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Adolescence is known as a challenging time for adolescents and the adults who support them. It’s not unusual for adults to feel as if the adolescents in their lives have suddenly “gone crazy” or “lost their minds”. For the adolescent, sometimes it can feel as if they have “gone crazy”.

Fortunately, research has allowed us to gain insight into the adolescent world. Traditionally adolescent behaviour has always been blamed on “raging hormones.” While there are dramatic changes on a hormonal level, the other significant area of change is in the brain. There are major changes in brain development during adolescence. Understanding these changes can assist everyone concerned in navigating the journey of adolescence. Let’s redefine two well- known challenges in adolescence as the “work” or job description of adolescence.
1. Test boundaries.
2. The passion to explore what is unknown and exciting. There are four major changes in the brain which will elaborate on the above “work” of adolescence. The downsides to adolescent characteristics are obvious as they have been the focus for so long so let’s look at the positives…

1. Novelty seeking results from brain circuits which creates an inner drive to try something new and to live life to the full.
Upside: Being open to change and the ability to live passionately. Honing the exploration of novelty can develop into living life with a sense of adventure.
2. Social engagement enhances peer connectedness and new friendships.
Upside: The move to social connectivity leads to the development of supportive relationships. (Research shows that social connection is the best predictor of well-being, longevity and happiness throughout the life span).
3. Increased emotional intensity allows for an enhanced vitality to life.
Upside: Emotional intensity can provide a sense of energy, zest and exuberance for life.
4. Creative exploration allows for the innovation and “out the box” strategies.
Upside: The possibility exists to perceive the world in new ways. The sense of getting in a rut, which is familiar to the adult world, is escaped.

This information may leave some with the simple question of “So what?” By having a clear and simple understanding of the essence of adolescence, we can contribute to the solution of navigating adolescence successfully. If adults attempt to block the flow of adolescence, it is possible that the key to all relationships, communication, will be tainted with tension and disrespect. The key is for the adolescent and the adult (who once was an adolescent) to recognise the changes in the brain and work constructively and collaboratively to keep communication open. The goal is to optimise life for everyone and avoid tragic endings resulting from risky behaviour. There is a natural and necessary push to independence from parents; however, there is still benefit from relationships with adults. The move to adulthood is not towards complete isolation but rather towards interdependence. Not one person functions in complete isolation; we are all based in a community of some kind, connected to others in some degree. Relationships are important. Relationships between adolescents and their friends as well as their parents is vital during this time. This shouldn’t be surprising as we all have varying relationships with different individuals. Our need for close relationships continues throughout our lifetime.

Here are some final thoughts to assist in finding the balance between adolescents’ personal decisions and parental concerns/regulation. Supporting adolescents and allowing them to find their voices versus setting the limits and cautioning them from your years of experience. What would be a possible solution? Structure with empowerment, this is an approach filled with warmth, limit setting and honouring of autonomy in age appropriate ways. Below are some guidelines for engaging in conversation that have structure and empowerment in place.

Structure with empowerment in action:

  • Allow everyone to voice what is going on in their minds – what is each person feeling, thinking,
    hoping for, how we were seeing things and what we are hearing.
  • This allows everyone to understand the other’s intentions and inner world rather than have conversations blow out into outright declarations of war.
  • As parents and adults we can only do the best we can – let’s all try create a secure base to enable families to turn the changes and challenges of adolescence into strengths as we navigate this journey together.

Teens are changing a lot, sometimes they’ll be one way, with one kind of identity and intense feelings and sometimes they’ll be another way, feeling nothing and hardly interacting.

Just let them be who they are at the time, not who you expect they should be.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Siobhan Wood
Educational Psychologist
Adapted from Dr Daniel Siegel: Brainstorm.