Understanding Sudden Changes

Three adolescents staring at camera with their arms folded, looking defiant

While you might expect your young adolescent to come to you for aid and comfort or to take cover from the daily shellings at school, the opposite may take place. The budding (or broiling) urge for independence, combined with mood swings, extreme self-consciousness and intolerance for anything that strikes them as "stupid" or "lame," may begin to drive an alarming wedge into your relationship.

This is the age at which kids may decide that their parents are hopelessly naive, out of touch with reality, or terribly short on intelligence. Your adolescent may avoid sitting with you at church. You may hear criticism of your clothes, musical tastes and opinions. And don't even think about wearing that slightly weird hat or doing something a little unusual (such as humming your favorite tune a little too loud) in a public place — especially the mall. You may be strongly rebuked for this "embarrassing" display, especially if (heaven forbid) someone she remotely knows might possibly see it. Her concern, of course, will not be for your reputation but hers.

This apparent detachment from you and the family may extend to cutting other moorings to the past. One day your son may suddenly pack up his action figures, shove his baseball cards into a drawer and insist that you replace the race-car wallpaper that was painstakingly installed in his bedroom just a few years ago. Your daughter's dolls and figurines may suffer a similar fate. Some adolescents also choose this time to abandon cute childhood nicknames in favor of more grownup-sounding names. Don't be alarmed, and certainly don't smirk or ridicule, if you are told one day that Suzie wants to be called Susan or that Skipper is now Jonathan. Such sudden announcements that childhood is over may catch you off guard, provoking a lump in your throat or even a few tears. But welcome the transition as best you can.

During this period, early adolescents typically form and maintain strong same-sex friendships, even as interest in members of the opposite sex is growing more intense. Infatuations and crushes are to be expected, but intense romances and dating are not good at this age for a number of reasons.

Friends and peers can play a major role in reinforcing or undermining the values that matter to you. You may become frustrated by the fact that a classmate's half-baked opinions seem to matter more than all the common sense you've imparted over the years. But choose wisely if you decide to intervene because the more you complain about her newfound friends, the more vigorously she may defend them. Some streetwise vigilance, ongoing prayer and evenhanded but candid conversations about who's hot and who's not on the current friendship list (and why) should be regular agenda items for your busy week.

While the value of your parental stock may seem to be falling by the hour, you may be surprised (and perhaps a little hurt) to see your adolescent form a powerful attachment to another adult. A teacher, choir director, favorite aunt, coach or youth leader can become the object of intense admiration and attention. This common turn of events can be a blessing if the object of this affection is an ally who shares your values and goals and who moves her in positive directions. But someone with a less constructive agenda can have a significant negative impact.

Throughout the adolescent years, a number of important developmental tasks are under way. We'll look at these throughout the rest of the articles in this series.

The task of achieving independence from parents

With rare exception, adolescents develop a powerful drive to become independent, to be in charge of their daily affairs and their future. As a result, bucking the limits, challenging authority and resisting constraints imposed at home and at school are pretty much par for the course. Just as in the first adolescence of toddler days, the extent of willfulness and the lack of good judgment can at times be spectacular. And while it may sometimes seem outrageous, some degree of struggling against parental control is a normal and necessary part of growing up.

Your job in helping your adolescent complete this task is to release your grip in a controlled and reasonable manner. You still have the right and responsibility to make house rules. But when you impose (and defend) them, you need to do so calmly and respectfully. "Because I'm the Mom, that's why!" may have worked with your two-year-old, but it will rarely be appropriate anymore. Few things exasperate and discourage a teenager more than being treated like an immature child, even if it may seem appropriate (to you) at the time.

Even more important is linking your adolescent's blossoming independence to the realities and responsibilities of adult life. He will need hundreds of age-appropriate reality checks before he leaves your nest, and you are in the best position to provide them.

Adapted from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1999, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: Body Changes and Self-Care