The Serious Business of Play

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Some children may glide through their preteen and teen years effortlessly. However, for most the transition from childhood to adulthood is like crossing a mountain range — filled with high peaks and low valleys. Regardless of the age of your child, how you relate to her now will affect the way she copes with the peaks and valleys to come.

Developmental Changes

“The teenage years are developmentally complex,” says Thomas Catron, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University. “Physically, teens are experiencing tremendous hormonal changes. Socially, they are in the process of becoming more independent in their thoughts and attitudes. Cognitively, they develop the capacity to deal with the hypothetical and can have a new sense of idealism.”

During this time of transition, he explains, keep in mind who your teen is and who she desires to be. She will experiment with new roles as she searches for belonging.

Adolescence is also be a lonely time, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) in the book, Your Adolescent. A young teen may not realize her feelings are shared by others, until a moment of clarity occurs when she discovers that there are others who like the same things and have similar ideas.

At this point, your teen will work to cultivate an image based upon those she is trying to attract. She will dress according to her group’s standards. Her behavior will change, at times dramatically, as she emulates this group, such as letting her grades slip if being too smart is not considered “cool.” As this stage is vital to her development of identity, the best thing a parent can do is to offer support and security while maintaining open communication, advises the AACAP.

Causes of Stress

In what seems, to adults, should be an easy and carefree time, it may be hard to imagine what could possibly cause stress in the life of your teen. Many circumstances can lead to severe stress — problems at home, problems with peers, relationship issues, the death of a friend or the disappointment of failure all affect teens much as they do adults.

Remember, at this stage of development, problems are magnified. For instance, material things have a high importance, says Catron, which can lead to stress when teens feel they do not have the things they value or desire. The need for the “right” things stems from the desire to belong to and fit in with a chosen group.

Obviously, while parents cannot simply give in to their developing child’s every whim to avoid upsetting her, the opportunity presents itself to help your child develop her growing independence. An allowance tied to the completion of some household chores can provide an excellent transition to earning money from a part-time job, says the AACAP. Help your teen decide for herself what material items are most important as she sets goals to save for them.

Parental expectations can be extremely stressful on children, says Catron. When expectations chronically exceed a teenager’s capabilities, the stress can become unbearable and something has to give — either the expectation or the teenager’s mental health. Unreasonable parental expectations can leave the child feeling like a failure, unable to deal with life and doubtful of the situation’s improvement, he says.

“School is really hard for a lot of people,” says Jean, a seventh-grader at St. Bernard Academy in Nashville. “Many kids feel that if they don’t succeed in school then their lives will be ruined.”

Nathan, a junior at Franklin High School, agrees. Although already an A/B student, he’s feeling pressure to make higher grades to get into a good college. “My mom is the instigator,” he says. “She just makes it worse by telling me that I didn’t try hard enough or I didn’t study long enough. If my mom would mellow out a little and not be so melodramatic, my reaction would probably be less defensive.”

Jean adds that that interaction between family members can also be a source of stress for teens. “Like parents who fight,” she says, “and parents who don’t say that they love them or give them enough support. There are so many pressures to do a lot of different things, like drugs, early pressure on sex, violence. It gets to you. My parents talk to my sister and me about it and it embarrasses us, but if you’re a parent, you have to.”

Identifying Over-Stressed Kids

“Parents can help by paying attention to their children’s responses to demands and situations,” says Catron. “The most important indicator is a significant change in what parents typically observe their teenagers to do or be like.” Changes in routines and habits can suggest a problem. He offers signs to look for:

  • Changes in sleep patterns (either more or less)
  • Changes in eating habits (either more or less)
  • Drug or alcohol usage
  • Sudden slip in grades
  • TV or video game obsession, or other vegetative activities (to distract themselves from the stress)
  • Obsession with trying to get school work done and keep up
  • Discussions with peers about stress
  • Withdrawal and seclusion
  • An expression of hopelessness

Sometimes signals that something is wrong are simply not visible, because a teen may attempt to keep them hidden. As a teenager is practicing her autonomy and pulling away from you, she is less likely to communicate her feelings.


“Parents have to figure out how to be observant and supportive without being intrusive and driving their teenager further away,” says Catron. As your child pushes away, even as early as the preteen years, it is vital to maintain healthy development by allowing the space and freedom necessary to find her identity while also remaining available to her.

Helping Your Teen Cope

“If a parent and teenager can talk directly about stress then the parent can help their child identify the causes of the stress and some potential solutions,” says Catron. If the parent-child relationship is not open, parents may have to guess the causes of the stress and take steps to improve the situation on their own. This is not always easy and may require the consultation of a professional for specific advice.

According to the AACAP, adolescents can be masters of noncommunication. If a teen feels like talking, she will. If not, she’ll just sit there. You don’t have to know everything that’s going on inside your adolescent’s head. It is important, however, that if something is bothering her she feels comfortable coming to you.

It’s easier for parents to help their child cope if they have kept in touch with the significant people in their teen’s life, such as teachers, coaches, friends and friends’ parents, say Catron. Contact with others involved in the life of the teen helps provide information in case some action needs to be taken.

“Parents should encourage their own teenagers to let them know when one of the teenager’s friends is in distress,” he advises. “This can be a conflict for the teenager, to not ‘rat’ on their friend, but parents can encourage the sharing of information to protect teens from injury and come up with a game plan about such situations so there is clear understanding.”

By late adolescence, the AACAP says that most teenagers realize they can be individuals without alienating the ones they love. When this happens, don’t be surprised if your advice is suddenly in demand again from a teen who realizes that parents do know a thing or two. Until then, remember:

“Teens say, ‘I wish my parents would stay out of my life,'” says Jean, “and sometimes we do. But we also know that they need to be there. They have to be the ones who are helping us and supporting us, making us believe that we can succeed.”
Brenna Hansen is associate editor of this publication. Communicating With Your Growing Child

Does “Because I said so!” not work anymore? Being a good communicator means that it’s not about “winning,” but turning a conflict into a productive discussion.

When speaking

  • Use “I” messages to explain your feelings
  • Avoid condescension and patronization
  • Organize your thoughts instead of offering a knee-jerk reactions
  • Be clear and concise
  • Don’t communicate only when it’s convenient for you – talk to kids when they are most receptive
  • Remember that power struggles lead nowhere
  • Allow your teen to communicate in return

When listening

  • Pay attention
  • Watch for nonverbal cues
  • Ask questions
  • Try to be as nonjudgemental as possible
  • Don’t interrupt – let your child finish before responding
  • Be a reflective listener – discover the feeling behind what your child is saying and say it out loud to her
  • Stay focused on the issue at hand

Source: A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Years by Susan Panzarine (Checkmark Books)

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