“Youth is not a time of life – it is a state of mind. It is not a matter of red cheeks, red lips and supple knees. It is a temper of the will; a quality of the imagination; vigor (sic.) of the emotions; it is a freshness of the deep springs of life.” (Samuel Ullman)

Understanding the Situation

What is a ‘problem adolescent’ and what is coping? What impact could change have on the parent-child relationship when the child reaches puberty? Let’s explore and see if you can recognise the situation faced by many parents as we progress. Firstly though, one of the difficulties in calling or labelling someone a problem is that the focus of energy is often on and around the problem itself and not on or around the other significant aspects of life that are not problems.

Humans are not walking problems but have lots of wonderful qualities, strengths and resources or at least the potential for many of them even in the most adverse of environments. These qualities reflect the positive aspects of wellness, sometimes referred to in the health literature as protective factors (against illness, injury, disorder or disease which are the negative aspects of wellness) or resilience factors (Dadds, Seinen, Roth & Harnett, 2000, 25-26).

Wellness is not just an individual biological thing either – we can also have emotional, spiritual, social and environmental wellness of a group, family or a community. There needs to be a continual balance between negative and positive aspects of wellness for people to have some degree of satisfaction in their lives.

Ullman provided a view of youth that acknowledges the positive qualities and potential of youth – the passion and the excitement of opportunities and understandings that are often sadly diminished or mellowed in later adult life. Ullman extends the concept of youth beyond the age of adolescence so that we can all share the youthful vigour of life and it is important for parents not to forget that adulthood is also a state of mind and a consequence of our culture.

We must understand both concepts (youth and adulthood) for what they are meant to represent, including their positive and negative aspects if we are ever to deal with coping with ‘problem’ adolescents. Yes we must also acknowledge that there are some darker sides to youth cultures (just as there are in adults), including in recent times: misuse of substances including alcohol and elicit drugs; risky and aggressive behaviours; and self-harm and suicide especially amongst males and in rural and remote communities. We must also acknowledge however, that adults have just as many problems and issues and that adulthood is not immune from criticism.

Youth may see authoritarian power and control by adults over their lives as unfair and limiting of creative expression and rebel or feel overpowered and vulnerable. Adults do have power and are often in much more powerful social positions in contrast to their children, although some parents may argue the opposite. In reality there are many positives of youth and sometimes people just cannot or don’t want to see or value them – like having blinkers on and ignoring their importance in life (‘cannot see the trees for the forest’).

Another difficulty in calling someone a problem is that this is based upon a set of values typically bound up in personal, group and societal attitudes and beliefs of the time. Interpretations can therefore be highly value laden so some caution is required in order to remain objective. For example, a dominant or dominating family, group or community culture where a degree of intolerance, insensitivity to difference and enactments of power and social control exist can lead to labelling, stereotyping and stigma of all adolescents who think differently to them. This situation can easily become unfair and discriminatory.

As the early 1960’s pop song goes: ‘Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way, Oh what’s the matter with kids today?’ reflects the thoughts of many parents, grandparents in the past and probably in the present. The generation gap has and continues to receive lots of press in recent years as the popular tabloid and television media loosely identify differing needs, wants and expectations of different generations such as the Baby Boomer generation, the ‘Me’ generation, Generation X or Y and so on. To what extent this is media hype and stereotyping as distinct from a pattern that can be validated is uncertain, although there is a growing body of literature in this area.

People who are labelled as ‘problems’ can also feel marginalised (not feeling a valued part of a community or peer group) and may react with hostility, agitation or alternatively with despair, anxiety and helpless passivity or even both and this could lead to mental disorders, illness, abuse, violence and even incarceration if one is out of step with the norms of adult society. Again we should tread cautiously here, because overly pathologising or medicalising youth traits and characteristics unnecessarily, may curtail an adolescent’s creativity and endeavour for the future, especially if labels given to people are wrong or not valid or not based on valid medical evidence.

