Adolescent Developmental Rules

The most recent prior blogs looked at teenagers from one of many developmental perspectives or principles. Other developmental perspectives can be useful in understanding and working with teenagers. Your children don’t become suddenly, unexpectedly, and unpredictably teenagers out of nowhere. First of all, there are general or basic rules of development and of all developmental theories. Respect for and understanding of these basic rules can significantly improve respect for and understanding of teenager behavior. And as a result, make parenting, teaching, guiding, and interactions and relationships with teenagers much more effective and productive. For many children, their attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors take on adolescent adaptations but remain reflective of earlier personalities. There is often consistency in the well-mannered self-assured child who becomes a conscientious competent teenager. Or, a wild child may become a wild teen. A focused child may become a studious teen. A respectful and attentive child becomes a conscientious self-directed teen. And then, there’s those children who seem to shift gears negatively as they become teenagers. Mild to wild. Clean to mean. Quiet to riot! Closer examination however may show that they did not suddenly become problematic somewhere between thirteen to nineteen years of age. Many seeds and indications occurred in the earlier years that may have set up the challenging teenager bursting into your family. Unwittingly, parents and adults often got away with many convenient and seemingly workable parent or adult discipline, boundaries, and guidance that seemed to facilitate growth and development so easily on its own for many years.   Or, they fail to see and support the developmental needs of their children becoming teenagers.

What are the rules of child development? Human beings are not automatically metamorphize into functional adult members of the family or community. While there is internally regulated growth and change, the baby, the child, and arguably also the teenager needs dynamic interactive processes to fully develop- that is, nurturing by adults. Being dependent on adult caregivers is the normal condition of the baby’s development. As needs are met, poorly met, or unmet, development is facilitated or hindered. The baby, child, and teenager attempts to elicit adult or parenting behaviors that functionally address developmental demands. However, consistent positive adult responses are not guaranteed since unpredictable adult issues, health, and functioning determines or hinders adult effectiveness and efficiency. As caregivers however respond well based on the rules of development, the baby, child, or teenager tends to have healthy development.

Development Happens in Stages

Support during early development especially, whether functional or dysfunctional is the foundation for later, including adolescent and adult functioning. Support has to be developmentally judicious attuned to children’s evolving needs or else will force growth children are not ready for. Furthermore, each stage of development has its own needs, energy, and challenges. The child is duly tasked to address them, and do not need… should not also suffer demands more appropriate in other- particularly later development stages. Individuals who resolve current and then successive developmental challenges thus bring developmental health and distress to new relationships in adolescence, school, work, and more. The intense energy of unfulfilled or unresolved developmental need AND/OR distorted or forced growth often complicates if not sabotages adolescent functioning and relationships. Theories may be presented as universal theories of human development that are true across societies and cultures. That is an arguable presumption. Hopefully, it may be a reasonable assumption or have significant if not absolute relevance to different communities. There are basic developmental rules for consideration about how they can apply to individuals, couples, and families.

The first rule is that development happens in stages. Development is not steady and gradual. While there may be periods of steady development, there will also be sudden accelerations or jumps in development from accumulated quantitative changes. Stages are distinguished as being qualitatively different from each other. For example, running is qualitatively distinctive from walking; babbling is different than talking; guessing is different than deducing a solution, and so forth. Certainly being a teenager is qualitatively different from being a child. No kidding it’s different! When adults and parents misunderstand stages of development, they often create or increase problems for children and teenagers.

Indicators in Developmental Stages

With knowledge and awareness about developmental stages, they can look for key issues that cause problems and ways to offer support. These indicators (along with recommendations to address them for teenagers) would include:

