Developmental Landmarks and Parenting During Adolescence (page 2)
Developmental Landmarks of Adolescence
Two changes distinguish a child’s development during adolescence from previous stages. The first is characterized by rapid physical and psychological change. Adolescence is a period of metamorphosis in an individual’s life involving dramatic changes in body proportions, physical size, sexual maturation, and personality shifts. The second change involves individual emancipation. Western culture emphasizes the teenage years as the appropriate time for establishing one’s independence as a mature person and assuming full responsibility for oneself. The specific developmental tasks and milestones that individuals encounter in adolescence focus on acquiring and refining more advanced skills, abilities, and attitudes that lead toward preparation for adulthood.
Many parents anticipate that when a child reaches adolescence, it is like going to war since this stage of the life span is associated with rebellion, tension, conflict, and emotional turmoil. In reality, this depiction is not far from the truth since adolescence is a difficult time both for children and parents. While some teenagers reach the outer limits in their behavior and attitude, however, most adolescents do not act out and the stereotypes described here do not normally apply.
Parenting styles and behaviors must adapt once again to meet the needs of a different child. And once again, the adaptation often is not initiated by the parents but rather by the adolescent who may demand to be treated differently now that he or she is older. Meeting the developmental needs of a child who is attempting to become autonomous and eventually to individuate from the family system presents challenges not found in previous periods of parenting children. Most parents understand that adolescents continue to need guidance, rules, and support in this process of growing toward maturity.
Family professionals stress that one of the more difficult challenges of parenting adolescents is the fine line parents walk between being supportive of a teen’s efforts to individuate and maintaining certain limits and boundaries for appropriate behavior (Gnaulati & Heine, 2001). Adolescents need experience in making personal decisions, but sometimes these decisions can have traumatic consequences. Family systems become unhealthy when there is a demand for complete uniformity and conformity among all members, when everyone is expected to adhere to the same beliefs, values, and behaviors. Although parents and adolescents must agree on rules and other family patterns, this agreement occurs ideally through negotiation and input from all concerned. When no latitude is permitted for individual expression and differences are not tolerated, a family system becomes endangered in its ability to function in a healthy way. This approach may have been appropriate at earlier stages of the family life career as a reflection of the developmental limits and inabilities of children to participate fully in family life and decisions; however, it becomes less appropriate as children reach the adolescent years.
Revised Parenting Styles
A common misconception of many parents is that a particular style of child rearing does not change once it is established; they assume they will use the same style throughout the years of child rearing. In reality, children’s changing developmental progress affects changes in parenting styles throughout childhood and adolescence. Most parents make adaptations in child-rearing strategies, methods, and interaction styles to meet the particular needs of adolescents. Because of the different developmental status of adolescents, parents must shift to accommodate these needs by altering their parenting style to become more authoritative, less authoritarian, and eventually more permissive in nature.
Parenting during this stage is particularly challenging for a variety of reasons (Santrock, 2004). Adults must discover ways to help teens learn to make decisions that minimize potential harm to themselves and others. Communication between parents and teens requires patience and effort to achieve effective functioning of this family system microenvironment. A unique challenge is adjusting the relationship to allow an adolescent to individuate from the family system. By doing so, adults must gradually relinquish control and place increasing amounts of personal responsibility on teens to become self-regulated.
Research consistently shows that adolescent-parent relations are best when decisions are perceived by both as being consistent and collaborative, the needs of all family members are respected, and decisions are seen as fair and reasonable as opposed to arbitrary (Steinberg & Silk, 2002). As in previous stages of parenting children, the authoritative parenting style continues to be associated with positive adolescent outcomes.
Meeting the Needs of Adolescents Health and Safety Issues.
Adolescence and young adulthood are perhaps the time in one’s life span when health and well-being are at their peak. However, health and safety issues occurring during these times often have a significant impact in the present as well as in the future.
