The Task of Becoming a Teen

by Charlotte Villemoes, LMFT
Site Director at Woodside High School

After years of challenging teen years my son has finally emerged again, and much to my delight I am discovering he was hiding a real human being in there, someone who is able to communicate and show some basic interest in other people, including his mom. Now that the sleepless nights are at a distance, it has become a little easier for me to see what caused all the pain and worry. My son was simply busy, busy with tasks every single teen is required to master whether they are aware of it or not, whether they want to or not.

First of all teens need to adjust to all the many physical changes puberty brings. Growth spurts, new curves, breaking voices, a strange face decorated with pimples. A vast majority of adolescents spend hours worrying over their looks, many feel ugly. At the same time raging hormones are putting sex front and center in their lives, adding a whole new dimension in life, among others giving them the task to realize and come to terms with their sexual orientation.

Ready or not, teens also have to separate from their parents. They do this in all sorts of creative ways, experimenting with clothes, body art, politics, drugs, and music, seemingly anything to drive their parents crazy or push them away. As challenging as it is for everybody involved, these are actually steps they need to take in order to prepare for the task of becoming independent individuals once adolescence is over. By pulling away from their parents’ influence, they are trying to decide how they want to live their own lives, what values they want to adopt.

During adolescence, teens need to develop a social network and learn to navigate the social scene without parental oversight. This is the time where they build their first true friendships based on shared interests and values, and also the time where they start learning more about romantic relationships, – a task that often comes with confusion, hurt feelings, and late night heart aches. In the midst of juggling all this, they are also expected to start defining their vocational and educational goals or at least have an answer ready when the well-meaning adults in their lives ask: “So what do you want to do after high school?” An honest answer would be: “I just want to get rid of those damn pimples!”, but instead we expect them to rattle off some college and career choices.

Added to all this are of course the basic tasks of going to school almost eight hours a day, doing homework for at least two, performing miscellaneous after school activities, helping with – or fighting over – chores at home, as well as participating in family activities with at least one ear open. To top it off, research shows that teen brains are undergoing dramatic structural changes, to the point where they deserve wearing a sign saying “closed during remodel”. No wonder they shut down or act out or do a little bit of both.

Based on all this, my advice to fellow parents is to take a deep breath, give your teen a hug, exercise your sense of humor, practice patience and good faith: Chances are your teen will emerge as a human being, just like mine did.

I am sharing this to let you know there is hope, so hang in there.

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