It’s easy for teens to be happy! They just have to understand these simple rules:
» You only look good if you have 0% body fat, but you should love and accept your body, no matter what size it is.
» Boys only like girls who hook up, but girls who hook up will get bullied and dismissed.
» Girls want rude boys who act like they don’t care, but girls want sweet boys who bring them flowers and balloons.
» You have to get straight As in school, but what a loser you are, if you actually try in school!
» That $600 phone? Your entire mental/social/emotional life? Don’t touch it for the 7.5 boring, stressful hours you’re at school every day.
» When you get home from school, sit down and do boring, stressful homework, so you can Be Somebody, ten years from now.
So easy, right? So what’s with this anxiety epidemic among teens?! Why is every high school hallway full of troubled teens?
Well, here’s what the science says.
Young people—between puberty and the mid-20s—are in epic change mode. Biologically, psychologically and sociologically. Everything is shifting.
Take the brain. The amygdala—the part of the brain that controls our primal reactions (fight or flight; anger and fear)—is fully developed at birth. But the frontal cortex—the part that handles planning, reasoning, problem solving—isn’t fully developed until mid-adulthood. We’re talking, like, mid-thirties.
So your average 16-year-old can flex that anger, that anxiety, full force…but he can’t, yet, control all of his behavior, or create and implement a plan of action. Literally. His brain hasn’t grown that ability.
Big, crazy behavior? Yes! Well-reasoned problem solving? Not so much!
Keep that in mind as we consider puberty.
As young as age 12, and for most by 16, kids have had a big growth spurt. Body shape changes; facial hair appears. So by 16, most kids look like little adults.
Our brains, meanwhile, are wired to make snap judgments. So we look at a young person acting impulsively, and *snap!* we judge her by adult standards, because she looks like an adult. We think she should be acting and talking and thinking like “us.” And we—parents, schools, the justice system—often punish kids according to that standard.
How do these changes affect the dynamic at home and school? Well, let’s look at cognitive change. During adolescence, humans develop new abilities in thinking. Suddenly a kid is able to consider more complex issues—they see multiple shades of gray, instead of black and white. This is great when it comes to civics class, but what about when your kid starts challenging beliefs you’ve instilled in him since birth? Or when your daughter starts pushing back against your rules, or your son suddenly “stops caring” about his grades? Where did your kid go, and who is this stranger?
All of this is compounded by shifting family dynamics, and increased dependence on peer influence. Thanks to those cognitive shifts, adolescents are becoming more assertive and independent at home. They’re testing boundaries; they’re assessing their personal strength. This may be a biological imperative, preparing a mammal for independence, but it doesn’t make your teen fun to live with.
At the same time, teens are naturally inclined to spend less time with their family, and more time with their peers. And oh, those peers! Peers whose approval means the world; peers who are the source of so. much. stress. A small sampling:
» shifting allegiances and friend groups
» cliques and popularity dynamics
» pressure to perform socially, academically, athletically….
» comparisons based on appearance—body, clothing, face, hair….
Of course, peers go hand-in-hand with school, which brings more stress:
» increasing demands with the transition to middle school, high school, and college
» different expectations and personalities from different teachers
» motivation and engagement versus lack of motivation and boredom
» college and career decisions (P.S: at a time when most kids have no clue what they want to do or be…)
» extra-curriculars—are you a jock? a brain? an artist? an activist? all of the above? none? what are you?
And just to throw a match on this Molotov cocktail, let’s have a think about hormonal changes. Biologically, teens have a higher sensitivity to stress. Researchers give us a great, adaptive reason for this:
» adolescence is a phase of constant new experience and challenge
» stress gives us a shot in the rear, a shove of energy
» this increased stress, in adolescence, is a survival function, enabling kids to rise to the constant challenge.
Again, though: the science doesn’t turn life with a teen into a Sunday drive. Especially not when you throw in the increased depression, aggression and mood swings that often come along for the ride.
…and all of this, all, of, this, is happening at that pivotal moment when kids’ choices and behaviors can make or break the rest of their lives.
But hey! They’ve got Google, so what else do they need?
Well. Google is nice and all, but a caring adult—an adult who can:
» focus entirely on the kid, and
» ask the right questions, and
» help the kid figure out what they really want, and how to get there?
That can be even nicer.
As a life coach for teens—and a former troubled teen myself—I totally get, and totally help kids with, all of this stuff. Keep reading to learn more.