The Developmental Stages of Teens

On my One Cobble communities on Facebook and Google+ I’ve begun running a weekly feature where I post a Re-Cobble. It is a link to one of my earlier blog entries with commentary. As I was noodling around looking for what to post, I came across this entry called Future Parenting it is from 2004 when my kids ranged in age from one to nine years old. At the time I was contemplating the teenage years and spinning my theories about how that would go for my family. I can tell you now that I was right to not be afraid. I’ve loved Kiki and Link as teenagers. Yes there have been some struggles, but understanding those struggles has meant that Howard and I can sometimes be allies to our kids as they face those struggles instead of always being the enemy. (There is no avoiding being the bad guy sometimes. It’s inherent to good parenting.) What I did not have back in 2004 was a list of what the developmental changes are and how they play out for kids. So here is my list, based on a sample size of two, so your mileage may vary.

Age 11-12: kids tend to get a bit existential and sometimes fear the future. They can see bigger responsibilities and privileges coming, sometimes they want to run toward them, other times they want to flee back into childhood. This is also when kids start to push away from parents, seeking more space for individuality. If a parent is not expecting this shift it can cause the parent to hover and cling, which means the child has to push harder. My solution was to let them try more independence and they came running back to me when that got scary. However I was ready for a hard redirect if their independence looked like it was heading them onto dangerous ground.

Age 12-13: This is heavy-growth-spurt territory. Kiki hit this age and spent a month sleeping for fourteen hours per day. Link and all his same-age friends began to sound like adults and they clomped everywhere they went. During this developmental span some of the higher brain functions and social functions shut down while the brain is renovated into a more adult landscape. Both of my kids regressed in responsibility and emotional management techniques. I particularly noticed the social things with the boys. Link and his friends said the most appalling things to each other and had no clue that they had been hurtful. I had to start supervising Kiki’s homework much more closely because she had a tendency to try to ignore it out of existence.

Age 13-14: Kids begin to need a focus, something around which they can form a teenage identity. This teenage identity will inform their eventual adult identity, but the adult identity will be different, so don’t worry if the teenage identity at 14 doesn’t seem like a good career path. It probably isn’t. Kiki spent her 13th summer drifting, bored. In the fall Art manifested as her focus. Link drifted for longer and is still working to form his identity. But this was the age when he began to feel the need for one. The hard part for parents is that you can’t give an identity to kids. They have to pick it and go for it. All I could do for Link was offer up options–programming, racketball, etc. In the end I had to trust in him and let him find his own way. Though I was ready to head both kids off if it looked like they were likely to pick a focus which would cause them long-term life problems.

Age 14-15: Halleluiah, some of that higher brain function comes back online. As it does, kids tend to re-examine their lives. They may have to re-frame or re-address any childhood dramas or traumas that they have experienced. Link had to learn abou–and come to terms with–his Central Auditory Processing Disorder and his ADHD. He wrestled with how to include them in his self image without feeling like he was doomed to fail. We’re still working on this. Kiki had an exceptionally difficult Sophomore year at 15. It was made of me helping her because life felt too overwhelming.

Age 16-17: I only have a sample size of one here, but this was when Kiki really started to come into her own. She learned to drive and she once again began handling all her own homework without much supervision. She started to feel grown up and thus started to act like she was. Most of the drama from this year was Kiki dealing with peer relationships.

Age:17-18: Again, only sample size of one. Kiki hit the summer before her senior year and everything just clicked. She started applying all the lessons we’ve been trying so hard to teach her for years. She started addressing her own moods and stresses in adult ways instead of childish ways. She is a joy and we’re going to miss her lots when she heads off to college in the fall.

These are only general observations. The specifics will be different for each child, particularly if there are neurological differences. Link hit a lot of the emotional milestones about six months to a year later than typical for boys.

Notably absent from this listing is the impact of teenage attraction and interest in forming romantic relationships with others. I didn’t include attraction milestones because I’m fairly certain that my kids are atypical in this regard. Kiki was un-self-awarely interested in boys starting at age 14. By 16 she was self-aware but scared by the whole idea, so she elected to avoid it. Link hasn’t talked to me much about girls except to state that he’s not interested in girls yet. He hits high school next fall, which was when the whole thing became real to Kiki. (Locally the kids don’t go to the high school until their sophomore year.) I’m curious to see how that will change things for Link.

This has been my experience so far. In another nine years I’ll have to re-visit this post to report whether Gleek and Patch followed the same patterns.

