The Angst of (Parenting) Adolescents

Our Vista Hill SmartCare team was recently asked to provide a Wellness event for parents of 4th-6th graders of an elementary school in one of the communities we serve, addressing concerns of parenting adolescents/teens. I must admit that I struggled with this topic for a bit: these are parents of nine to eleven year olds! Of course, we are a Prevention and Early Intervention Program, and I was grateful that this principal was being so responsive to the parents of her students, who were questioning what behaviors might constitute cause for concern in their children, and when and how they should seek assistance…. but teenagers?! At nine, ten, eleven years old?

I was even hesitant to title this event’s flyer as “Your Young Teen’s Emotional & Behavioral Well-Being” and send it home to these Elementary School parents, not sure that the parents were identifying themselves as such. The principal even re-titled the flyer, as “Your Adolescent’s Emotional & Behavioral Well-Being”, and the parents did attend.

Our kids are physically maturing at an earlier rate than even a generation ago. Many girls are entering puberty at nine years old or even younger; boys as young as ten or eleven. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are also maturing emotionally and psychologically at a rate to manage these hormonal , physical and societal changes, and so creating the additional stress of this gap between physical maturity and emotional maturity.

For parents of teens, this can be one of the most trying and challenging times, as our kids bounce between striving toward independence, and needing and wanting to be cared for as children. One minute our kids crave our attention, presence and advice; the next they want nothing to do with us. I prefer to embrace this view of adolescence from Dan Siegel, Mindfulness expert: “Adolescence is not just a phase that needs to be grown out of, adolescence is actually a period of growth characterized by ‘emotional intensity, social engagement, and creativity’. So it’s not about surviving teenage-hood, but understanding and learning from these new desires and drives in ways that enable teens to thrive”.

But if we do see signs that concern us, how do we know if these are “normal”, or cause for concern?

These were some of the topics that our SmartCare team addressed with the parents:

*What is “normal” emotional development?

*How do we communicate?

*How do we encourage positive self-esteem and self-worth?

*When does “moodiness” become depression?

*What about body image concerns?

*When do “worries” become anxiety?

*What about self-injurious behaviors?

*What about drugs and alcohol?

*What are other signs of trouble?

*When should I ask for outside assistance, and where do I go?

The take-away from this event, and subsequent conversations, is that these are important dialogues for parents and caretakers of children of all ages, and become increasingly important as our children navigate their worlds of school, friendships and other activities and relationships. This is at the heart of prevention programs such as Vista Hill SmartCare. It is never too early, and our children are never too young, for us to be encouraging, supporting and nurturing their wellness.

Pamela Sachs, LCSW

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