An Uncharted Path
As much as we know about adolescent development based on research and studies, it is impossible to explain to a pre-teen what the experience will be like. Who can understand before it’s happened what it will mean to adjust to the hormonal changes of adolescence, feel comfortable driving a car, go to college, or fall in love with somebody?
An Emotional Roller Coaster
The emotional experience of adolescence may take a pre-teen with a well-established identity and turn him or her upside-down. The habits and self-image a child has developed may not fit, and trying to integrate new feelings, and new capabilities as well, is more challenging for some teens than for others. It really can be a time of identity crisis.
In part, a teen’s coping mechanisms will depend on those around him or her. An adolescent with a supportive family and a good set of friends, who doesn’t happen to become the target of a bully or clique, will—in general—have an easier time.
But as good as one’s support group is, experiencing, for example, a monthly cycle of hormonal changes and trying to grasp the reality that one can feel upset, not because one is “really” upset but because of one’s hormones, is bound to provide a certain amount of challenge.
In addition to identity issues, adolescents experience a shift from the strong family ties of early childhood to stronger peer ties, especially if they have a romantic relationship. Shifting allegiances put the teen in a new relationship to people, including those he or she has known all his or her life.
And our school structure doesn’t make it easier.
One teen going through the emotional fluctuations of early adolescence is one thing. But in the US, we pack them all together into middle schools where they are separate from the calmer influence of both those who are younger and haven’t reached that stage and those older, who have begun to develop mechanisms to handle it. In other words, we create a problem by putting early adolescents in place where everyone is comparing their own physical development to everyone else, and everyone is, at least slightly, out of control of their emotional lives.
One characterization of middle grade students mentions:
• the erratic, inconsistent behavior,
• feeling shifts between extremes of bravado on the on hand and fear and anxiety on the other,
• hormonal and chemical imbalances,
• extreme sensitivity to criticism,
• exaggeration of their own problems,
• feeling of being the only one who experiences what they experience,
• falling for dubious arguments,
• holding naïve opinions, and
• psychologically at-risk.
These characteristics can also extend beyond middle school. Is it any surprise that there are so many reports of bullying, teasing, fights, and tears among younger adolescents?
Separating the Normal Teen from the Troubled Teen
With all of these factors, it is likely that any teen will act in a disturbed or disturbing way at some point, due to one or more of these factors. A formerly respectful and loving pre-teen may talk back, call a parent names, strike a brother or sister, barricade him- or herself in his or her bedroom, stop confiding and even pretty much stop communicating, and/or break household rules (like curfews) for the first time. You may see appetite changes, sleep changes, tears, anger, and invective towards others as well as self-directed, and amazingly, this may all be within the normal bounds of adolescent development.
Especially is you are dealing with your oldest child, this can be alarming. Here are some hints that, taken along with professional opinions—such as that of your child’s teachers, guidance counselor, and pediatrician—will help you know when to get help and when to let things ride.
• First, if a child mentions, refers to, or takes any action that suggests suicide to you, get immediate help. There are suicide hotlines and other crisis lines that can help you talk your child through the situation while expert help is on the way.
• Try to ensure that your child has adults around—even if not you—in whom he or she can confide, whether an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a minister, family friend, godparent, etc.
• If you suspect your child is engaging in any activity that is illegal or dangerous—whether damaging the property of others, using drugs or alcohol, or engaging in underage sexual activity—gather information from an expert you trust on how to identify and deal with the particular issue. Apparent signs of illicit activity could be something quite different, and an unfounded accusation could create at least a temporary barrier to trust between you and your child.
• As the characterization of middle school students indicates, students may act in uncharacteristic and even bizarre ways without anything being wrong other than the fact that adolescence is difficult. If you are concerned that there is a deeper issue, consult a professional who can offer you guidance.
If you genuinely can’t tell how bad things are, you could try telling your child how concerned you are and asking if he or she needs help.