Teenagers are not adults the way they were adults in other eras, but they’re not children as they had been a couple of years before and had been for thousands of years. Adults instinctively do not expect them to act as they had as children and do not completely expect them to act like adults yet… not really… but sorta! While intellectual developmental theorists such as Piaget believe that at about twelve years old, which coincides with the onset roughly of puberty, pre-teens or early teens are capable of adult cognitive processing. However, one of the key principles of intellectual developmental theories is that there are important interactions between internal growth and experience in the greater world. Maturation does not occur in isolation, but is intricately dependent on the systems, circumstances, and thus, the people, the individual experiences. Key influences on development involve the stability or instability of important attachment individuals such as parents and the consistency or unpredictability of the environment of development: physical stresses, nutrition, economic abundance or deprivation, social and relationship dynamics, and so forth. Essentially, that means YOU! Adults, in particular parents manage children’s developmental environments, only gradually (if that!) giving up control as they reach adolescence. “I raised you to make your own choices. But not THAT choice!!” So while the following discussion about important adolescent developmental dynamics is generally relevant, how they manifest in a particular teenager vary significantly depending on what adults have done to influence them directly and to manage their environments.
A highly problematic way adults influence the development of children and teenagers is to be oblivious, ignorant, or dismissive of developmentally appropriate dynamics. In other words, when adults do not identify or understand what children and teenagers are supposed to be doing, thinking, and feeling, they inevitably create challenging, difficult, if not disruptive or injurious conditions for growth. Adults such as parents are often so invested (scared to death!) that children and teenagers do not make bad choices and obsessed with telling or teaching them what to do (think and feel), that they do not actually pay much attention to them! Children and teenagers also often are insufficiently self-aware of what they do, how they behave, how they make choices, and/or their emotional and intellectual process to tell adults. “I dunno,” is not always passive-aggressive denial, but sometimes the literal truth. They do not know. Often, they have never been in that situation before, never had to deal with it nor process it emotionally or intellectually. However, YOU have usually been there- done that. You are the adult who WAS a teenager once. Don’t you remember? Or was it too traumatic!? With a little reference to one’s adolescent memories (from deep in the dark ages!) and guidance from observers and researchers of adolescence, several common processes can be identified. And, thus be used to understand (versus being mystified or surprised) your teenager.
You’re… you’re… NOT Perfect! You’re Wrong!
Babies are helpless, able only to eat, cry, pee, poop, and… and… coo! They are completely dependent on their parents for everything. They cannot survive without adult care. As babies mature and become little children, they become gradually more competent navigating the world. However, they still cannot make choices to control their environment- certainly, not the substantial choices for survival. Limited in their ability to be constructive, toddlers for example may relish being destructive! “Maybe I can’t stack the blocks very high, but I CAN knock them down when someone else stacks them!” As much as a baby-toddler-child may tantrum, what he/she gets or can do is still at the discretion of their adults. And adults such as parents and teachers are often quite shameless at labeling their own choices as perfect expressions of deep ancient wisdom! Children initially have no perspective or experience other than through their families. And when they gain other experience at daycare, with babysitters, or with grandparents, all the adults close ranks colluding in maintaining the mythology of adult intellectual and moral omnipotence! Anything can be explained to naïve children and they believe! They may not like the explanations nor especially the boundaries and consequences from those explanations, but they are too developmentally ignorant and insufficiently intellectually agile to dispute adult proclamations. Although, kids may go through a developmental stage of repetitious “Why?” questions, they still are not challenging adult wisdom but seeking extension of that wisdom. Adults can even get away with the desperation response, “Because I say so!” Children defer to the ultimate final authority- the parent. He/she says so, so it must be so! Not only do children tend to defer to the ultimate authority figure, they pretty know they better defer… or else! Various implied, threatened, and/or applications of discipline (often punishment) behooves the little person to acquiesce… “Uh, ok.”
Then, time passes… more experiences accrued… other people become involved… daycare… school… cousins… friends… television… books… the internet. Children hear, see, and experience alternative responses, behaviors, and models. They experience such variations from other people and other situations AND from the same people- that is, parents AND in the same situations- that is, home. Children start to observe inconsistencies in adult behavior from one time to another. One time, mom who preaches self-discipline sets aside the extra donut, while she devours a second… and a third helping of ice cream. They realize that what adults say, teach, and preach is not what they always do. Dad admonishes them to tell the truth, and then lies to his boss that he’s sick so he can get an extra day off after the weekend. “Because I say so!” gains a complementary assertion, “You don’t understand. It’s not that simple.” For a while- sometimes for a long time and perhaps into adulthood for the particularly naïve and those who need the security of the omnipotent authority figure, children and teenagers (and later as adults) accept their ignorance or lack of sophistication as reasons for their perception of adult authority figures inconsistency. However, over more and more time and referencing new experiences- not the least of which are their peers’ validation that other adults screw up as well, acceptance of the mythological perfection eventually shifts to realization of adult flaws.