Adolescents should begin having an annual visit with a health care professional for screening for a variety of health issues. These visits also allow for confidential discussions of issues of a personal nature that a health care professional can address. Health care professionals can also bring other issues up for discussion with the teenager relating to health, exercise, and sexual matters. Other situations involving the health and well-being of teens call for monitoring by parents and other family members.
Parents and other members of society are extremely concerned about adolescent use of drugs and chemical substances. Estimates vary considerably about the extensiveness of drug use among teenagers. Indications are that adolescent drug abuse remains stable in comparison with past years in which information has been gathered (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2003). Despite this decline, one high school student out of four uses marijuana, and two out of three use alcohol regularly.
Despite the influences of the media and peers, adolescents who have been reared by parents who rely on an authoritative style appear to have stronger internalized standards that help to insulate them from pressures to abuse substances (Collins et al., 2000). Teens who apparently care what parents think about such matters (e.g., parents who disapprove of smoking and/or drinking) are less likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use other drugs.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death, following fatal accidental injuries and death from firearms, among individuals between 15 and 21 years old (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003). Contemporary teenagers increasingly complete suicide successfully; the rate has more than tripled within the last 30 years (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2003). While suicide occurs more commonly among white youth, no ethnic group is spared this phenomenon among adolescents. Most adolescents attempting suicide are female, although males are more likely to succeed in completing the act (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003).
It is not completely clear why some adolescents want to commit suicide, particularly at a time when, for many people, their lives are just beginning. Suicide may be related to a variety of issues (Groleger, Tomori, & Kocmur, 2003). Many teenagers who contemplate suicide and attempt to end their lives are emotionally depressed. Depression distorts a person’s ability to reason logically and clearly to reach solutions to personal problems. Living situations frequently seem hopeless to people who are emotionally depressed, and suicide appears to be the only solution to their life situations. Suicide among adolescents is also related to substance abuse, which is frequently accompanied by depression (Tubman, Wagner, & Langer, 2003).
Many teenagers who attempt and succeed in committing suicide may also be emotionally depressed about their sexual orientation (Savin-Williams & Ream, 2003). Gay and lesbian youths are about six times more likely than nongay youths to attempt suicide; they account for about 30 percent of those who complete suicide successfully. These individuals apparently experience much anguish and inner turmoil because of the social stigmas associated with homosexuality. They choose to commit suicide rather than suffer rejection, disapproval, and shame, reactions they anticipate from family and friends.
Teen Pregnancy and STDs.
There has been a decline in the number of teen pregnancies in recent years (Martin et al., 2003), but the decline has not eliminated this problem. Teen pregnancy continues to be a matter of concern for society, schools, and the adolescents and families who are affected. Teen parents, their child, and their families face many serious short- and long-term consequences.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are a new health concern occurring for the first time in adolescence. These may be transmitted via heterosexual or homosexual acts. The most common types in our society are syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes simplex, venereal warts, and HIV infection and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The high frequency of unprotected sexual behavior and multiple sex partners results in about 3 million new cases of STDs yearly among adolescents (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003).
Providing Structure and Nurturance for Adolescents.
A recurrent theme stressed in this text is that the nature of the relationship between parents and children is renegotiated and redefined as parents respond to the changing developmental needs and demands of developing children.
Much parental reluctance to accept any changes in their children is related to the functioning of the family system. The cohesion of a family system is threatened when any change takes place that affects the system’s functioning. Systems have a strong tendency to seek to maintain the status quo because change in any aspect threatens the system’s integrity. Family systems, in particular, face challenges that call for changes. When a child becomes an adolescent, his or her desire for individuation poses a serious threat to the family’s functioning and its ability to maintain cohesion as a system. The family reacts in ways typical to other stressful situations it confronts.
Parents may seem particularly reluctant to release a teen from the controls, limits, and boundaries that were established in earlier developmental stages. Although many parents realize that this change must take place eventually, the equalization and transfer of power toward greater self-regulation occurs more slowly than most teens prefer.