  • Dealing with transitions from stage to stage- Identify changes involved in becoming a teenager. Check how well or intuitively the teenager handling the changes.
  • New demands or stresses of the stage- Anticipate demands or stresses. Prepare and equip the teenager to handle them.
  • (In a relationship) one partner moving to another stage while the other partner has not (or resists); or the teenager not moving to another stage as expected by parents- Check to see if the individual has finished with the development in the earlier stage. Support and help the individual satisfy the needs of the earlier stage.
  • Disappointing stage expectations- Consider disappointment comes from adults or parents having inappropriate expectations for the developmental stage. Determine correct developmental stage of the individual- don’t assume a developmental stage based solely on chronological age; check behavioral indications to determine developmental stage. (Work in the stage the individual is in, no matter how disappointed you may be!).
  • Inadequate skills or modeling for stage demands- Teach and model skills for meeting developmental needs. Adapt skills from earlier stages for evolved demands of later stages.
  • Mismatched stage expectations between partners (or parent and teenager)- Check expectations vs. behavioral indications for developmental stages. From behavioral indications adapt expectations for meeting current stage AND transitioning to the next stage.  (Repeat: Work in the stage the individual is in, no matter how disappointed you may be!).
  • Unfamiliar stages or stage demands due to cultural issues- Examine for cultural expectations for a developmental stage. Consider cross-cultural- that is, conflicting expectations for a stage.
  • Incomplete satiation in the stage- Provide opportunities with appropriate boundaries for satiating developmental energy needs (normally, at a younger stage than anticipated according to chronological age).
  • Stage stresses activating previously dormant but unresolved issues- Examine developmental tasks and needs from other stages that may not have been satiated, resolved, or met: attachment needs, trauma, autonomy, exploration, etc.

Romance in Stages- An Example

Of compelling interest to teenagers and their anxious parents are normal developmental stages for intimate or romantic relationships in the evolution towards becoming couples. These include initial attraction as a distinct stage from getting to know each other. Successive other stages would be making a monogamous commitment, meeting the parents, and making a lifetime commitment. While adults may describe the transition from harmonious connection to acrimonious emotional disengagement as gradual, going through several stages- perhaps taking years, teenagers may do this distinctly differently- perhaps, faster! Perhaps, several times in a month… in a week! While the experiences are labeled as better or worse, the descriptive phrase often given is that “it’s not the same anymore.” No, it’s not the same as puppy love between a couple of preschoolers, or even the hanging out of pre-teen sweethearts.

Family life cycle theory which includes the romantic couple has distinctive developmental stages where demands and the experience is “not the same anymore.” The couple and eventual family goes through several stages of development each with their own particular needs and challenges. There may be nuances or distinctions unique to same-sex couples, specific cultures, older couples, or other family compositions, including blended families, older couples and bi-racial couples. These nuances or distinctions, in and of themselves may conflict with unidentified assumptions of couplehood and family. Here are several stages from initial attraction to committed relationship that many Americans- particularly adults consciously or semi-consciously hold for themselves. Would it be accurate to assume teenagers believe in these stages? It is arguable whether teenagers believe that there are only two stages for them: before falling in love and being in love forever (which is actually in love now!). Alone vs. together. Not ready vs. ready. Miserable vs. in love! This may be from teenagers functioning in the Now and assume that what is working Now will be eternal. They may assume that with “true love” the quality of intimacy and being in sync will never change. This highly romantic and often unrealistic notion of relationships- a developmentally flawed perspective can prove to be extremely frustrating when normal changes break relationships asunder.

Randy- Play, Romance, College… What?!

Randy was a high school sophomore who had a very positive one year romance with Terri- another sophomore. Going into their junior year, Randy’s parents expected him to go through a significant transition into the college preparation and exploration stage.   Randy’s parents had expectations of him going to college. Getting the grades for better college options and investigating potential colleges jumped to the top of their list (and for his girlfriend Terri as well) and tolerating Randy’s adolescent fun and games orientation dropped down the list. Functionally, Randy felt his parents just didn’t have him enjoying himself on their list at times. This kind of transition can be more extreme in some traditional cultures depending on family expectations to either separate from the family or to contribute to the family. His parents expected Randy to devote himself to college and a professional career. He didn’t. He was a very hard playing “cool” guy- his romance with Terri was part of his playing. He was only mildly academically invested. He failed motivating himself academically, and was not emotionally connected to his parents’ aspirations. In comparison to his mother and father when they were teenagers, Randy was actually more studious, but very inadequate compared to their current total dedication him becoming a professional eventually. Superficially, the relationship between Randy and his parents seemed stressed by the demands of balancing his adolescent academic and social stresses with future orientations.

