Kani Garcia once wrote in Beautiful Creatures: “Teenagers. Everything is so apocalyptic.”
The struggles that adolescents face during puberty are perceived to be tremendous, and this struggle extends to parents as well, as mentioned by some:“Welcome to being the parent of a teenager. Prepare for large amounts of eye-rolling, emotional outbursts, and thoughts of running away. And that’s just the parents!”
To further address the struggles that parents can face and how they can navigate through this experience, we have invited Professor Lee Li Neng, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology of National University of Singapore (NUS), to share his experience and insight on addressing puberty in adolescents. Being a father of three and having various encounters with challenge-faced youths at a local NGO, Professor Lee has garnered valuable experience in journeying alongside adolescents as they traverse through this challenging developmental phase.
Misconceptions about Puberty
Being parents to teenagers, it would be a common consensus amongst any of them that most adolescents become increasingly defiant and stubborn during this period of growth. One such parent has even quoted, “sometimes I’m left with the distinct feeling that I am outnumbered by my only child.”
However, Professor Lee shared that what we see as rejection of parental authority, is really just the developmental growth of cognition and reasoning ability. He expressed that children begin to ask more questions not to defy authority, but as part and parcel of their identity development, which is one of the key developmental aspects during adolescence. It is understood that during this developmental phase, children are growing physically and cognitively, which enables them to exert much more of their will as compared to before. Hence, it appears to parents that they become more argumentative or domineering during puberty.
“It makes some of us really uncomfortable, but it is important for us to spend much more time explaining the “why” rather than stating the “what”.”
Puberty can also be a difficult time for parents as children seemingly become more physically or emotionally detached from them, and demand for more “space”.
While agreeing that adolescents do need space to make their own decisions, Professor Lee also stated that they actually still want to stay connected to their parents. What does it mean to be connected while being apart? Professor Lee clarifies that the key to a healthy connection and development comprises a balance between the freedom to explore needs and a solid foundation of clear reliable boundaries and relationships. Knowing that they are still loved while they explore their needs within healthy boundaries not only enhances the development of the child, but also the relationship between the child and parent.
Talking about Sexuality
Puberty also comes with another tricky topic on sexual orientation, in which adolescents experience an increasing curiosity to explore. Most of the time, the apprehensiveness of approaching this topic arises when parents are unprepared for the unexpected outburst from a child.
“I remember having a conversation with my son one day when he started asking about advertisements that he saw in the mall: “Why is the woman not wearing clothes?”, Professor Lee shared as he recalled his own experience in addressing his son’s early curiosity in sexual issues.
While it may seem more convenient to avoid engaging in such conversations with children, Professor Lee reassures that it is helpful to have conversations about smaller issues early, and use it as a branch to other relevant topics. Hence, he believes that it first starts with the parents’ comfort to talk about sexual issues.
“Preparing ourselves to have conversations earlier is important because it does take time for us to prepare ourselves. The last thing that we want to do is to find ourselves having to immediately react to the issue, rather than thoughtfully respond to it.”
However, parents still need to be mindful about whether their child is ready to go in-depth on such a topic. Professor Lee cautions that some children may be more ready than others, and so it falls on the wisdom of the parent to balance between being open for such conversations and talking about it at a pace where the child is ready.
Social Media Usage and Puberty
With social media taking the world by storm, it is not uncommon to see many teenagers scrolling their phones throughout the day. This has led many parents to ponder if the increased use of social media leads to teenagers experiencing puberty earlier.
Although there has been no direct causation found between social media usage and decrease of pubertal age, there is still a growing concern amongst parents who have children who seem to reach puberty much earlier. Professor Lee clarifies that as puberty is a relatively biological process, it is unlikely to be influenced by social media use. However, he acknowledges that it does seem that older children are beginning to act like teenagers, especially with increased social media use. Research has also shown that higher social media exposure creates a negative impact on developmental outcomes, more so in girls than boys.
It is understandably difficult for parents to allow the freedom of their child to use social media to connect with friends, while avoiding the negative developmental outcomes. Professor Lee’s personal opinion is “to keep them off social media until they come to a point where they are ready to navigate this arena”.
In recognising the benefits and importance of social media for connection with peers, he proposes the approach of balancing the tension between giving access so that adolescents can build and maintain healthy friendships with their peers, while at the same time, teaching them how to discern the positive and negative effects of social media.
Tips for Parents
Puberty is not easy, especially when so much change is happening not just for the child, but for parents as well. In addressing the struggles that come in helping our children navigate puberty, Professor Lee shared two important tips with us:
Have a good, healthy relationship with your child when they are young. This forms a great foundation for parents to address the struggles that puberty may ensue.
Grow alongside your children and navigate the challenges together. Puberty is a period of change, and strategies that may have worked well before may be a cause of downfall in the future, so it is important for parents to grow as well.
While puberty can be a foreign experience for all, and present great confusion and curiosity in many adolescents and their parents, it can be navigated more smoothly with the right balance of managing expectations and providing care and understanding to adolescents going through this new experience.
Definitely, there will be many challenges in the road ahead, but in Lee’s words: “In the midst of all the upheaval, know that our relationship with our child remains one of the most critical things in their lives. So, let’s do all we can to stay calm and stay connected. It is that connection which would give us the space to have influence in their lives.”