Adolescence marks the period of transition from childhood to adulthood. It involves multiple physical, cognitive, personality, social and emotional developmental changes. Adolescents experience a growth spurt, just like the one that was in infanthood. They start showing signs of maturation as they gain the primary and secondary sex characteristics. Intellectually, they have a higher level of thinking than a child- they can deal with abstractions, think logically about concrete things and see infinite possibilities.
This is also the time that they search for their identity. It comes with an intense struggle for independence, egocentric behavior, and attitudes. So, though it is a grand developmental stage, it is a trying time for most parents.
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Understanding The Changes of an Adolescent
Adolescence begins with the onset of normal puberty and ends when adult behavior and identity are accepted. The age of adolescents is not clearly demarcated, but in most, it corresponds to the ages of 10 and 19 years. However, it may start earlier or later in some children. It can also end later than 19 years, especially when developmental milestones were delayed in other ages.
Most parents begin talking to their little ones about the changes of adolescence at the age of 13 when most of the changes have set in. There is nothing magical about the age of 13. It is beneficial to start the conversation early enough when the child is young. Your healthcare professional may alert you of when to start, but as soon as you see that they are beginning to show some signs of independence, start talking.
2. Physical changes
The physical growth spurt of the adolescent feels like they slept and grew overnight. However, the changes usually take place over the years under the influence of biologic, genetic and hormonal factors. The physical changes involve rapid skeletal growth, which begins from 10 to 12 years in girls and 12 to 14 years in boys.
They start getting their second molars at the age of about 13 years. The third molars take longer and may appear between 14 and 25 years. Encourage them to brush their teeth at least twice daily, limit sugary snacks, floss and take protective measures like wearing mouthguards when participating in sports activities and using dental sealants in cavity-prone areas.
Glands of the skin especially on the face become more active, produce more oil leading to skin conditions like acne. It bothers many adolescents and affects their self-image. Keep on reassuring them and if necessary, see a dermatologist- do not brush off their concerns. They also develop more sweat glands in the armpit and genital area. Skin bacteria feed on the sweat, and if hygiene is not observed, they will have a bad odor.
Key physical changes for girls include
- Breasts begin to grow and maybe a bit tender. A soft crop top or sports bra will help to ease pain and ensure comfort.
- Hips begin to widen
- Hair growth on the armpits and vulva
- Whitish vaginal discharge is seen months before menstruation begin
- Periods (menstruation) start
- Fat deposition in specific areas like the hips
Girls need to be prepared for menstruation by providing adequate information, emotional support, and assurance. Do not forget to emphasize on menstrual hygiene, lower abdominal cramps and pre-menstrual symptoms.
Key changes in boys include
- The penis, scrotum, and testis enlarge
- Pubic hair starts growing
- Minor breast development may be noticed
- Facial, chest, armpit and arms hair thickens and grows
- Production of testosterone begins, signaling production of sperms
- Starts erections and ejaculation
- The Adam’s apple becomes more obvious, and the voice deepens
3. Cognitive development
The changes in how the adolescents think are quite as dramatic as the physical changes. They can analyze situations logically, are able to use metaphors and are more imaginative. The cognitive development allows them to think about their future and make personal goals. Nevertheless, despite the rapidly developing thinking capacity, adolescents still need guidance from adults on rational decision making. Just like adults make poor decisions, adolescents too can make mistakes.
The mind continues developing until they are in their 20s. So at times, an adolescent may convey some cognitive immaturity and may have some problem in regulating emotions and putting things in proper perspective. As a parent, it will be helpful to set clear behavioral guidelines and limits.
4. Emotional development
In emotional development, the adolescent learns how to cope with stress and manage emotions. Their cognitive development lays the ground for emotional reasoning and judgment- two critical things that if not properly mastered, can bring lifelong issues. Through emotional development, the adolescent also searches for their identity. Identity is not only what they think about themselves for that period, but also what they can possibly be or would like to be. They should also begin to master how to manage stress and be sensitive when relating to other people as well as make friends.
