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TEEN STRESS

Teen stress is not much different than that of adult stress in terms of the signs and symptoms. The causes however, are totally different as are their resources for management. Adults are in a much better position, have greater resources, and much more independence when it comes to dealing with stress in their lives. The adolescent is in a state of transition from childhood to adulthood and caught between childhood dependence and self-determination. This transcendental process is quite troublesome for both the child and the parent and it is never uneventful. The adolescents as a group are vulnerable to both physical and emotional stress. The issues and frustrations they face at this stage are endless. Simple examples include but are not limited to:

 *Problems in school with grades and teachers.
 *Conflicts at home between parents, divorce, or separation,
 *Getting a first date or going out on one,
 *Pleasing their parents, or having rivalry with siblings,
 *Moving or switching neighborhoods and schools,
 *Onset of puberty and physical changes,
 *Weight and physical appearance
 *Fitting in and acceptance by peers,
 *High expectations placed upon them by parents and teachers,
 *Competency participating in sports and extracurricular activities,
 *Having a job, being over-scheduled, or not fitting in socially,
 *Being ahead or behind in physical development,
 *Dysfunctional family issues such as abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
 *Getting a good scholarship to the college of choice,
 *Choosing a college major and career path,
 *Identity and answering the question, "who am I."

The above list of examples only skim the surface of possible issues teens are confronted with. I am sure that most teenagers and their parents have many more examples they could easily add to the list. Problems and struggles for teenagers are not uniform or always the same. Teens are all individuals and thus their problems will be individualized and diverse. Parents have to witness the stresses that their teenagers are going through but often feel helpless in their desire to help, or their ability to relate to them in a way that they are receptive. Suddenly at the onset of adolescence, the young child that the parents once new, transforms to a nature of being that they feel unfamiliar with and have to get to know all over again in a different context. At the onset of adolescence, though immature and unseasoned, by nature the child acquires the same cognitive and physical equipment as an adult. They can think hypothetically and in the abstract—this means that they are capable of rational thought and decision making on their own; they are sexual beings, have maturing reproductive systems, and are budding with physical prowess. This is difficult to comprehend and accept for many parents. Often they cannot conceive of the child thinking beyond the concrete and continue to relate to them in that way. This is unnerving to the teen.

With their new equipment, it means that what is said to them has to make sense to them on all levels. No longer can the parent expect the child to "do like I say, not like I do"; and when they hear the words “I love you” from the parents, it isn’t always taken at face value. The teen will want to know what love means, what the conditions are for it, and if those conditions remain constant. At this stage the child begins to evaluate the behavior of the parents with a sharp eye for consistency and a keen sense for what they perceive as fairness, with the justification that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” During this juncture they have a strong need to test the power and range of their new and more complex physical, cognitive, and reasoning abilities. This power testing and evaluations by the teenager brings power struggles between parent and teen. How this is resolved and worked out determines the relationship that will be established between parent and child.

The relationship between parent and child, particularly same sex parent, determines much of the success that the child will have in dealing with the multitude of crises faced during his or her teens. Identification with the same sex parent plays a major roll in the teens sense of who they are in practically every aspect of their identity; their self-concept and self-esteem, who they are as a male or female, their moral outlooks, and their industrial pursuit. In general, children who struggle most with identity confusion are those who do not in anyway identity with their same sex parent. The Opposite sex parent plays a significant role, however the role of the same sex parent remains dominant. A healthy identity is the key to success during the period of adolescence, for it is the foundation for all that they become as adults. Identity vs. identity confusion, has been identified by most authorities in the field of child psychology as "the" most significant crisis to overcome and resolve during the adolescent stage of childhood. 

In general, children fair better and are more successful when both parents, devoid of conflict, are present in the home. However still, it is the same sex parent that has the primary influence and is the prevailing model for the developmental character and identity of the child. It is not uncommon that when adolescents are at odds or in conflict with their same sex parent that they will gravitate towards favor to the opposite sex parent. For instance when a son is afraid of or unable to get certain needs met by his father, he may turn more frequently to his mother. If she is receptive, he may claim that he likes his mother most of all or has
a better relationship with her. Similarly, a daughter who feels hampered by her mother and unable to get what she wants, she may turn to the accommodating father. She could generalize from this that it is much easier to get her needs met and without conflict from males opposed to females and seek out male peers for best friends. The trappings of this scenario is amplified when the opposite sex parent (who may have similar conflicts to that of the child with the opposing parent) rescues the child from dealing directly with the confrontational issues; and, the daughter becomes daddy’s little “princes,” or the son becomes mommy’s “real’ man.

