3 Myths About the Teenage Years - To Help Parents Who Are Currently Navigating these Challenging Times!
Written by Dr. Shannon Odell, clinical psychologist in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
We’re excited to welcome you to a new series from child psychologist Shannon Odell. Doctor Odell is here to help us debunk, navigate, and normalize the challenges of those teenage years that many of our kids are facing. First up in the series: 3 Myths About Teen Development
Hello everyone! First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Shannon Odell and I am a psychologist specializing in children and adolescents who will be popping up here and there to talk about all things EARLY ADOLESCENCE. If those two words send a shiver down your spine, you’re not alone. It’s a tough phase of development, and I’m here to help you navigate through it.
As a psychologist who sees many children in early adolescence, I always make sure to have a session with parents to educate them about this stage in their child’s development. In that session, I make sure to talk about two things. The first is that I encourage parents to remember how they felt when they were entering into adolescence. Most of us didn’t have a particularly enjoyable time as we tried to navigate the social hierarchies that seem to have come from nowhere, while also constantly adapting to a body that seemed to be changing by the day, with parents who almost overnight no longer knew what they were talking about, all the while experiencing feelings that entered our bodies like a hurricane and dissipated for no recognizable reason at all. Being a tween is tough, and it’s important to recognize that they’re dealing with a lot. At the same time, it’s sometimes an equally difficult experience for the parents who are at the mercy of their child’s mood swings.
To address these parenting challenges, the other thing I try to do is dispel many of the common misconceptions I’ve heard throughout the years I’ve been practicing about what happens during adolescence. As a parent, it’s so helpful to have a sense of what we’re dealing with, how long it will last, and whether something is normal or not. So here are the most common myths I hear about adolescence, and what to actually expect instead.
Myth #1: Adolescence starts when they officially become a teenager (age 13).
Truth: Adolescence officially starts at 11! I’ve had many parents express confusion at the changes they’re observing in their sweet 5th grader, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally (“I thought the eye-rolling wasn’t supposed to start until they were 13 or 14!”), sometimes both. It’s so important that we as parents know when this phase of development begins in the eyes of the scientific and medical communities for two reasons. One, so we can prepare ourselves that we might start to notice these changes earlier than we thought. Two, so we can prepare THEM as well! There are so many changes happening in their bodies that they’re observing privately in the bathroom mirror, but there are changes that also become apparent to everyone else, notably body odor and acne. It’s important that they know why this is happening and what they can do about it. This is one of the reasons I think Love and XO Julia is so great, it can make the conversation about hygiene and cleanliness something a little less awkward and maybe even a little more enjoyable for the young adolescent who now has products to experiment with and your support while they figure it out!
Myth #2: If I put in enough groundwork ahead of time, I can avoid my teen treating me like I have the plague.
Truth: I really wish this were true, and just because it’s a myth doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put in the groundwork anyway. Those relationship building moments when they’re little matter so much in other ways, namely the health of their future relationships. Unfortunately, when it comes to pre-teens, it won’t stop them from rolling their eyes every time you speak, or criticizing the way you dress, or asking you to drop them off blocks away from their destination. This critical part of adolescence is called separation-individuation. In other words, their rejection of us parents is important because it helps them start to develop their own identity, to figure out who they are separate from their family. The good news is, later in adolescence they tend to come back around and start to value the similarities they share with you instead of constantly highlighting the ways they want to be different. The best thing to do around the ages of 11-15 is know the attitude is coming, pick your battles, ask for politeness if they can’t be friendly, and give them space while they work through it all.
Myth #3: Their entire adolescence will be like this. They will suck all of the oxygen out of the room until they graduate from high school.
Truth: Things tend to improve by about 15 or 16. Sometimes not markedly, but parents will often note that the daggers aren’t quite as sharp. To help get through the toughest part of this phase, it can be helpful to think about what your child’s brain is going through right now. This is the most and fastest brain growth they’ve experienced since they were toddlers. Think about how big their emotions were back then, largely because their brains were growing so fast. Now they have a more robust vocabulary to express themselves, and while they may not throw themselves on the floor kicking and screaming (though, I have to say, it’s not unheard of), they will still push against those boundaries and make sure they let their unhappiness known. As a parent, it’s our job to stick to the boundaries we’ve set and tolerate the emotional fallout the best we can. Offering a calm, steady presence while they are spinning out of control is usually the best way to do that.
Most importantly, understand this is just a chapter in their development. Remember those phases you thought would never end? Chances are they did, and so will this time in their lives. Their relationships with everyone are changing, including with you, and navigating what this new relationship will look like might take some time. Just try to make sure they know you love them and you will no matter what. And maybe repeat that to yourself as often as possible during one of their meltdowns. Happy parenting!