Nevertheless, researchers have consistently validated the benefits of authoritative parenting styles in mediating positive developmental outcomes for children (Gray & Steinberg, 1999). The benefits for adolescents from this parenting style continue to remain in effect while parents make alterations in response to the individuation process of their teenagers. For example, behavior problems of adolescents appear to be diminished while academic competence can be enhanced when parents maintain what can be termed detached involvement or supervision. This variation on the authoritative parenting scheme relates to the perception adolescents hold of their parents as being involved in their lives while allowing them enough slack from parental supervision to feel autonomous. Parents, in this vein, are still providing structure for adolescents, but the structure is perceived as being fairly administered, yet firm and warm in its tone.
Promoting the Individuation Process.
The experiences of adolescence are a struggle toward the eventual emancipation of a teenager from the family system in which he or she has been raised. The process leading to emancipation, or individuation, is part of the identity formation that is central to adolescent development. Although this process begins in adolescence, it may not be completed until years later in adulthood. Some individuals, however, never completely achieve the degree of emancipation or individuation they truly desire or that is expected by society as an appropriate developmental task. It involves becoming a true individual in that one develops a personal belief system to guide decisions and behaviors, acquires financial independence, and assumes emotional self-care. The process requires questioning and challenging and may account for some of the tension experienced between parents and adolescents.
Often a teen’s advancement toward emancipation includes working at full- or part-time jobs (employment helps adolescents learn work skills that can be applied to future occupations and helps them individuate from their families of origin). Making social decisions (such as choosing friends, dating, or becoming sexually active) also helps a teenager take greater developmental steps toward maturity and personal autonomy.
Helping Teens Handle Puberty.
Puberty is perhaps the central developmental milestone of adolescence. It involves both physical and psychological aspects as part of the identity formation process. In this developmental event a child becomes a sexually mature individual. However, because adolescents are not yet mature emotionally, the feelings that accompany the physical changes of puberty can be confusing, conflicting, and difficult to understand. Many parents are also unsure about how to help their adolescent child handle the various aspects related to puberty. Perhaps the greatest part that a parent can have is maintaining open lines of communication with their maturing child so that issues can be discussed openly and honestly.
Sexual Orientation Issues.
During adolescence, many individuals discover their sexual orientation, which serves as the foundation of sexual identity. Sexual orientation is the self-awareness and knowledge that one is sexually attracted to and directs emotional affection toward people of the same or opposite sex. Those who orient to others of the same sex are known as ho-mosexuals. Those who orient to others of the opposite sex are known as heterosexuals.
There is no clear, definitive explanation of how a person’s sexual orientation is determined (Strong, 2004). Apparently, the foundations for someone’s sexual orientation are influenced by genetic and biological factors interacting with environmental factors that occur beginning prior to birth. The large majority of adolescents are heterosexual. Estimates vary about those having a homosexual orientation. Adolescents who are gay or lesbian commonly experience great difficulty in accepting their homosexuality. Adolescents are sensitive to any behavior or social position in which they might be seen as different from others. Young adolescents are especially fearful of rejection by peers because they interpret such reactions from others as an invalidation of self. Given the deeply ingrained negative societal opinion about homosexuals, most teenagers who discover their homosexual orientation are reluctant to acknowledge it publicly, afraid of risking even further rejection. This reluctance is especially common among boys who are gay.
Many gay and lesbian adolescents react by hiding their homosexuality, which leads to unhealthy and negative outcomes (Hatheway, 2003). Role confusion, rather than a fully integrated personal identity, may begin for these individuals if they fail to incorporate this aspect into their personal identity. Those having difficulty accepting their homosexual orientation typically make strong efforts at denial, trying to pass as heterosexual to avoid social stigmatization and isolation. Unhealthy self-esteem, alienation from others, fear of intimacy, social isolation, and stifled emotional expression are frequently observed during this denial. Gay and lesbian teens usually are not afforded the equivalent types of dating experiences available to nongay teens, which may contribute to those feelings.