What’s more is that after about ten or more years of taking it out of ignorance and/or intimidation, teenagers experience a compelling need to express their epiphany out loud… repeatedly and LOUDLY! Teenagers finding fault with authority figures (especially, if you are that authority figure!) may be annoying, but it is relatively normal. AND, an indication of healthy cognitive development. The realization that adults fall short of the ideal world they can now imagine can be disturbing for children and teenagers used to deferring to adult guidance. It is important to acknowledge and accept this change, including their needing to say something about it (over and over!). It is best if adults, especially parents try not to take criticism personally. It’s not about you per se; it’s a developmental process. Adults should acknowledge truths teenagers have identified. Being receptive rather than overly triggered however significantly varies based on how teenagers express their new wisdom. Depending on cultural and social-emotional development, finding fault or inconsistencies in adults may be expressed any way from discretely, politely, to truly nasty.
What!? That’s Hella Messed Up!
As cognitive development continues and older children and emerging teenagers start seeing other possibilities- especially, not just agreeing with the omnipotent wise YOU, they often want to express and assert those other perspectives. Possibly, ram them down your throat! Adults (hopefully) learn how to be judicious in how they express or withhold their differences of opinions. It is often like having a new toy, teenagers feel compelled to play with the new cognitive awareness. Some new perspectives are tolerable to adults as they constitute nuances otherwise unattended that are worth examining to the adult or authority figure. “Losing weight isn’t as easy as just eating less,” wouldn’t be too provocative for an adult who already recognizes that simplistic diet recommendations do not work. And is not shamed by his or her own struggles with diet and weight. Other perspectives may be more challenging to consider as they may disrupt some comfortable world view of the adult. For example, a religiously devout parent may find his or her child questioning his or her interpretation of religious doctrines to be very upsetting. Depending on how much the adult has internalized his or her perspectives- that is, how personally sacrosanct they may be, the teenagers conceptual challenges may be more or less disturbing. If the criticism is a detail otherwise deemed not worth arguing over, the adult may “only” find the dissecting of nuance and detail to be annoying. Perhaps, even developmentally identified and tolerated.
A younger child without adequate filters may blurt out interesting observations, but usually is socialized and/or intimidated to keep quiet about observations that put another in a negative light. Teenagers who have otherwise solid self-esteem and healthy relationships with adult authority figures- primarily, their parents and teachers, are also more likely to observe, possibly judge, and process internally. They may complain about adult inconsistency or hypocrisy among their peers, but often refrain from confronting adults. They may be quietly judgmental- even dismissive of adults’ integrity for flawed inconsistencies, rigidity, or lack of nuance among moral assertions, cognitive logic, and behavior. On the other hand, teenagers who have been emotionally, spiritually, behaviorally, and socially berated, frustrated, pathologized, insulted, and disrespected are MUCH more likely to relish firing off the new logical ammunition in their cognitive arsenal. “So, it’s ok for you to lie about what you’re doing so you don’t have to go to the meeting, but it’s horrible if I make an excuse to cut school?! I guess telling the truth is good, but lying to get away with something is better… for you!? But only for you and not for me?” If they have prior experiences of being criticized or even oppressed, attacking adults on nuances can essentially become payback. They may relish challenging, confounding, and otherwise entrapping their adults in twists and turns of logic and perspective. Instead of being willing to defer to adult authority, being one down, and made inferior, some teens relish the opportunity to strike back at parental and other adult superiority using the nuances of logic and perspective. This can be so satisfying that they can exercise their mental agility, including shifting from one stance to another to maintain dominance intellectually. While such “flexibility” may include illogical inconsistencies- even contradicting their prior assertions, the goal may not be logic but keeping the adult out-of-sorts.
Chasing the Red Herring
Depending on individual development, training, socialization… and frustration, anger, and self-esteem, teenagers feel highly entitled to argue any nuance they see. Beyond a developmental stage and just being annoying, the attraction to argue nuance can become a weapon to avoid responsibility or accountability. Whatever you say is nitpicked not just because of cognitive development but also for power struggles.
Parent: “I told you to be at the gate to be picked up by 3:15 and you didn’t get there until 3:30.”
Teen: “I was there at 3:28!” (Since you weren’t perfectly accurate, I dismiss your grievance against me).
Teacher: “You forget your stuff all the time.”