Since the body undergoes many changes, many of the adolescents feel uncomfortable and overly sensitive to the changes. As a result, some become quite irritated easily, lose their temper and may become withdrawn. These emotional ups and downs may result in many conflicts with adults. It is essential to talk about such feelings to your child and encourage them to accept the changes.
Another significant emotional change is that adolescents start to have strong emotions and may get into romantic relationships. Though some may not get intimate, others get into irresponsible sexual behavior. Well, it wise to let them go on dates, but talk about their sexual behavior.
They will also want to spend more time with their peers and less time with the family. The child will most probably be ascertaining their independence on where they want to go, whom they spend time with and how they spend the time. Although it is wise to give them some freedom on this, you have to be cautious about peer pressure.
How to Prepare Your Child for Adolescence
Early preparation is the best way to prepare each child. Let them not see their breasts enlarging and they start thinking that something is really wrong with them. Let your boy not have the first wet dream and they get overburdened that they have begun wetting their bed again. The changes will be less stressful if you work together with your child and walk with them throughout the developmental period.
The child will be ready to talk about their changes when you are ready- that means, you must be ready first. Do not be tempted to pass the responsibility to an older sibling. The best hope for the best outcome is that you the parent, are the one to explain it and what it means. The best time is the preteen period, generally between 9 and 12 years. However, all children are not the same. That is why it is important to spend time with your child to get a sense of when they are developmentally ready.
First, learn as much as you can about the adolescence period. Read through books, blogs, and magazines on what to expect from an adolescent. You may have passed through the adolescence stage, but the world is constantly changing. Also, seek wisdom from other parents and relatives. You may not always be right, and you will almost always learn something new each day.
In your conversations, plan to talk about the many areas of change they may encounter in their transition to adulthood. It should cover everything from their body changes, emotions, decision making and their relationship with you.
The ability to talk to the child is an aspect that you must master from when they are small. If you had not established communication when the child was younger, it is not impossible to achieve it in adolescence. However, it will happen gradually, takes time, persistence and understanding. Also, you may have adopted a healthy communicating relationship with your child earlier, but when they walk into adolescence, you notice that they turn away from you. This is normal, and it will take some patience to bring the relationship back.
Healthy eating is a critical aspect of the adolescents as they should be gaining skeletal and muscular growth. They should eat from the five food group categories, emphasizing on five meals spread throughout the day- including three main meals and two healthy snacks. Increase fiber, fruits, and vegetables as you limit the use of sugary drinks and high-fat diets. Involve your child in selection and preparation of the food and explain the nutritional value of each choice.
It is important to note that your child will more often than not eat plenty of food outside the home. Their meals may, therefore, be heavily influenced by their peers. Some may eat too much of the wrong food types while others may feel the pressure to limit what they eat to thin.
Here are some considerations to help your teen make healthy food choices
- Provide regular meal times and add some social interaction. Have breakfast and dinner together with other family members to provide a positive food model. As parents, you have to demonstrate what healthy eating is. If you rush out in the morning with only a cup of sweetened coffee and when you are back late in the night you only curl up on the couch with pasta, then your girl or boy will follow the same.
- Ensure that there is always delicious and healthy food at home
- Control the portion sizes and only give the recommended sizes appropriate to the age
- Give teen-oriented reading materials for nutrition to encourage their interest in healthy eating and cooking.
- Give nutritious snacks
- Bake and boil instead of deep frying
- Experiment with food outside your home and culture
- Consider more fish and chicken. Limit red meats and choose the lean cuts
- Keep a fruit bowl stocked at home
- Teach them to eat when hungry and stop when full
- Encourage water and replenishing nutrients like vitamin C, omega fatty acids, and zinc for healthy skin.
2. Physical Activity and Weight Control
Regular physical activity will help your child maintain physical fitness, keep a healthy body weight, improve concentration, cardiovascular health and learn new skills. An adolescent should have at least one hour of physical activity daily. Unfortunately, most adolescents do not meet this requirement. The consequences are being overweight or obese and increased risk for diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
To encourage physical activity, limit television or indoor games to only two hours per day. Replace the sitting time with activities that need more movement. They can help in cleaning, gardening, packing or anything that keeps them on the move.
