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This leaflet is mainly for the parents of teenagers and, perhaps, the grandparents of teenagers. We hope that some teenagers might also enjoy reading it.
This leaflet gives information about the process of adolescence and ways in which they can be managed.


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.

Physical - Hormones, timing and changes

The hormone changes responsible actually begin some years earlier and may produce periods of moodiness and restlessness. Girls start these changes before boys and will, for the first three or four years, appear to be maturing much faster. After this, boys catch up.

 These changes include:
  • For girls: menstrual periods, growth of under-arm, body and pubic hair.
  • For boys: voice breaks (becomes deeper), growth of body and pubic hair, facial hair, erections and wet dreams. For both: Rapid physical growth.
By the age of 17, they'll be young men and women who may be bigger than their parents and capable of having children themselves. In spite of this, they often still need support from you.

 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 uses 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.

 The 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 recognise 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.

Young people can crave excitement in a way that most adults find difficult to understand - and exciting activities may be dangerous. Fortunately, most people manage to find their excitement in music, sport, or other activities that involve a lot of energy, but little real physical risk.

When they do experiment - with drink or drugs or smoking - it is usually with friends. If a young person does this alone, they are in much greater danger. Warnings from older adolescents will usually be taken more seriously than those from parents.

What kind of difficulties can a young person have?

The young person can present with an array of difficulties. Some of these are described below.

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 recognised, 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

  • The dramatic physical changes of adolescence can be very worrying to some teenagers, especially to those who are shy and who don't like to ask questions. At the other end of the scale, some express their concern with excessive bragging about sexual ability and experiences.
  • More than half of young people in the UK will have had their first experience of sex before the age of 16 and so the risk of pregnancy is a significant part of adolescent life.
  • The age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16. It is illegal to have sex if either partner is under this age, even if they give consent.
  • Those who start having sex early are at greater risk of early pregnancy and health problems. Sexually transmitted diseases are common, and HIV infection and AIDS are becoming more common.
  • Crushes on someone of the same sex are common in adolescence.
  • Sensitive support, clear guidance and accurate information about these different aspects of sex are essential - from parents, schools, GPs, and family planning clinics.
  • Most adolescents choose their partners quite carefully. Sleeping around and risky unprotected intercourse are often signs of underlying emotional problems. They may also be the signs of a risk-taking lifestyle - adolescents who take risks in one way tend to take risks in other ways as well.
  • Recent research suggests that girls who are close to their parents are less likely to become pregnant in their teenage years.

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.

Behavior 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.
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