Student: “No, I remembered it last week.” (My one exception to your assertion allows me to ignore my behavioral problems).
Adults do best for themselves and help teenagers if they do not get baited by the nitpicking. Teenagers’ argumentativeness comes from their new ability to see nuances in any issue and argue it. It works better to encourage and take part in discussion of principles, while avoiding discussing one or another’s personality. That is, identify and reframe from the implication or assumption that one must be stupid to not see what has become obvious to the teenager, who may use a condescending or insulting tone. Aware of this trigger helps one avoid arguing or disputing the small detail- two minutes! Or, one does not argue that it has not been “all the time” or not, but instead point out that it is “too many times” or “very frequently.” Parents and teachers particularly do well to remember the main point they are trying to make: in this example, being reliable and following through, and being responsible for ones stuff as needed for activities. “The important point is that when we arranged for you to be picked up at a certain time at a certain place, you need to take responsibility to be there on time.” “You need to be responsible and figure out how to ensure that you have the stuff you need with you for your activities.” Once the issue or principle or problem is identified, then problem-solving can begin. Stupid distracting arguments preclude problem-solving intrinsic to becoming responsible.
Some teenagers (and less functional adults) are particularly adept at picking out the one element among several to contest, specifically to avoid responsibility.
“You were late to school yesterday. You were tardy to half your classes. You cut P.E. all last week. You didn’t turn in your math homework. You haven’t shown me your progress report for a month. You left your science book in your locker when you had homework last week. You told your teacher you’d come to study hall and you didn’t. You’re failing all your classes. You had detention twice this week. You’ve been to four schools the last two years.”
This list of issues or transgressions are meant to convey a larger compelling issue- a habitual pattern of academic malfeasance that needs to addressed. The targeted individual is supposed to be humble (humiliated?) by the massive case presented by the prosecuting attorney- that is, parent. And throw him or herself on the mercy of the court… or at least plea bargain to a lesser charge! But NOoooo! The astute teenager or adult will pick one of the ten statements to find fault with and argue. Ignoring the overall message AND that the other nine accusations are essentially if not completely accurate, the individual proclaims with the intense self-righteous outrage of the unjustly accused, “I went to P.E. last week!” In actuality, the teenager went to one P.E. class and snuck out after half an hour and went to another P.E. class and was kicked out by the teacher for mouthing off. “I can’t help it if that damn teacher sent me to the Dean!”
The “game” so to speak here, is “Get the adult to chase a red herring!” Essentially, if the adult is distracted into arguing about whether showing up and then sneaking out, or being kicked out of P.E. constitutes attendance or not. These facetious “facts” therefore determines whether the statement of “You cut P.E. all last week,” is an exaggeration or just or unjust accusation. Tricking the adult to chase the red herring (re: what qualifies as P.E. avoidance!) implies that all the other issues may be irrelevant, and most importantly, that the overall assertion or concern (academic irresponsibility) is not relevant. Functionally, the adult may be so distracted and frustrated about the red herring, that he or she never gets the teenager engaged about the real issue- the academic problems. As such, the academic problems and any consequences AND potential solutions, which involve the teenager (or other person such as a spouse) changing behavior are often never addressed. A key to handling this game/trap, is to recognize the red herring. Rather than chasing after it, the adult (parent, teacher, or spouse) can say, “Before we argue or discuss how much P.E. you’ve missed, since you haven’t said anything about the other nine things I mentioned, let’s assume that you agree that you have done them!” This often stops the teenager (or spouse) in family or couple therapy in their tracks!
This is NOT working! – a positive realization
A key theme in dealing with both developmental changes in teenagers and their negative manipulative use of such new cognitive capacities is whether the adult response facilitates the teenager taking responsibility in his or her life or gets distracted into some fruitless argument. As the adult keeps his or her focus on the desirable principles for the teenager to be learned, he or she is more likely not to chase a red herring or to otherwise be “gamed.” Another simple self-awareness key is if the adult can notice, “This is NOT working!” Or, “I’ve said the same thing three times. He or she has said the same thing three times (which means this is NOT working!)” Or, “I’m talking about nonsense!” Or, “This is NOT what this is about!” Any awareness of a repetitive or irrelevant or nonsensical argument or anything that says something is wrong can be a clear cue that you have been “gamed.” Continued participation in the dysfunctional game must be ended. When an adult is “gamed,” everyone loses- in particular, the teenager who needs leadership has lost out to his or her own successful but destructive game. Self-awareness can lead one to slow down, re-examine, and then problem-solve some different approach for successful communication, teaching, or discipline. What would be some different approach? Essentially, some productive game with integrity for both current and future functioning and relationships.