The teenage years can be an emotional assault course for all concerned. A gulf can grow between parents and their children during adolescence. One of the reasons many of us find it so hard is because it’s a time of rapid physical development and deep emotional changes. These are exciting, but can also be confusing and uncomfortable for child and parent alike.

What changes occur in adolescence?

Rapid changes can occur physically and emotionally. There are also changes socially (attending secondary school, spending more time with peers) which can present with new challenges like using drugs/alcohol and sexual relationships.

Below we describe the various changes during adolescence.

1. Physical- hormones, timing, and other changes

It is not surprising that, with the speed of these changes, some adolescents become very concerned about their appearance. They may feel worried, especially if these changes happen earlier or later than their peers. It’s important to remember that there’s a lot of difference in the ages at which these changes occur and adolescents need to be reassured about this.

Growth and development use a lot of energy, and this may be why teenagers often seem to need so much sleep. Their getting-up late may be irritating, but it may well not be just laziness.

2. Psychological and emotional changes

As well as growing taller, starting to shave or having periods, people of this age start to think and feel differently. They make close relationships outside the family, with friends of their own age. Relationships within the family also change. Parents become less important in their children’s eyes as their life outside the family develops.

Real disagreements emerge for the first time as young people develop views of their own that are often not shared by their parents. As everybody knows, adolescents spend a lot of time in each other’s company, or on the telephone or internet to each other. Although this can be irritating to parents, it is an important way of becoming more independent. These friendships are part of learning how to get on with other people and gaining a sense of identity that is distinct from that of the family. Clothes and appearance are a way of expressing solidarity with friends, although teenage children are still more likely to get their values from the family.

Parents often feel rejected, and in a sense they are. But this is often necessary for young people to develop their own identity. Even if you have rows and arguments, your children will usually think a lot of you. The rejections and conflicts are often not to do with your personalities, but simply with the fact that you are parents, from whom your children must become independent if they are to have their own life.

As they become more independent, young people want to try out new things, but often recognize that they have little experience to fall back on when things get difficult. This may produce rapid changes in self-confidence and behavior – feeling very adult one minute, very young and inexperienced the next.

Being upset, feeling ill or lacking confidence can make them feel vulnerable. They may show this with sulky behavior rather than obvious distress. Parents have to be pretty flexible to deal with all this and may feel under considerable strain themselves.

Adolescence is the time when people first start in earnest to learn about the world and to find their place in it. This involves trying out new experiences, some of which may be risky or even dangerous.

What kind of difficulties can a young person have?

It’s important to note that despite the popular myth of ‘difficult teenager’, the majority of adolescents do not have significant or severe difficulties.

Emotional Problems
  • Over-eating, excessive sleepiness and a persistent over-concern with appearance may be signs of emotional distress.
  • Anxiety may produce phobias and panic attacks. Research suggests that emotional disorders are often not recognized, even by family and friends.
  • At some time, 4 out of 10 adolescents have felt so miserable that they have cried and have wanted to get away from everyone and everything.
  • During their adolescence, more than 1 in 5 teenagers think so little of themselves that life does not seem worth living. In spite of these powerful feelings, depression may not be obvious to other people.
Sexual Problems

Parental shock

It can be surprisingly upsetting when your child has their first serious relationship, or you find out that they have started to have sex. For the first time in your life together, you are not the most important person to them. The sense of shock will pass, but you may need a while to adjust to the new state of affairs.

Behaviour problems
  • Teenagers and their parents complain about each other’s behavior. Parents often feel they have lost any sort of control or influence over their child. Adolescents want their parents to be clear and consistent about rules and boundaries, but at the same time may resent any restrictions on their growing freedom and ability to decide for themselves.
  • If disagreements are common and normal, when should you worry? Experience suggests that children are at greater risk of getting into trouble if their parents don’t know where they are. So, try to make sure that you know where they are going and what they are up to. If you really don’t know, you need to find out.
School problems

Refusal to go to school can be due to:

  • Difficulties in separating from parents
  • Being perfectionist, and becoming depressed because they can’t do as well as they would want to
  • Disturbed family life, with early separation from or death of a parent.
  • An established pattern which may have started at primary school. These children often have physical symptoms, such as headache or stomach-ache.


