Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD
Many adults are quick to hate on teens. A quick search of “teens are the worst” reveals 38 million results, the first of which is an article in The New Yorker. It’s true that teens—particularly pre-teens—can be difficult to teach or parent, but instead of demonizing them, 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.
Hormones in overdrive: Hormonal changes are the flagstone of puberty, and they can have a huge impact on teen brains and moods. The most even-keeled adult can become an emotional wreck if they’re forced to take too many hormones, while undergoing fertility treatment, for example. For teens, who are also coping with many other transitions, this can be extremely challenging. Under these circumstances, a little moodiness is forgivable.
Changing bodies: During puberty, bodies change at a rapid pace. As a result, tweens and teens are hyper-aware of their appearance, especially in relation to their peers. A girl who develops breasts too early or too late, or a boy whose mustache won’t grow in, can be shamed or ostracized. Beyond the significant social impact, during puberty, teens will have hair in new places, hear their voices sound different, and perhaps start to menstruate regularly. These changes alone are overwhelming.
Transitions at school: Tweens are making the leap from elementary school—with one teacher, who structures the day, knows all 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 accustomed to doing well in the 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 cause frustration and irritability as teens adjust.
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 start feel rejected, or sometimes concerned that their children are being too influenced by their friends. This tension at home can cause even more stress for teens who are yearning for independence, and trying to find their own individuality.
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 are quick to judge them as “the worst.” Take a moment to take a deep breath, remember the many transitions teens are navigating, your own life as an adolescent, and you will begin to find an appreciation for the highs and lows of teenagers’ emotional development and growth.
Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. 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.