When such a transfer in favoritism takes place, it does not change the principal influence that the father will have on the overall self-esteem and character development of his son; and likewise, the influence (conscious or unconscious) the mother has on her daughter will prevail over that of the father. The same sex parent is a reflection of their children’s image of themselves. When that parent is a faulty model it brings disturbing adjustments and challenging rationalizations to align their perceptions with their self-concept. When the parent is absent or unavailable, hopefully the child will take on the influence of a healthy surrogate parental model perhaps through an adult family member such as an older brother or sister, or uncle or aunt. Often the partner of the same sex parent or respected coach will be suitable to take on the roll.

There are no laws that says parents have to take a course in child rearing prior to having children. Most parents tend to raise their children the way their parents raised them. Perhaps if their parents were too strict and emotionally detached, they will be extra loving and lenient with their children; and vice versa, if their parents were to lenient, they may lean towards being overly strict authoritative in managing the child. Often when parents are from opposing backgrounds it will lead to opposing opinions and conflicting practices in the rearing of their children. This could lead to inconsistency and confusion for the child in terms of what is expected of them.

The reasons are not always clear, but many parents are resistant to taking full responsibility for parenting and attempt to treat the child equal to them as adults, Teens, no matter how much they may protest at times, do not really want their parents to be equals; they want and need them be parents first. The mother or father who tries to act “with it” in order to adopt adolescent values, fashions, or behavior—both confuses and embarrasses the young person. Furthermore, such a parent deprives the adolescent of what he or she needs most in a parent. In addition to love, guidance, and caring, the teen needs a model of what is successful, independent, problem-solving adult behavior. Eventually this attempt to carry the child on the same level as the parent leads to overt power struggles that become difficult to manage. The child could easily interpret “ace-buddy” behavior by the parent as weakness--that the parent wants or need their approval more so than vice versa. Whenever there is a feeling by the child that the parent needs them more than they need the parent, it generates the undisclosed feelings that they have power over the parent. Eventually this feeling of power will be tested, especially in times of conflict when unrealistic demands are asserted by the child.

The critical period for imprinting and molding the child ends at adolescence. At this stage they essentially have the building blocks that will carry them into adulthood and thereafter. To some extent, they will either embrace, build on, and refine these components; or they will challenge, reject, or redefine them. The influence the parent has on a child during their teen years is determined by the relationship they have with the child and amount of trust and respect the child has for the parent. If there was no relationship, identity, or trust before this time, it is unlikely that it will develop in adolescence. By this time the child has a mind of its own and can only be swayed by reason, not force or excessive kindness.

It is obvious that the child would not be prepared for the onset of the major and significant physical, cognitive, sexual, and psychological transformations bestowed upon them at the age of adolescence. Nor are they completely prepared for the host of demands and conflicts that accompany them. The parents however can be prepared rather than simply relying on their own personal experiences. In addition to educating themselves on what to expect and being prepared, the most important thing is to be conscious of, and fine tune communication and rapport with the child. This will make it easier to appeal to their sense of reason that they are fully capable of. Parental preparation and understanding of the demands faced by the child at this crucial phase in life will mean a less stressful experience for the child both in and out of the home. It will have an effect on how well they do in school, and their relationships with teachers and peers. All in all, it will make their transition into adulthood much smoother and less troublesome.

It is the job of teenagers to test reality. Teen-testing should not be upsetting to the parents.  Since their newly acquired cognitive facilities do not come with an owners manuel for use, trail-an-error testing is their only reference for learning realistic guideline for self-regulation, responses to what is reasonable, and what they can and cannot have or get away with. This is crucial to adequate functioning in the real world when they leave home as independent adults. It is the roll of parents and teachers to pass teen-testing by providing suitable, rational means and alternatives to meeting their needs, and setting reasonable limits for what is acceptable and what is not.

The outcome of the teen experience does not have to be a nightmare of disaster for parent nor child. If it is of any consultation, there are many more successes than there are failures. Even when considered in terms of success and failure, the terms remain relative. Sometimes the end results of child rearing are determined long after the child leaves home; and just as there are early bloomers, there are late ones as well. A good quality relationship and patience seems to be the key.

Patience in many realms are needed; such as when teens are sure they will never grow or develop like other kids; when all that comes out of their mouths is criticism of everyone and everything; or when they display little sympathy or sensitivity towards the feelings of others but demand total sympathy for themselves. Patience is needed as they outgrow these scenarios. It is needed as they experiment with newly acquired intellectual ability, strive for their identity, and adjust to their physical and sexual maturation. If their behavior is severely disruptive, and mal-adaptive, or considered beyond parental management, then professional help is always an option that could and should be considered.
--jlGill, MFT

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