You can also come up with an exercise plan, enroll them in a dance class, subscribe gym membership or a yoga class. Note that whichever activity that you choose should match your child’s interests, skills, and abilities. Sometimes an adolescent may be interested in an activity that is beyond your financial capability. Money should not be a barrier to their dream- inquire about provisions of low-income homes, scholarships or come up with creative payment arrangements.
Ensure that your teen has the right type of clothing and footwear for every activity. It is true that exercise helps maintain a good posture, but if the right form is not adopted during each activity, then their posture may be compromised. Shoes and sportswear play an enormous role in getting the proper form during exercise.
Remember that healthy meals should accompany physical activity.
The development of primary and secondary sexual health characteristics gives rise to strong and new emotions which can push adolescents to experiment with their bodies. Given the right tools, your teen has the potential to take responsibility for their reproductive health. Empowering them with factual information is the first step to ensure that they understand consequences of their sexual behavior.
Teen sex, pregnancy, abstinence, sexually transmitted infections and birth control some of the critical issues that you will not want to let your adolescent discover on their own. Having a solid foundation of knowledge on sexual health and a clear attitude (not barred by your personal experiences and cultural limitations) will help you tackle each topic and question that your teen may ask. Nevertheless, you do not have to be an expert to talk about sexuality with your child. The most important thing is that the conversation begins with you and that you address any myths or incorrect information.
Here are some tips to consider
- Give accurate information
- Do not make the conversation too serious but have some sense of humor
- Use informative media and real-life situations
- Do not compare your teen to other teens
- Practice what you teach
- Do not make any assumptions about your teen
- Be respectful, talk in a gentle and nonobtrusive manner
- Talk to your child about ways to handle pressure from peers
- Do not punish your child for being honest
- Keep the conversations going through adolescence
- Listen to the side of your teen on what they know and think
- Define healthy relationships and emphasize that they are based on mutual respect, trust, honesty, communication, and support.
- Describe the different types of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, and digital abuse). Teach them also to identify signs of any other unhealthy relationship.
- Explain the difference between lust, infatuation, and love
- Together with your teen, set expectations, and boundaries
- If you need help from outside, do not hesitate to ask for it
4. Emotional wellbeing
Mood swings, crying spells and anger outbursts and are all common as the hormonal and physical changes are a roller-coaster ride. The emotions are normal, but if they go on for days and interfere with the normal daily activities, they may be an indication of a mental disorder. Emotional wellbeing is associated with social competence and good coping skills that help the adolescent transition to adulthood. It is therefore essential to help your teen regulate their emotions and take care of themselves.
Some solutions include:
- Encourage physical activity to raise the serotonin levels, also known as the ‘feel good hormones’
- Encourage your teen to talk as you give a non-judgmental ear
- Emphasize that their emotions are normal. Give your puberty experiences and also let an older sibling speak about their adolescence journey
- Keep a keen eye on erratic behavior, changes in appetite, sleep patterns and mood swings. However, do not spy. Openly talk about your concerns and discuss any emerging problems
- Set boundaries and intervene if they are compromised. You have to be assertive as teenagers can easily fall into bad company and may not take criticism well.
- Support your teen’s life aspirations, encourage and support their projects
- If the child is overly moody, seek professional help
- Prevent access to alcohol and other drugs
- Keep the communication constant, open and honest
The Warning Signs An Adolescent
The red flags may not be too obvious for an adolescent, especially when their emotions and behavior keep on fluctuating. Adolescence is thus a critical period that needs you to be attentive to your teen’s behavior. You should be alert for any of these signs:
- Excessive sleep, difficulty in sleeping or insomnia
- Loss of self-esteem
- Unexpected dramatic fall in academic performance
- Weight loss accompanied by unhealthy eating patterns
- Expression of worthlessness
- Excessive secrecy and isolation
- Excessive body image concerns
- Loss of interest in activities that they were once passionate about