Out of Sync Developmentally

Randy was out of sync with the developmental priorities- that is, academic progression, that his parents thought he should have. They would be less interested in him have a teen romance than getting himself going with college goals. Or, be on Terri’s side against their own son! Terri enjoyed their romance but it was a high school romance and she was not as “serious” about it as she was about going to college. Randy and his parents would benefit from exploring and articulating their expectations for him in this developmental stage- identifying the changes and transitions he was going through. His parents wanted him to be done playing as a teenager or young adult and now devoted to college as the foundation to a career. However, Randy had not satiated his need to play- he had unfinished developmental needs that could not be ignored. When his parents (and Terri) turned their attention to academics and college, he felt rejected and abandoned. They thought he had moved on to another stage while in actuality he was stuck in an earlier playful stage, but without anyone to play with. Randy talked nostalgically about the “good old days.” Childhood and early adolescences had been a wonderful time. He played! Friends and his girlfriend Terri had played with him, and his parents tolerated his play.

The challenge is to get them to articulate and honor Randy’s CURRENT developmental needs. Despite their desiring greater maturity, Randy’s parents needed to respect where he was developmentally. Their disappointment in him meeting stage expectations were from misidentifying his chronological age as being his developmental stage. He was in a “younger” stage. Unless they understood and accepted Randy’s need to play, they could not understand his feelings of abandonment… and his difficulty to behave differently. His parents would see him instead as immature, or worse… betraying them as their son. Randy needed to learn how to play while striving toward expectations to progress academically. Randy would appreciate understanding from his parents that he did not have to rush through or skip his unsatisfied play needs. However, he needed to accept that the logistics and substance of his play expectations needed to be adapted. Finding opportunities to satiate Randy’s developmental needs would serve to move him into the stage (and behaviors) his parents wished him to be in.

Making Slogans Real

Helping a teenager such as Randy find appropriate ways to satisfy “immature” developmental needs AND transitioning to subsequent developmental behaviors may not be so difficult. As discussed in the earlier blog, teenagers such as Randy have usually internalized the “slogans” or formal operations principles of adolescent/adult thinking. He knows he should be preparing for college and/or future life and career. However, such concerns are not necessarily “real” to him yet, especially if his developmental needs of the concrete operations stage have not been met. That is, to learn not only the many rules of the world but to determine their underlying principles, and how to apply them to new specific circumstances or situations. As he is familiar with the “slogans” or principles of preparing for the future, delaying gratification, doing hard work to earn subsequent rewards, consistency, integrity, and so forth, they can be invoked in conversation with him. However, expecting him to know how to activate real world… current world behaviors to follow through on these principles may be developmentally unrealistic. Prompting him and/or guiding him to specific behaviors in consistent practice would be necessary given his functioning in the earlier stage of concrete operations. This would look or sound something like this with Randy.

“Since you will be graduating high school in a bit more than a year… since you want to have a good lifestyle… since you know that college is a good route for you, what do you need to do to make those things happen? Now? Next? How often? How consistently? What is the plan? What is the plan and goals for TODAY? For tomorrow? For next week? For EVERY week?”

The key is to work out a specific plan with regular times to check in for accountability. Do not expect that the plan is sufficient in of itself. The cognitive development to create a plan and the emotional and moral assent to adopt the plan should not deceive adults or parents that there is also the developmental discipline to follow through with the plan! Remember that slogans or promises is not action- much less consistent productive action. Also, it is critical that the plan includes opportunities for developmental “indulgences”- that is, planned behavior and activities to satiate the unfinished developmental needs of the current stage. For Randy that would include time to date, to play, to explore and have fun integrated in his plan to study, take classes, research colleges, take prep tests, investigate career options, and so forth. Unless Randy’s parents accept his actual developmental needs when pushing important but later developmental tasks, everyone will be frustrated. The following blogs will address additional rules of development as they apply to teenagers and supporting them


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