  • Physical, emotional and sexual abuse may occur in adolescence and may cause many of the problems mentioned above.
Mental illness

Much less often, changes in behavior and mood can mark the beginning of more serious psychiatric disorders. Although uncommon, bipolar disorder (manic depression) and schizophrenia may emerge for the first time during adolescence.

The Good News for parents

Adolescence has had a bad press. However, recent studies have shown that most teenagers actually like their parents and feel that they get on well with them. It is a time when the process of growing up can help people to make positive changes and to put the problems of the past behind them.

It is not just a difficult stage, although it can feel very much like it at times. The anxiety experienced by parents is more than matched by the periods of uncertainty, turmoil, and unhappiness experienced by the adolescent.

Difficult times come and go, but most adolescents don’t develop serious problems. It’s worth remembering this when things are difficult.

Parents may sometimes start to feel that they have failed. However, whatever may be said in the heat of the moment, they play a crucial part in their children’s lives. Helping your children grow through adolescence can be profoundly satisfying.

Top Tips
  • Don’t be jealous
    The good times and opportunities that adolescent children have may well make you feel very middle-aged. Their physical strength is increasing at a time that yours may well be waning. Jealousy can be the hidden fuel for all sorts of arguments and trouble.
  • Make your home a safe base
    Adolescent children are exploring life, but need a base to come back to. Home should be somewhere they feel safe to come back to, where they will be protected, cared for and taken seriously.
  • Mutual support
    • Agree between themselves about their basic values and rules
    • Support each other in applying them. It’s difficult for a teenager to respect parents who are always at each other’s throats or undermining each other. A common trap is for one parent to ally themselves with their child against the other parent. This usually leads to constant trouble.
  • Easy Listening
    Adults need to be a source of advice, sympathy, and comfort. A teenager needs to know that his or her parents will not automatically jump down their throat with judgment, criticism or routine advice. Listening comes first
  • Rules
    However fast they may be growing up, you are your children’s providers and it is reasonable that you should decide what the ground rules are. Whilst adolescents may protest, sensible rules can be the basis for security and agreement. They must be:
    • Clear, so everybody knows where they stand
    • Where possible, they should be agreed with the children
    • Consistent, so everyone sticks to them
    • Reasonable
    • Less restrictive as children become more responsible.

You can’t (and shouldn’t) have rules for everything. While some issues will not be negotiable, there should be room for bargaining on others.

Sanctions, such as grounding or loss of pocket money, will only work if they are established in advance. Don’t threaten these if you are not willing to carry them out.

Rewards for behaving well are just as important – probably more important, in fact.

Managing disagreements

Involve your children in making family rules – like all of us, they are more likely to stick to rules if they can see some logic to them and have helped to make them. If a teenager is reluctant to discuss rules for him or herself, they may still do this if they can see that it might be helpful for younger brothers or sisters. If they don’t want to get involved, they will just have to put up with the rules you decide on.

Parents should pick their battles. A lot of things adolescents do are irritating (as you probably irritate them), but not all are worth an argument. It’s usually better to spend time on praising good decisions or behavior. Most annoying habits will burn themselves out once parents stop reacting to them.

Don’t use corporal (physical) punishment

Although it is now viewed as unhelpful, many people still occasionally smack younger children. If you do this with adolescent children:

  • You create the impression that violence is an acceptable way to solve difficulties. This means that they are more likely to grow up to use violence as adults.
  • You can get stuck in a cycle of violence – you hit them, they hit you back (because they are now big enough), you hit them again and so on.
Set the example

Although they are becoming more independent, your children will still learn a lot about how to behave from you. If you don’t want them to swear, don’t swear yourself. If you don’t want them to get drunk, don’t get drunk yourself. If you don’t want them to be violent, don’t use violence yourself. If you want them to be kind and generous to other people ….. try to be like this yourself. “Do as I say, not as I do” just won’t work.


Don’t worry if your children aren’t as grateful as you would like. It’s great if they are, but they may not be until they have children of their own and realize how demanding it can be.

When all else fails – get help

Adolescents who experience turmoil or distress for more than a few months – persistent depression, anxiety, serious eating disorders or difficult behavior – generally require outside help. Counseling agencies may be suitable if things have not gone too far. They exist for young people and for parents and some contact addresses are listed below.