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The ‘Middle Years’: What to Expect During Adolescence

As a community of parents and educators, we can all recognise and empathise with the profound physical, social, emotional and intellectual changes associated with adolescence. After all, this is a journey we have all individually travelled in one decade or another. As we reminisce and reflect on the joys, challenges and experiences that have helped shape who we are, I’m sure it is with a sense of anxious anticipation and excitement that we consider what lies ahead for our young people. We know the world our children are growing up in is significantly different to the one we experienced at their age. It is therefore vital that, as parents and educators, we aim to work together to nurture, engage, challenge and inspire our students during these adolescent years.

In considering the major changes associated with adolescence, we must recognise the importance of understanding these big social and emotional developments, as well as knowing what to expect and how to support the students through the changes. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to share some thoughts and reflections with parents, to assist you in further supporting your young person.
Every child’s social and emotional changes will differ during this time, shaped by their unique brain development, genetic make-up, personality, family, community, culture and so on. However, you will notice that during adolescence, your child will change the way they interact with family, friends and their peers. This is the process of developing an independent identity and your child learning to be an adult. So what can I expect? Here are a few of the key changes that influence a young person’s journey through adolescence:

Intellectual Development
Your child will begin to develop and strengthen their capacity for abstract thought. This involves moving away from concrete ways of thinking and developing their ability to think and reason through more complex mental processes. Therefore, yes, there is a cognitive justification for the early adolescent beginning to question authority (parents and teachers) and society’s standards.
They will continue to be intently curious, provided they are engaged or interested in the topic of discussion or study. There is a distinct trend in a preference towards active learning experiences over passive; with a strong favouring towards interaction with peers as part of the learning process. Adolescents begin to develop a desire to learn things they consider to be useful – not necessarily the things parents or educators suggest will be useful – providing us with an inherent challenge.
Further to that, many young people during adolescence can appear to be egocentric. While egocentrism is very much prevalent during early childhood, adolescence provides an incubator for egocentric behaviours, due to the physiological metamorphosis taking place at this time. Young people can become quite consumed with their own thoughts about themselves and therefore fail to differentiate between what they are thinking and what others are thinking about them. They can form the assumption that everyone else is as obsessed with their appearance or behaviour as they are.

Physical Development
While there will be vast and distinct differences in the physical development of each child, adolescence is known for the acceleration of height and weight growth. The variance in timing of these changes can have social and emotional impacts for some young people when maturing faster or slower than their peers.
During this time of significant physical growth, it is also common for bone growth to happen faster than muscle development, resulting in the awkward or gangly adolescent body. It is through these more pertinent and obvious physical changes that we see individual differences emerge in body shape and size, adding to the complex disturbance in the adolescent mind.

Psychological Development
The source of much frustration for parents of adolescents is the emerging prevalence of erratic and inconsistent behavior. Yes, this is a normal and important aspect of your child’s development.
It is common for young people to shift between superiority and inferiority, both in the way they feel (about themselves and where they fit in the world) and in the way they act. It is important to know that sometimes the superior behaviour comes from a place of inferior feelings. Therefore, our reaction and response to our children in these instances can have significant influence on them. A common characteristic of the adolescent journey, and one I’m sure we all remember, is the ‘emotional roller coaster’! While we acknowledge this will be different for all young people, we do know that the emotions (the wonderful highs and lows) are triggered by hormone imbalances during this period of significant hormonal development. What is the result of this? We certainly see the higher ‘highs’ and the lower ‘lows’ than previously observed, but we also see children who are easily offended, often moody and very self-conscious - a potent mix in anyone’s language!
Amid this emotional whirlwind, our young people are very much searching for identity at this time. They are asking the big ‘who am I?’ question while trying to find where they fit in the world. However, within these questions and hormonal imbalances, our young people also portray such a wonderful optimistic and hopeful view of themselves and the future; something I wish we all could bottle.

Social Development
As much as we resist this social development, your child will begin to refer to their peers for standards and models of behaviour, which is not to say that it will always be right! Encouraging, supporting and positive friendships and social groups can certainly pay dividends when reaching adolescence. Staying involved with your child’s interests and social circle and welcoming their friends into your home can provide opportunity for gentle and consistent guidance.
It is also a very common trait of adolescent behavior to become somewhat rebellious towards parents. This will obviously differ from child to child and family to family, however it is an extremely important aspect of your child’s development, in which we have a vital role to play. As they learn to develop ‘grown-up’ emotions and social skills, our young people are still very strongly dependent on the parental values present within the family.
We see our children become fiercely loyal to peers, sometimes to the extreme of being cruel or insensitive to those outside their social circle. They crave frequent affirmation – they want to know that significant adults in their life really love, value and accept them. Given that adolescents are often self-conscious or anxious about their bodies or physical appearance, it can be beneficial to focus on the non-physical when affirming your child. Reinforcing positive aspects of their social and emotional development (such as being a good friend or willingness to try something new) can be a wonderful way to affirm and connect.

Moral, Ethical and Spiritual Development
Adolescents typically have a strong sense of fairness in human relationships. This can be somewhat problematic when there is a perceived injustice from their perspective. Your child will begin to ask (or internally ponder) large, sometimes unanswerable questions such as, ‘what is the meaning of life and death?’. They are inherently unsatisfied by trivial answers and are searching and seeking for clarity and truth in their questions. Adolescents begin to question God. Who is He? Is He real? Interestingly, this process of questioning and the desire for understanding seems to be common for young people who come from a Faith background and those who do not. They begin to question faith. Whose faith is it? Is it mine? Is it my parents'? Is it my school’s? However, within this rich questioning adolescents are very much open to, and interested in, experiencing a genuine spiritual connection - something that we know God honours.

So, what can I do to support my child’s social and emotional development through adolescence? Being aware of the changes (as described above) provides a wonderful grounding, however here are a few additional encouragements for us all:
* - Listen to your child’s feelings – give them your full attention and hear their perspective.
* - Be open and explicit about your feelings – share how their behaviour makes you feel in different situations. This helps your child to read and respond to emotions.
* - Be a positive role model for positive ways of dealing with difficult emotions and moods – if you feel tired or cranky and not in the mood to interact with your young person as they request, explain how you’re feeling and suggest an alternative time to revisit the discussion.
* - Get to know your child’s friends – welcome them into your home and value their friendship.
* - Be a role model for forming and maintaining positive relationships –
your children will learn from observing relationships where there is respect, empathy and positive ways of dealing with conflict.

“People spend their childhood learning to be like their parents, and their adolescence learning who they are and how they are different from their parents.”
- Dr Miriam Kaufman, 2006

We have a magnificent opportunity to partner together as parents and educators through the wonderful adolescent years, allowing our young people to explore who they are and where they fit in the world; while being loved, valued and affirmed as precious children of God. This is something we consider a tremendous privilege to invest into on a daily basis.

Tony Costa
Head of Middle School - Highton



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