Dating and Sexual Activity.
Dating is the first interpersonal social experience that many teens have with heterosexuality. The way in which teens date has changed over the last 30 years. In the past, a boy traditionally approached a girl with a proposal for socializing at his expense. Their behavior was ritualized because both knew what was and was not expected to occur during the date.
Today, heterosexual teens are much more informal in the way they socialize together. Much of this socialization is part of peer group activities rather than between individuals. Interaction is more casual and informal than in the past. For example, teens enjoy hanging out at shopping malls or having small parties where everyone comes together to enjoy the company, meet new people, and have fun. The age at which adolescents begin to date is a significant predictor of the age at which sexual activity also begins (Steinberg, 2004). Both activities are initiated earlier today than they were in the past. The age at which sexual activity begins also varies according to a teen’s ethnic background. For example, black teens tend to experience intercourse for the first time at earlier ages than white teens do (about age 15 to 16 for blacks versus age 18 to 19 for whites). Other predictors of early sexual involvement include opportunity (being in a steady relationship), sexually permissive attitudes, association with delinquent peers, and alcohol use.
While it is unlikely that completely accurate statistics can ever be obtained about the ages at which adolescents first become sexually active, it does appear that this occurs earlier among more adolescents than previously (Bernstein, 2004). However, use of condoms and other birth control methods is more prevalent than in the past, resulting in fewer teen pregnancies.
Sexual activity places teens at risk for pregnancy as well as exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. Use of contraceptives, especially condoms, is known to reduce this risk considerably. The increased used of condoms may reflect the influence of more effective sex education, especially regarding the transmission of AIDS.
Supporting Sex Education for Teens.
Exploration and experimentation are necessary behavioral components that motivate the identity formation process in adolescence. Many adults are uncomfortable acknowledging that adolescents are curious about their sexuality, particularly because puberty has made them capable of reproduction; it is no longer an abstraction (Steinberg, 2004). Some adults object to school courses that provide teenagers with explicit sexual information. They may object for several reasons: (1) fear that sexual information will stimulate experimentation with sexual activities, (2) concern about moral issues, (3) fear that teens will be taught values that differ from those of their family system, (4) lack of parental control over what is taught, or (5) fear that schools will undermine parental authority. Most adults favor sex education in schools, however, and only a few appear to prohibit their teenage children from participation (Bellows, 2004).
Compounding the issue of the need for sex education is the fact that teens do not think logically about hypothetical issues in general (Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 2001). Sexual decision making involves some of the many different kinds of skills that teens must acquire in their identity formation process. They may obtain much information in sex education courses; however, it is unclear how teens use this information in making sexual decisions that affect their behavior. Some adults fear that if teens are given information about sexual behavior or methods of birth control, they will become more curious, which may lead to sexual activity. But this response does not appear to be the case. Exposure to sexual information may have the effect of delaying the age at which adolescents begin to experiment sexually rather than stimulating it (McKay et al., 2001).
One of the most important contributions parents can make to their teen’s exposure to sexual information is providing them with the skills to make healthy sexual decisions. For some parents, this means helping their teen to understand the desire for sexual abstinence. For others, it means being sure that their adolescent understands the principles but most especially the importance of safer sex practices. Each family system will need to determine how it will approach and deal with this aspect of an adolescent child’s identity development and act accordingly. Many will want to take advantage of the opportunities provided by most school systems today for professionally guided educational experiences for their teens, while others will seek strict control over the information that is presented and in a particular context.
Equally important is the balancing of information that is strictly factual with that which addresses the emotional aspects of sexuality. Teens need support as they explore their first romantic encounters and preparation for all that this entails as best as is possible. For many parents, this experience is a reminder of what they encountered as adolescents. However, when most contemporary parents were teenagers, sexually transmitted diseases were not fatal and teen pregnancy was less acceptable than today. In this regard, many parents of contemporary adolescents need updating on sexual information to discuss these issues with their adolescent children.
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