For example, the rise of medical conditions such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) in children and adolescents along with the advent and widespread use of new pharmaceutical drugs to help treat them in recent decades in western cultures has been a cause of concern to many social and medical researchers and commentators. This is not to say that these conditions do not exist, but there are issues being raised in the literature and in some creditable media about the commoditisation of illness in our society, and the notion of a quick drug fix to solve complex emotional and social developmental problems and issues.

It has been acknowledged in the literature that not all difficult, disruptive or unruly behaviour of a child or adolescent can be balance sheeted back to some medical pathology, but may relate instead to the demands, problems or challenges of our modern lifestyles and social inequity. Social problems may in fact lead to so-called medical or mental health problems. Underlying causal problems may include:

  1. pressures of time and commitment to the family;
  2. parent work priorities and finances;
  3. lack of knowledge and skills in parenting;
  4. lack of support from family, welfare organisations and significant others;
  5. socio-economic disadvantage – According to Tunmore (cited in Regel and Roberts, 2002, 72) ‘children in the poorest households – three time more likely to have mental health problems than children in well-off households;
  6. bullying and domestic violence – According to Tunmore (cited in Regel and Roberts, 2002, 72), people who have been abused or been victims of domestic violence have higher rates of mental health problems;
  7. divorce and separation of parents;
  8. households in which alcohol and drug misuse is common;
  9. households in which other risky behaviour is present – sexual abuse, extreme religious fundamentalism and so on;
  10. the impact of sensationalising popular media, advertising and so on, on parents and children – especially on early adolescent children who are developing their world views.

We know that some parents of adolescent people (including sole parents) are confronted with difficult challenges (most are what could be described as bumps rather than crashes) during this period of life but in reality this perception has changed little throughout the known history of humanity. In Homer’s Ancient Greece, adults complained of youth, with Homer (in Weber’s Pocket Quotation Dictionary, 1998, 313) stating:

‘Thou know’st the o’er-eager vehemence of youth, How quick in temper, and in judgement weak.’

What is different is our modern or post-modern world. Amongst other things, the concept of ‘family’ may have a significantly different meaning to that of previous generations of people throughout history (O’Connor, Wilson & Setterlund, 2003, 45-47).

The so-called nuclear family, separated or divorced family, sole parent family, stepfamily, same sex couple family and so on demonstrate a diversity of ways in which children may experience what a family is and means. The extended families (generations of family members living together) of many previous generations and cultures are often seen by the general public, media, employer groups and politicians as incompatible with the modern economic rationalist world, work interests, employment mobility and productive activity, although clearly some extended families continue to exist successfully in various cultural groups within Australia in cities and rural areas.

Some families can also be characterised as high income or low income families. Some families may have adopted effective ways of communicating and interacting with each other whilst others are poor at doing this. According to some literature (Rowling, Martin & Walker, 2002, 28): ‘There is much evidence that family relationships hold strong associations with adolescent emotional problems and positive emotional health.’

Parents may have to deal with many challenging pressures that can affect the emotional state of an adolescent child. Such pressures may include:

  1. access to affordable housing or constantly changing homes,
  2. employment and financial worries,
  3. sickness (physical or mental) of family members including children, parents or even grandparents,
  4. prevalence of family drug taking or at-risk family behaviours (e.g., physical, mental or sexual abuse; illegal or antisocial activities),
  5. school and recreational expenses, time and commitment priorities and so on.

Obviously the more of these challenges the greater the stress and the more likely that the child-parent relationship will become strained. In this regard, there are many aspects about ‘problem’ adolescents in our society that relate to factors such as gender, socio-economic status, culture and ethnicity. Some questions are relevant here, including:

  1. What sort of problems do adolescents present to parents in order to deserve the label of ‘problem adolescent’?
  2. How do adolescents feel about being labelled as a ‘problem’?
  3. How do parents feel about their son or daughter being a ‘problem adolescent’?
  4. How does the community feel about ‘problem adolescents’?
  5. What do we need to know therefore about parenting and coping with a ‘problem adolescent’?

