The nearest comparison I could give to what I remember about being a teen and what I hear from teenagers about adolescence is that of a reptile shedding its skin. When a snake or a lizard sheds its skin, the new growing skin cells separate from the old established skin cells, causing a marked change in appearance and producing an irritability that can result in increased snapping and hissing. Of course, reptiles shed their skin relatively quickly, so the analogy doesn’t carry too far. Still, I think it’s fairly parallel.
Your teenager’s nascent adult is separating from the confinement of childhood, causing a marked change in appearance and producing an irritability that can result in increased snapping and hissing. I think it’s why teens often feel like their skin is crawling and fight against a sensation of being confined, wanting to burst free. And it’s why parents often look at their teens as though they’re something that just crawled out from under a rock.
Shedding skin is uncomfortable, often disturbing, and absolutely necessary for growth—and it’s the same with adolescence. It makes it easier, however, when you know what to look for and what it all means. Teenager adolescent behaviors are stereotypical for a reason—they are fairly consistent across generations. If you haven’t noticed many of these already, you will, in varying degrees, depending upon your teen.
- Moody and Irritable – Teens seems to combine the attention span of two-year-olds and the patience level of three-year-olds with the verbal acerbity of the harshest stand-up comic. The same remark from you delivered without incident eighty-three times can all of a sudden be met with a blast of condemnation and scorn on the eighty-fourth rendition.
- Unpredictable – Teens seem to vacillate between alternate dimensions. In one, they are competent, I-can-do-it-so-don’t-help-me near-adults, and in the other they are why-haven’t-you-helped-me-sooner children wailing at the top of their lungs. They phase in and out of these dimensions at will, leaving you constantly on edge and wary of which persona you’re going to encounter at any given time.
- Manipulative – Teens are trying out their ability to (a) use logic to get what they want; (b) use repetition to get what they want; (c) use persuasion to get what they want; and (d) use guilt to get what they want. They will try various methods to gain their ultimate objective—to get what they want. In some ways they are like highly verbal, moderately sophisticated toddlers, with an eye firmly focused on that shiny toy or piece of candy. They drive to yell, “Mine!” is as strong, if not more determined, than a toddler’s; being older, they’re just more inventive about finding the way to get it.
- Argumentative – Sometimes teens argue just for the sake of arguing. They know before they start that they’re probably not going to get what they want, so they settle for second best—a good argument. This allows them to vent off steam, to transfer their own displeasure in life to you, and to test boundaries. In a strange way that you can probably understand, it feels good to your teen, or at least it feels better than being tied up in knots inside. You become a symbolic punching bag for your teen’s emotional workout through argument and anger. Your relationship with your teen has been targeted for his or her own adolescent “challenge course,” where every boundary that gets challenged is yours.
- Withdrawn – When teens withdraw, they usually are selective; they withdraw from you but not from their friends. Where you were once Plan A on their list of favorite things, you’re not the T and U category; in other words, way down the list…unless they want something, and then you’re back to A status—but only until they’ve obtained whatever it is they want or have conceded temporary defeat.
- Dramatic – The color gray ceases to exist. Instead, everything that happens is thrust into a stark and dramatic black or white. Another way to put this is that the teen years are all about intensity. Feelings and emotions are magnified and modified, not unlike one of those fun-house mirrors where images are bent and warped out of all normal proportions. You look at what’s happening and see one image, while your teen is experiencing that same image as something completely different. This is the teen world of extremes, and, as such, it’s a much scarier world than yours.
For more examples of teenager adolescent behaviors, and how to introduce empathy as a parent, see Part 2 of this post.
Dr. Gregory Jantz is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and is an award-winning author of 30 books. For more information about raising teenagers, read Dr. Jantz’s book The Stranger In Your House.