Common Concerns About Adolescent Emotional DevelopmentParents
This article was contributed by Anisha Abraham, M.D. of the University of Amsterdam.
Adolescent Emotional Development: What’s Normal?
Many parents want to know whether their teens’ emotional development is normal. Some worry if it’s too fast or not fast enough. Other parents worry about possible drug use, increased stress, anxiety, or depression. All teenagers (and adults!!) can have a range of emotions and can sometimes be moody. We must understand that teens have a rapidly changing range of emotions. Most of these highs and lows are normal and a result of the way their brains are developing. But as parents, we need to learn to recognize what’s normal and when emotional concerns should be addressed.
In our piece on supporting healthy adolescent emotional development, we explain how teens typically mature when it comes to their emotions. Here, we share some common concerns that we hear from parents, and how to address them.
Physical Development is too Fast or too Slow
Progressing through puberty too fast or too slow can affect emotional development. Teens that develop earlier or later than their peers may experience more teasing or bullying and might engage in risky sexual activities. They may struggle with body image or self-esteem. Everybody questions their bodies at some point, but if your teen is seemingly obsessive or having trouble coping with their appearance consider seeking professional help. Also, guide them to recognize bullying and how to effectively address it.
Romantic Relationships and Attractions
It’s part of the teen experience to express sexuality and begin showing interest in having a romantic relationship. From a first crush to a first break-up, parents are often concerned about the emotional toll relationships may take, as well as potential physical risks. It’s normal for teens to feel attractions and to experience the range of emotions that come with them. Discussing healthy relationships, consent, and what’s appropriate and what’s not are all important topics for parents to address.
We can support teens to navigate sexual and romantic relationships in a positive way. If we suspect or witness our teens’ involvement in relationships that may be emotionally or physically abusive, we must step in and reach out for professional help. For example, it could be cause for concern if one member of a relationship becomes jealous or possessive. Do they want to prevent the other from hanging out with friends? Try to control the other’s spare time? Insist on having access to the other’s phone? Don’t be afraid to ask questions to effectively determine if and when you need to get involved.
Problems Expressing Emotions
Teens may be facing issues that they may not want to discuss with us. The need for privacy, combined with the need for independence, may cause some teens to appear distant and uncommunicative at times. If we push too hard, they might pull further away. If we give too much space, we may worry that they will drift away. We must learn to strike a balance by offering privacy, love, and support as they deal with different issues and situations.
Be the kind of parent teens choose to talk to by being a good listener, not reacting or judging, and supporting them to solve their own problems. Also, be mindful of the time and place we choose to have important conversations in order to set the tone for a calm, comfortable and private discussion. Perhaps your teen is more comfortable talking to someone other than you depending on the situation. Let them know it’s ok to talk it out with someone else they trust.
The Emotional Toll of Stress
Teens face a lot of pressures. They may range from school to peers, to managing new responsibilities. Some stress is expected, even normal. Parents must equip teens with a range of healthy coping strategies to effectively solve problems, stay healthy, and manage emotions. We must model how to effectively manage stress in positive ways. Be mindful that many of the negative behaviors our teens engage in are done so in an attempt to manage their stress. Sometimes stress can feel overwhelming. We must empower our teens to reach out if they feel unable to handle the level of stress they face.
Supporting Positive Emotional Development in Teens
Parents play an important role in supporting teens as they develop emotionally. Here are some tips for making this time of emotional growth a positive experience!
Be a Role Model
Use every opportunity to be a healthy and mature role model for teens. Make it ok to share and express feelings in the home.
Encourage teens to think about their unique strengths -- those qualities that are not related to their appearance. Suggest activities that foster positive self-esteem including sports, the arts, or community service efforts.
Encourage teens to face emotions, solve emotional problems, and bounce back from missteps. Don’t minimize what they are feeling. Try to understand and empathize.
Stay Steady and Calm
Good decision-making requires a sense of calm. Help teens understand that we all have difficulty making decision while emotional. Encourage them to take a time-out and regroup.
The Parents’ Role
Adolescence can be an emotional journey with plenty of challenges to face along the way. Some moodiness is common. Heightened emotions are expected. Parents’ unwavering presence is always the most protective force in their children’s lives. But in moments of unsteadiness, parental love and consistency is the foundation of security.
When Concerns are More Than We Can Handle
There may be times when it’s not easy to be sure whether your teens are going through normal growing pains or if it’s something more. But it’s important to trust your instincts as you know your teen best. If you sense there is a real problem or if your teens’ feelings seem extreme or ongoing despite efforts to address them, don’t be afraid to seek out help from a professional. Remember you are not alone! Direct teens to health providers, school counselors, or mental health professionals for support. Let your teens know they deserve to feel healthy both physically and emotionally.