Adults should remember that they too were once adolescents. Of course not every adolescent will behave and think the same way and this diversity ensures that humanity has a richness of understandings, abilities, talents and creativity. Nonetheless, we must recognise that significant body changes including brain changes also occur during adolescence and that this is one of the greatest periods of physical, psychological and social transition in a human being’s life.

Puberty generally sees the rise of pubic and underarm hair, of menstrual changes and desire for intimacy in girls, of ‘wet dreams’ and desire for intimacy in boys and with hormones being produced in massive amounts to meet changes in the body and brain.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain for example has not yet developed properly upon which adult emotional, problem-solving and decision-making amongst other functions rely. There may be a marked interest in the opposite sex or for some in the same sex (gay or lesbian) or both (bisexuality) or none at all. This is all a normal part of growing up, but can also be a time of great emotional and social confusion for the child.

Views about body image and shape vary markedly in society, but can be a trying time for a teenager. For a girl the size of her breasts and bra size, the shape of her hips and thighs and the onset of menstruation may be earth shatteringly important. For a boy the onset of pubic hair, the desire for muscular growth and strength and facial hair may also be important in the transition to manhood. Males may be confused about how to impress a girl or what to say to girls. Some males may feel confused, guilty and scared about being attracted to or fantasising about other males. Females may feel unsure or insecure about the intentions of boys or even how to attract boys and how to not get pregnant.

Similarly some girls may also be confused, guilty and scared about being attracted to or fantasising about other girls. Both girls and boys alike may despair with having pimples or not having the ‘right shaped nose or legs or hair colour and be fearful of never having any friends or being liked by a dominant peer group. What may seem to be insignificant issues or problems in the view of parents or adults may be major problems or issues for teenagers.

Some children may go through physical and emotional changes of puberty earlier than others. Their needs and experiences therefore will be quite different to others as they age from say 12 to 17 or even 18 years. The onset of physical and emotional changes of girls tends to occur earlier than in males, although as mentioned there will obviously be differences between child rates of maturational development. For early bloomers, they may feel pressured to take on adult roles or to do adult things before they are mentally and socially developed enough to fully understand the consequences of what they are doing.

Learning about life can have its dangers and pitfalls if one is not yet competent to understand the risks involved in so-called adult activities such as sex, living with a partner, going to clubs or parties where there is alcohol consumption, managing financial issues (especially related to mobile phone and credit card charges) and so on.

The transition from a child to early adulthood is an incredibly complex, worrying and yet exciting time for the adolescent and those around them including family, teachers and others who are affected by the change in the young person’s body image, thinking and behaviours and interactions with people of all ages. Pressures of school, changes in body image, the loss of childhood status, pleasures, beliefs and behaviours, the tensions of new ways of thinking about the world seemingly overwhelming and sometimes full of injustices and lack of humanity towards others or intolerant of youth and so on can all affect self-esteem, self-worth and motivation to learn, to succeed or even live.

Many Indigenous communities have rituals that assist young men and women in coping with the passage from childhood to adulthood. Admittedly some rituals are seen as barbaric by western cultures such as female circumcision (not necessarily undertaken during adolescence but often in childhood), but generally rites of passage are ceremonies to acknowledge a change in status and role in the community towards that of an adult male or female.

Whatever the case may be, effective communication, commitment and understanding is going to be vital in understanding how to cope with teenagers and how best to support and nurture them. So what are the problematic situations faced by parents? We’ll discuss them in the next post.

Follow-Up Posts:

  1. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Common Challenges
  2. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Youth Behaviour
  3. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Building Resilience
  4. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Suicide Prevention
  5. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Eating Disorders
  6. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Ineffective Options
  7. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Aaron’s Case Study
  8. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Marnie’s Case Study
  9. Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Effective Options