The onset of puberty and adolescence has sometimes been likened to a second birth. During puberty, adolescents go through another infant-like growth spurt, and a large amount of this growth takes place in the brain. (Paus et al., 1999) Yet this explosion in new neurons and new growth doesn’t make teens into instant geniuses. Rather, it tends to disrupt their neural networks and clutter things up, leaving the teen brain paralyzed by inefficiency. They can become a little neurotic, prone to mood swings, and the reasoning centers of their brain go a little bit haywire. Because of this, many 8- or 9-year-olds can seem more emotionally mature and stable than your average teenager, and it’s certainly not uncommon to find teens engaging in behavior that a younger child would find irresponsible.

Adolescence as a stage of development

Adolescence as a developmental stage is built around the task of having children start to pull away from their parents and establish an autonomous identity. This is more than merely a response to peer pressure, but a designed stage in human development. In the throes of modern society, we’ve vastly extended the realm of what we consider to be childhood in response to a complex world, yet the instinct for autonomy remains. We tend to forget that the raging hormones and brain changes that drive adventurous, risk-taking behavior were not built into us just for show. These hormones are there for one reason: to get your 12-year-old or 13-year-old out of the house, having sex, and producing offspring of their own. In modern times, such a life-course would not be well-advised. But it’s important for parents to understand the biological purpose (and significance) of this shift. With this developmental stage come several changes that can impact the way teens respond to adversity:

A)  A teen’s brain is designed to make a switch from parents to peers as their primary concern for social approval. Teens have to start relying more on what peers think “and develop a more socially constructed sense of self,” says psychologist Sarah Blakemore. (Choi, 2009) Functional brain studies by Blakemore show that the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), an area of the brain associated with self-perception and reflection, showed more activation in adolescent girls ages 10-18 than among adults. In other words, teens become hypersensitive towards issues related to social identity.

This isn’t always the easiest of transitions. A teen’s foundations are uprooted, and they are suddenly thrust into a situation where the rules have changed and they must adapt. Crucial social support is often lost (even if it’s still there), because it loses much of its significance and must be re-established through other channels. As significant as the love of family is, it shifts from being 80% or 90% of a child’s self-worth and identity to only about 50% or less of the overall equation. Teens must learn how to re-establish support, approval, and a personal identity among peers as they grapple with the roles of adulthood.

This doesn’t mean that parents become irrelevant. Far from it. Parents can continue to play an important role in the lives of their children during adolescence and decades beyond, and their love and support remains a crucial part of the child’s life. But it does mean that their role changes, from one of unquestionable authority and the primary persons of importance to one of support and guidance. Parents who accept and adapt to this new role will be able to guide their children for years to come while continuing to be an important influence in their lives. Those who fight it will run into all sorts of difficulties and experience more of the turmoil we associate with teenagers.

B)  The adolescent brain becomes more sensitive to rewards and gratification, so they end up seeking higher levels of novelty and stimulation. As Eric Jensen (2006, p. 102) states: “risks, rewards, and fun are driving their brains.” Unfortunately, this thrill-seeking behavior also makes them more vulnerable to addiction. This is especially true when it comes to drug use they might turn to as a means of coping with personal struggles. So when teens experience life adversity, it’s important for parents to be on the lookout for signs that a child might be drowning their sorrows in substances.

C)  Antisocial behavior increases almost 10-fold during adolescence. (Moffitt, 1993) Some of this antisocial behavior is minor in nature; the result of a pushback against authority that is part of their struggle to establish a separate identity. But it can also grow more serious and turn into a pattern of delinquency. Teens are also more likely to react to life stress through antisocial behavior or acting out.

D)  As previously discussed, research has indicated that family relationships change during adolescence (Steinberg, 1981), and that the frequency of negative family interactions increase during this developmental period. (Jacob, 1974) This means that adversity they experience may come on top of already tense situations. Parents should also be aware that although it seems like there’s more conflict in the home, teens may look upon the scene somewhat differently. Whereas parents tend to regard arguments solely in a negative light, teens may also see these sessions as part of ongoing “intense negotiations” to establish more freedom and autonomy.

All of these changes, as necessary as they are, leave teens more vulnerable to negative outcomes following life adversity. Risks for a variety of dysfunctions increase during adolescence (Rutter, 1986), and teens are particularly vulnerable to the onset of significant psychiatric disorders such as depression, psychosis, or other major affective disorders. (Kazdin, 1990) This has led many researchers to conclude that adolescence is another period of profound vulnerability (much like early childhood) during which whatever happens can have implications lasting far into the future.

Helping teens deal with adversity

  • Teens often display a false bravado, but may still deeply struggle with issues underneath the surface. Since the teen brain is grappling with issues of independence (even if they are not aware of it), things that hint at dependence, such as asking for help or admitting their struggles, will tend to be avoided at all costs. Parents need to understand this, and recognize that just because a teen presents a strong exterior that doesn’t necessarily mean all is okay. Adults must tactfully find ways of reaching the vulnerable child underneath.
  • Because teens are at a developmental stage when they are naturally trying to break away from parents and establish themselves as independent individuals, they may respond more readily to advice and comfort from other adult confidants. You should try to surround your teens with other adult support they can open up to.
  • Showing respect for an adolescent’s autonomy conveys the message that you believe in the teen’s ability to handle stress. So offer support, but don’t overprotect them. Adolescents need to feel like you look upon them as a capable person.
  • Adolescents live in a social no-man’s land: old enough to feel the weight of family adversity and mature enough to understand the gravity of difficult situations, but yet still young enough to be scared and easily overwhelmed. They may want to help in family situations, but yet not feel as though they have enough control to change anything. Do what you can to alter this dynamic. Try to find ways for teens to take control over improving the situation, even in small ways.
  • Teens become fully immersed in adult stigmas, and even develop some of their own while carrying these ideas to all new pedestals. This at an age where they are most sensitive to social scorn and ridicule. This means that issues with negative social implications or social stigmatization (living in poverty, homelessness, family issues, etc.) are going to have a deeper impact on a teen than they would a younger child. Helping kids recover routinely involves combating these prejudices about what certain experiences mean in terms of them as a person, but it’s particularly important for teens.
  • Teens often can’t be comforted in the same way you would a younger child, but this doesn’t mean they don’t need comforting. Parents will just have to get creative in how they offer it.