When people discover that I am a doctor for teenagers, they frequently look at me with disbelief. How could I willingly spend my entire day in the company of teenagers? Easily — because with teenagers, there’s never a dull moment.
Adolescence comes from the Latin word, adolescere, meaning “to grow up.” There is no single pathway for every adolescent. The road may be bumpy or smooth. Each path is unique to a culture, family, and individual. Yet, all adolescents work on certain tasks — and, like the “3 Rs,” they are required!
Here are a few examples of these tasks, along with some good and not so good ways that today’s teenagers (and their parents) are handling them.
Shift to independence
- Good: Disagreements can be healthy. While parents often find arguing with their teens stressful, verbal disagreements help adolescents gain independence from their parents. Warning: occasional rudeness may occur! And I don’t mean just from the kids.
- Not so good: When all that parents and kids do together is argue, no one grows; when they go to the other extreme, no one grows either. Parents should stay involved with their teenagers even though avoiding conflict may seem like the easier path. They need to know where their teens are, whom they are with, and what messages they may be sending around the globe on the internet. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to make sure: Teens spend no more than two hours online per day; get at least nine hours of sleep per night; get at least one hour of exercise per day; and eat at least one meal per day with their family.
Dressing and acting like their peers
- Good: Teenagers need to feel like they fit in with their friends. Wearing flip flops or distressed jeans may not seem like “fashion” to us, but clothes like these are usually harmless and let your teenagers feel like they belong.
- Not so good: Girls whose hemlines are ultra-high and boys whose pants are ultra-low may attract the wrong kind of attention even though these outfits may be the fashion. Parents need to explain the mixed messages that wearing these clothes may send. It might be even better if they hear it from other teens.
Developing body image
- Good: Teenagers’ bodies are changing constantly, and it is normal for them to feel self-conscious — as if they are in front of an imaginary audience. This is one reason why teens need some privacy: time “off-stage” lets them come to terms with their new body image.
- Not so good: Is thin too “in”? A Medical College of Wisconsin study found that most female high school athletes (78 percent) — and many less active girls (65 percent) — have one or more parts of the “female athlete triad”: poor eating habits, irregular menstruation, and decreased bone density.
Establishing their identity
- Good: Teens need to develop their identity along with their cognitive skills. They experience a greater range of feelings, including compassion, and start to realize what it means to be a true friend. They also develop values — including some you may recognize as your own!
- Not so good: Teens may believe in the personal fable: that they are immune to harm. So while they are figuring out who they are, they may be taking serious risks. We need to talk with both boys and girls about substance abuse, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
As the mother of an early, middle, and late adolescent, I’m living through the tasks of adolescence as I write this! Here are a few suggestions we might use to help our teens as they figure out “what’s it all about:”
- Let them win a few arguments — it helps them gain independence.
- Set limits about sleep, screen time, exercise, and meals.
- Let them dress in style, within limits; they should understand the attention it may attract.
- Give them the space to separate from you as they need to, but be there when they come back!
Rima Himelstein, M.D., is a Crozer-Keystone Health System pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist.