Fourteen year old Johnny is driving his parents up a wall. A few years ago he was a pleasant, cooperative child but now he's restless, obstinate, defiant and more interested in spending time with his buddies than his family.
There are three factors that can help us to understand the erratic, fickle, rebellious, sometimes maddening, frustrating and exasperating behavior of the adolescent.
First, adolescence is a time of rapid biological change. The adolescent is growing to his full adult stature and experiencing new and strange impulses that he doesn't yet know how to handle. Hormones are running wild.
Second, adolescence is a transition period between childhood and adulthood. No longer a child, but not yet an adult, the adolescent is caught between the past and the future. Although biologically mature, in that she is capable of sexual reproduction, psychologically and socially she has still not achieved full adult status.
Third, the adolescent is not yet a fully productive member of society. Because of the educational demands of our complex, technical and industrial world, young people have to spend many years acquiring the knowledge and skills they will need to find useful employment.
This has not always been the case. Historically, adolescence is a relatively new phenomenon, having arrived as a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that time, the individual went straight from childhood to adulthood when he was old enough to go to work or to be apprenticed in order to learn a trade.
These three factors add up to one conclusion: the status or identity of the adolescent is quite uncertain and insecure. In contrast to other, less complex societies, we do not have an initiation rite that says to her, Now you are an adult. And it is this uncertainty that accounts for much of her behavior.
If he is restless and full of too much energy, it is because of the biological changes that he is undergoing, and because of his anxiety about his uncertain status.
If she behaves like a mature, responsible adult one day, and a spoiled, immature child the next, it is because she is half-child and half-adult.
If he likes one thing one moment, and another thing the next moment, or if he wants to be one type of person at one time, and another type of person at another time, it is because he really doesn't yet know what he wants or wants to be.
If she is a bit too rebellious, or if she challenges parental values and rules, it is because she is searching for her own principles. Up until adolescence, she has tended to uncritically accept her parent's values but now she is better equipped intellectually to challenge those beliefs and decide upon her own.
Parents of teenagers may take comfort in the fact, however, that most young people eventually return to the values of their parents so that their adolescent rebellion is actually a process of challenge and return to parental views, perhaps with a greater sense of acceptance than would have been the case if such standards had not been challenged.
And if it seems at times that his friends are more important to him than his parents, if it seems that he can talk more easily to his buddies than to Mom and Dad, it is because his friends give him a sense of identity and help him to break away eventually from his parents so that he will be able to function on his own.
This, after all, is on of the major tasks of adolescent: partial emotional and complete financial emancipation from one's parents. Someday, every adolescent has to achieve that emancipation if he is to find her own values, identity, work, and mate. The adult who is still too close to, or dependent upon, her parents may have difficulty establishing a successful marriage or independent living.
And, of course, when that day comes, the loving parent has to be willing to let go.
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