." This isn't necessarily true. When you give not only the "fun" part, make sure to give equal time-or even more-to the not so fun consequences. Your student will think about what you say and will be able to make an informed decision. If he makes the wrong decision, you still have done your job as a parent. You have to accept you can no longer make your child's decisions for him, but you can give him the information he needs and let him screw up his life-or chose not to-on his own.
If you think your student won't listen to you, think again. Parents are still the most influential people in a student's life. Their friends may come first looking from outside, but they are still looking for your love, and you are still important.
Probably the most important thing for parents to do during this time is to not only tell your children you love them, but show it. At this time, actions show so much more than they ever did before. Remember, your teen is looking for proof, not just words.
Find out how your student feels love-words of affirmation, gifts, physical touch (hugs), acts of service, or just spending time with them-and do that rather than just trying to assure her that you still love her with only your words. Nothing hurts kids worse during this time than not knowing for sure that they have their parents' love.
The most encouraging and comforting thing you can tell your teen is that they will hardly remember any of this time. Because adolescence is such a traumatic time-with things changing practically every day-our brain blocks it out once we're done.
This is the reason we sigh in exasperation, swearing, "I was never this bad when I was his age," and our mothers just chuckle.