I counsel a lot of adolescents and teenagers and I cannot tell you how often I hear from parents that they have no idea who their teenager has become. One day they were the sweetest angel and then suddenly they are a completely different person. You are not alone!
The teenage years can be full of change and sometimes chaos. Teens in military families face additional challenges that can be different from their peers. Understanding teenage social development and cognitive development can be helpful in communicating with and supporting your teenager.
Developmentally, identity exploration, asserting independence and thinking mainly about oneself (egocentrism) become overarching themes in the teenage years. According to Dr. Rina Lazebnik, MD, this could look like:
- Struggling with their identity — for instance, obsessing over their appearance
- Feeling awkward about their changing bodies
- Switching between being overconfident and having poor self-esteem
- Following friends’ examples in clothing and activities
- Finding fault with their parents
- Reverting to childish behavior, such as slamming doors and crying
Cognitively, a teenager’s brain is significantly different from an adult’s brain. The prefrontal cortex (I call this the computer brain) is our seat of reason and allows us to think about short- and long-term consequences. This is not fully developed until about the age of 25. Let that sink in for a second. The amygdala (what I call puppy brain) is controlled by emotion. In teens, these two areas of the brain are growing but not at the same rate. Usually, teens are primarily thinking with their puppy brain — their emotions. What does this mean? Teens DO NOT excel when it comes to good judgement. Teens do not think as much as they feel. This is important to remember in the context of military challenges like family separations, new responsibilities, frequent moves, grief and loss.
Stress is a pretty normal part of adolescence and life in general. But sometimes it’s a little more serious than that. It can become chronic or lead to emotional problems if not addressed soon enough. If you’re concerned about your teenager’s emotional or physical well-being, you can get help immediately from a professional such as your pediatrician or a counselor. You can also get free confidential, non-medical counseling through Military OneSource or military and family life counselors:
- Call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 and ask about the Building Healthy Relationships specialty consultation.
- Contact military and family life counselors. Find them through your installation’s Military and Family Support Center.
- Get support by talking with your unit’s chaplain. Find contact information locally through your Military and Family Support Center.
- If you feel as though your teen is in crisis, you can contact the Military Crisis Line 24 hours a day at 988 and press 1. You can also start a conversation via online chat or text 838255.
You can’t protect your kids from stress or manage it for them, but you can help them learn ways to handle it. Your teenager needs your help identifying sources of stress and figuring out how to reduce it. If you learn to develop a subtle, nonjudgmental and genuine approach, you can be one of your teen’s most important stress-management resources.