Department of Psychiatry
Penn Behavioral Health

PAH Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic

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Newsletter: February 2009

Why is My Teen Acting This Way?

Rachel Whipple, BS


Adolescence, a phase that spans roughly from the ages of 10 to 22, is a time of rapid development in which we transition from being children to independent young adults. Adolescence is both an exciting and tumultuous life stage, full of emotional ups and downs. Teenagers develop physically and emotionally sometimes more quickly than even they can keep up with. As one author aptly describes: "Adolescents are at once impossible to live with and a joy to have around. They are moody, critical, combative, and absent-minded...also creative, energetic, and impassioned about the world and their place in it" (Levy-Warren, 1996). This tumult is not only related to adolescents' changing hormone levels, but also to the challenging developmental tasks that they face, and the accompanying complex psychological processes that they experience.

Adolescents face two intertwined developmental tasks as they transition from childhood to adulthood: identity development and separation from the family. All teenagers naturally struggle with the complex psychological development that accompanies these maturational tasks as they ask themselves: "Who am I?" "Am I ready to leave home and be my own person?"

Answering the first question, "Who am I?" is a life long process of self discovery that is intensified during adolescence. Teenagers naturally transition from turning to their families for their identity to their peers. Identifying with peers is an essential and healthy part of development. Adolescents begin to define themselves - what they like to do for fun, what music they like, what people they enjoy spending time with, how they dress, what they're "about" - by their friends' lifestyles and choices, rather than their parents. Cliques often become more salient during adolescence as teens struggle to find "where they fit in." Often these attempts to fit into a group lead to extreme and rigid ideas about what people "should and shouldn't be like." This rigidity typically loosens with age, but teenagers rely on it initially because they often feel very lost and uncertain about who they are and where they fit in.

At times, this process can be painful for parents to watch, as their son or daughter transition from being "their little boy or girl" to a teen they sometimes barely recognize. Additionally, in their efforts to discover who they are, teens struggle with how alike or dissimilar they are to their parents. They may become oppositional and reject their parents' ideals, interests, and lifestyle, which they previously endorsed wholeheartedly. This can feel like a rejection to parents, who had formerly enjoyed shared activities and interests with their children. However, it is important to keep in mind that this rejection is not personal to the parents, although it may sometimes feel that way. It is a natural part of children discovering their own identity. It may be helpful to remember that underneath the often rebellious and rejecting front, teenagers usually feel anxious and self conscious about who they are and what kind of adult they will become, and they still care a great deal about their parents' opinions.

The other central developmental task in adolescence is the process of separating from the family, both psychologically and often physically as well. "Separation" in the psychological sense is intertwined with the process of identity development; it is answering the questions described above: "Who am I, and how am I different/alike from my parents?" It also involves adolescents' struggle with wanting to be independent and care for themselves, and their fear that they will be unable to do so. Although teenagers usually work hard to hide their insecurities, internally they question if they will "really be ok" on their own. They also unconsciously wonder if their parents will "be ok" when they leave home.

Adolescents' struggle with separating is reflected in their insistence on being "independent" and "being treated like an adult," while often acting in ways that do not reflect adult capacities or responsibility. The adolescent-parent push/pull struggle mirrors a common toddler-parent interaction, where the toddler simultaneously wants to "do it myself" but also clamors for the parent's help. Similar to the adolescent, the toddler is struggling with his or her first steps towards independence. In the same way that toddlers need limits to feel safe, teenagers need their parents to consistently enforce developmentally appropriate limits. Also similar to toddlers, teenagers will often continue to push against these limits and challenge their parents' consistency and commitment. Although they usually outwardly become angry when these limits are enforced, teenagers are unconsciously relieved that their parents are reliable because they need to depend on their parents during their periods of adolescent uncertainty.

Separation is also a physical act, in the case of older teens leaving for college or leaving the house to marry and start their own family. In many ways, separating psychologically is facilitated by attending and residing at a college. College's structured living environment with some adult supervision and moderate financial responsibility creates a transitional space between living with parents and living on one's own that gradually allows teens to grow into independent young adults. Teens who do not choose to or do not have the opportunity to attend college must take a more drastic step from dependence and independence without the transitional support of college. Adolescents and young adults who remain in their parents' homes as they mature face the challenge of separating psychologically without the help of physical separation that leaving home provides.

In summary, adolescence is an exciting but challenging life phase in which individuals transition from being children to adults in a short span of time. As adolescents make this transition, they tackle the two important developmental tasks of identity formation and separation from the family that will continue to challenge them as they mature into adulthood. Discovering one's identity and figuring out how to relate to one's family as an adult plays important roles in shaping personality, relationships, and lifestyle choices. As these developmental tasks can be challenging at best, adolescents and their parents are encouraged to seek counseling when needed to help them navigate through the tumultuous waters of adolescence. Therapists can help parents and teenagers understand the difficulties and the rewards of adolescent developmental processes, and therapy can provide teenagers with a safe place independent from their families to explore their identity development and their complicated feelings about leaving home.