If you are a parent of teens, or have been a parent of teens, I encourage you to post your observations in the comments. Have your teens followed these patterns? Were they different? Do you have any advice for parents of young children so that they can position themselves well for the teenage years? I’d love to hear from you.

9 thoughts on “The Developmental Stages of Teens”

  1. you left out: OMG how did Kiki get to be 18!? 😀

    My observations are from being a school taxi driver for the last, oh, 14 or more years. As such I’m in an interesting position of getting to know kids fairly well over a period of years, yet not being a parent. It’s kind of like being an uncle, in a way – but I see more of them than most uncles do. (I am an uncle as well, but she’s only 6 so far!)

    One thing I’d say to everyone who deals with kids and teenagers, parent or not, is don’t forget what it was like to be a teenager. Obviously, you want to make things the best you can for them but being too dominant or making too many rules is counter-productive (I’m sure that doesn’t apply to you, Sandra, it’s a general comment).

    I don’t think I was atypical as a youngster in automatically wanting to do more or less anything that was forbidden (like play with matches, go on the railway, drink, smoke etc.) so my feeling is forbid as little as possible, and don’t forbid anything arbitrarily, to any child old enough to understand explanation – which is younger than some folks think. Whenever you can, demonstrate – have them light a match, under supervision, and hold it til it hurts their fingers – they’ll then realise that fire is not a toy. Find videos of stuff like trains hitting cars, there are tons online.

    Some examples:

    One mother (a good friend of mine) who has quite unorthodox views in many ways, actually went and bought cigarettes so that her teenage daughter could try them and see how foul they are.

    Recently on a quiet icy stretch of road I demonstrated to the older teens who are at the age of learning to drive just how long it takes to stop a car on icy roads from 20 mph. They were like “OMG” and now they know why I drive so slowly in those conditions, and maybe, they’ll think about that when it’s them driving.

    There’s been interesting research recently about teenagers in particular. They are more prone to take risks, less able to evaluate danger or see consequences and likely to perform poorly early in the morning, and to stay up late at night – not simply to be awkward, or stubborn, or rebellious, they are starting to realise that these traits are part of the process of the brain maturing.

    One study I read about had a school starting at 10am, rather than the more commonplace 9am, and they reported improved grades as a result – school was the same number of hours but later in the day; something that could well do with more research and more widespread application if so.

    My own observation is that teens are often not good at mornings, and prone not to be getting enough sleep because their biorhythms don’t fit into the standardised norm. Some, in the long holidays, never get up before noon and mostly are still up at 3am. Nor is it useful to say they should go to bed earlier, since if you can’t sleep you can’t sleep, being in bed won’t make you sleep, as such.

    Of course, I might change all that if I ever get to be responsible for a teen of my own, but I sincerely hope that I wouldn’t. One general thing I believe is that people on the whole are very bad at learning from others’ mistakes, they tend to have to make the mistakes themselves for the lesson to stick.

    Sandra, is it OK to discuss sex in your blog? I have views on that too but I’ve avoided putting them in here in case it wouldn’t be welcome…

  2. I found most of these things to be true so far in my own kids. One other aspect I think is interesting is it seem that around 14 or 15, they start doing the opposite of their introversion/extraversion style. My introverted son started hanging out with friends every waking minute, and my extraverted daughter locked herself in her room and spends all her days listening to music. My youngest hasn’t hit this yet, but I’m curious to see where it will take her. About sixteen, my son bounced back to his introversion, but my daughters are younger than that, so we’ll see what happens when we get there.


  3. Sandra,

    Just wondering if you have heard of Familius, a new publishing company in Utah. Email me if you’d like more information. It might be a good fit for you Cobblestones book, if you’re interested in working with someone else. They give you a lot more power than a traditional publisher, but also have some advantages over self-publishing in my opinion.

  4. Speaking as someone who never did, I would suggest that you – if necessary – force Link to have some extra-curricular activities if he doesn’t have any. Yearbook or something, at the very least.

    I spent the entirety of high school (which I also started as a sophomore, but then transferred to the next school district where they started as freshman) on my own – I was nominally in band (which I quickly dropped) and a Scholastic Bowl type thing, but besides that I pretty much went to school, came home, and repeated.

    I know it had an adverse affect on my ability to socialize with the rest of humanity.

    By which I mean “I have virtually no ability to either tolerate others or relate to them in any useful fashion without extreme concentration”. It just isn’t something I learned to do naturally, you know?

    The other thing – even if the boy doesn’t ask girls to dances, make him go to at least one or two a year. I didn’t, and a part of me regrets it to this day…

    And regrets you carry for 16 years mess with you.

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