Adolescence: What’s Under the Hood


Sometimes it is hard to understand what is going on with young people. What follows are some ideas that have helped me make sense in three areas of development roughly corresponding to early, middle and late adolescence. The first is why young people tend to be embarrassed by their parents and secretive about what they tell them. The second is about battles over freedom and limits. The third is about how late teens struggle to become freestanding adults.


A high school freshman girl was excited to be dropped off at school by her dad in his two-seater sports car. When they pulled into the driveway circle, he found that the couldn’t open the trunk latch. He got out to open the trunk with the key to take out her backpack. In doing so, he left the car door ajar. It took about seven seconds to get out, open the trunk and get back in the car but a parent honked at the door being left open. The cool effect was ruined and the girl was utterly mortified.

Freud said that the changes of adolescence are due to the power of hormones. Dr. H. Spencer Bloch, author of Adolescent Development Psychopathology and Treatment says a big part is an innate need to pursue and complete development. In my view, another major factor is young peoples’ awareness that they are fast approaching adulthood, where they will no longer be protected by their parents and will become part of a dangerous and competitive world of peers.

This latter perspective explains the excruciating embarrassment of the girl being dropped off at school. In plain view of her peers, her father’s ineptitude was displayed for all to see. What he did was not cool. Where she had been hoping to show that she belonged to the cool group, instead she became the object of unkind comments.

Being accepted is terribly important to all of us. Teen society is especially difficult. In the early teen years there is only one scale, popularity. Society is not three dimensional or even two dimensional. Every young person is measured on a single dimension of coolness. Only later, are there varied groups like jocks, intellectuals and theater people. So where you stand on the scale matters a great deal. Belonging depends on it. Teens are unflinchingly clear about what is cool. There is no hiding from the judgment of others, so there is no use in fooling oneself. For these reasons, most early teens are terribly sensitive to embarrassment and shame. They are as sensitive about their parents as they are about themselves and their friends.

This is also why they often avoid telling their parents about the things that really worry them. The opinions of parents still carry immense significance in proportion to the insecurity of trying to fit into teen society. When you are very very unsure of yourself, then being subjected to the judgment of people as important as parents is far too dangerous. Even if friends render a negative judgment, they are more likely to understand and be sympathetic.

Not only are parents judgments hugely powerful, parents can be judgmental of teens, especially of the same sex. Having invested a great deal in their children and feeling responsible for their children’s success in life, parents tend to extrapolate what they see far into the future. The awkward teen signifies an impossibly unsuccessful adult. It is as if the characteristics of today were written in stone. We are as insecure about our children’s futures as they are about their cool quotient today.


By middle adolescence, perhaps 14 through 16, there are often struggles over rules and limits. I call it the “Adolescent Dance.” First the young person demands greater responsibility. “All my friends are allowed to stay out till midnight! Why can’t I?” The parents give in and say yes. Then the adolescent comes in at 2:00 a.m. with an excuse and an attitude. What is going on is this:  Self-control is hard and painful. It is not fun to have to police yourself. Part of the joy of childhood is doing what you feel like and letting the parents be the ones to say if it isn’t OK. One of the most frightening and undesirable things about growing up is taking on the job of saying no to yourself.

Making the stakes so much higher, middle adolescents are beginning to have access to the power tools of adult life: Sex, cars, drugs, legal rights and even the power to succeed or fail. This is the age where young people can and do erase their chances to get into a college at the level of their ability, where they can and do have fatal automobile accidents or get pregnant. That is both exciting and very scary.

So how do young people handle this very uncomfortable part of growing up? The interaction I just described, the “Adolescent Dance” is something you can think of as a stress transfer. By failing to act responsibly, the young person forces the adults to be the ones to put on the brakes. For many youngsters it is more comfortable to fight their parents than it is to fight themselves, and that is what they do. It is very frustrating to the adults. The last thing we want is to be enforcers, and to make matters worse, when we accept the role, we are criticized and hated for doing so.

What can parents do? The metaphor I like to use is the guardrails on the highway. The middle adolescent needs to learn to drive straight and change lanes, but still needs us to keep him or her from going off the road. We are supposed to know what is going on in our kids lives so that we can stop them from doing permanent harm to themselves, even though they don’t tell us what they are doing. This is no easy job. When we don’t pass the test, the result is that the young person does his or her own parenting and usually kids don’t do a very good job.

At the same time that parents must provide limits, they also have the job of helping and encouraging the young person to learn to self-manage and take responsibility successfully. We are often shocked and surprised that our kids don’t seem so enthusiastic about taking on new responsibilities. In fact they are ambivalent because the self-control it takes is so hard and uncomfortable. We parents find ourselves selling something that we know is good to customers who aren’t yet sold.

Realizing that adolescents haven’t tasted the full pleasure of being in charge of their own lives makes it easier to understand their less than enthusiastic reaction to responsibility. They see how hard it is, but they haven’t experienced the pay-off. With the constant demands of school, restrictions on what you can do with your girl or boyfriend, having to tell parents where you are, it hardly feels like being in charge of your life. It is only towards the end of adolescence that the positive side of self-control begins to be more apparent. For now it is a chore that often seems better be left to the grown-ups.

Identity and Values:

By age 17 or 18, there is more to life than just being cool or uncool. Young people are well into exploring their personal identity. They are finding long-term friends based on individual characteristics rather than simply matching the level of popularity.

I saw an 18 year old girl the other day. She is a very good student in an elite school, but had found herself using prescription pain killers and acting erratically. She was embarrassed by what she had done and saw the loss of control as contrary to who she wanted to be. As she talked about her life, what came clear was this:  Her parents were very serious, achievement-oriented people. Her older sister was studying at an ivy league school and never did anything “bad.” My patient felt different. She wanted to have fun in her life. She wanted to explore new people places and experiences. She definitely didn’t want to live the dreary life that her parents and sister had chosen. On the other hand, she wanted to be successful as well.

Let’s look at values. When we are children, we borrow our family values. We assume that what our parents believe is what we believe. Children can be quite vocal about their values. They write essays in school that express what they believe and why. But all this is really not theirs. The test begins in adolescence when you are old enough and enough in charge of your life that you can see the possibility of having to make sacrifices for your values. Eighteen year-olds can be asked to give their lives for their values. Young people go to college expecting to work towards a major in the subject they and their parents always imagined and it turns out that is not what they really want.

This is the time when values must be owned, not borrowed or adopted. How do we find our identity and values?  It is by making hard choices over and over. We explore, experiment, experience, and then have to decide which directions not to pursue and which ones we care enough about to work hard and make sacrifices.

What helped the young woman most was when I suggested to her that, while she didn’t agree with her parents values, she also didn’t have a role model for what she wanted. She had tried adopting the values of her “fast crowd” peers, and found that some of what attracted her to them was right for her, but not all. Her friends were looking forward to four years of fraternity life with drinking, partying and the minimum of studying. That was not what she wanted for herself. She would have to chart her own course, even if it meant losing some of the friendships of high school.

What’s under the hood?  The essence of this story is that what makes us grow and develop is getting out of our comfort zone. In adolescence there hardly is a comfort zone. Young people are acutely aware that they are facing a frightening and uncertain relationship with the world of their peers. When things go wrong, it is almost always because the young person found an unhealthy refuge from this discomfort. This is why adolescence is so often difficult for both young people and their parents.

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