By Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD
Many adults are quick to hate on teens. A quick search of “teens are the worst” reveals 89 million results, the first of which is an article in The New Yorker called “The Terrible Teens.” Adults hate on teens for everything from being rude or unfocused to participating in weird crazes to standing up for their rights and working to make a change in the world.
The truth is that teens do some pretty amazing things, and are often courageously resilient through the many challenges of adolescence. It can be true, however, that teens—particularly pre-teens—can be difficult to teach or parent. But demonizing them doesn’t help. Instead, let’s try to understand what’s going on.
I work with teens in a mental health setting every single day, and I think they’re amazing. If others took a chance to understand all they’re going through, I think everyone would agree with me. Here are just a few of the many changes and challenges teens are dealing with.
1. Hormones in overdrive
Hormonal changes are the flagstone of puberty, and they can have a huge impact on teen brains and moods. Even the most even-keeled adult can become an emotional wreck when they take hormones—for example, while undergoing fertility treatment. For teens, who are also coping with many other transitions, dealing with the “hormone monster” can be extremely challenging. Under these circumstances, a little moodiness is completely understandable.
2. Changing bodies
During puberty, teens may feel like their bodies have changed overnight. Hair will grow in new places, their voices will change, and they may start to get their periods. In addition to dealing with the changes themselves—which can feel overwhelming—tweens and teens are hyper-aware of their appearance, and constantly comparing themselves to their peers. If they develop breasts too early or too late, or their facial hair just isn’t growing in, they may feel especially self-conscious, or even be shamed or ostracized.
3. Transitions at school
Tweens are making the leap from elementary school—with one teacher, who structures the day, knows all the students well, and manages all of the homework via a homework packet—to middle school, with multiple classes, competing homework priorities, and teachers who have to remember 120 students instead of 25. Many tweens, who are used to a smaller, more structured environment, see their grades plummet without the extra supports. This is a tough transition, a dive into the deep end—and it can make teens frustrated and irritable as they adjust.
4. Emotional development
Tweens start to rely more on their friends and less on their parents. While this is a normal and important part of development, many parents feel rejected, or sometimes concerned that their children are being too influenced by their friends. This tension at home can create stress for teens, who are experimenting with independence and exploring their own unique identity.
Tweens and young teens may have a reputation for being moody and difficult. It is important to remember the many difficult changes they are dealing with before we judge them as “the worst.” If a teen’s behavior is stressing you out, take a deep breath. Remember the many transitions they’re navigating. Think about how you felt when you were their age. Soon, I hope you will begin to appreciate teenagers’ emotional development and growth as much as I do.
A version of this post was originally published in June, 2016.
Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She holds a doctorate in clinical child psychology from Pace University, as well as an MA in psychology and a MSEd in School Psychology. As a first generation Colombian-American Dr. Olszewski is passionate about Latino mental health and maintains a commitment to research and meeting the clinical needs of underserved children and their families.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.