You remember adolescence – that gangly time when you fought with your parents, fought with yourself, fought with the establishment, in an effort to gain your independence and find your own unique voice? It was marked with phrases like, “Mom, you are so not with it – look at those pants!” or “Dad, you just don’t get it!” or “My teacher is so stupid – she doesn’t understand us at all!” or perhaps worse…
That period between (back then) 13 and 17 years was deemed the beginning (puberty) and end (high school graduation) of adolescence, after which you were expected to be fully adult, all grown up, no longer a kid, able to take on adult responsibilities like start a family, buy a house, take on a serious job.
Today, due to the influence of media – TV, movies, magazines – kids start puberty much younger, pushed into sexual feelings and emotions they aren’t ready for at a much earlier age, around 11. And new brain science is showing that on MRI scans, the brain of an adolescent does not fully develop until much later – somewhere around 24.
At 17, 18, 19, etc. a teenager’s brain is the same size as an adult’s brain, and teens are physically the same size, but that young brain in far from finished in development. Young adults simply don’t have the full rational powers of adults yet. They just can’t physiologically think like an adult, yet they are expected to function responsibly in adult fashion.
Now that we know that adolescence extends to more than a decade, a parent’s responsibility to parent that child does not end at 18. Your adolescent still needs you for many many more years. I would illustrate this extended adolescence with my own examples with my own 4, including my youngest, now 24 and finally emerging from adolescence, but instead a recent headline portrays this quite well.
The article referenced William Plotnikov, age 23, the Canadian who had converted to Islam and died in a firefight raid in Dagestan last summer. The question his father “has been asking for months: Why would an immigrant youth whose family benefitted from the North American way of life appear to turn against it violently?” [Plotnikov is being associated with Tamerlan Tsarnaev]. Why indeed – he is clearly turning against the old and familiar to find something new and unique, a familiar passage that all adolescents must go through to become themselves.
Plotnikov expressed this is one of his last messages home, “I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you… You’ve made it. I’m proud…But our understanding of life has diverged. We have to accept this and that we don’t understand each other.” His turn to Islam is easily understood when learned that his father became a Jehovah’s Witness soon after moving to Canada – the adolescent has to throw off his parents’ values to decide what his values are going to be.
COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY: Adolescence is confusing for the child experiencing it and frustrating for the parents, who are too far from the process to remember it clearly. What is clear is that the process of becoming independent involves some version of casting off what the child believes, to look at it closely, to (subconsciously) decide whether to take it on for their own. Compounding the problem is the length of time adolescence has extended to – from an erroneous belief of 4ish years to well over a decade. Hang in there, parents – it’s a longer ride than you thought!