Who Are You, and What Have You Done With My Kid?! Understanding Adolescence: Part 1 of 2

Understanding AdolescenceParents with young teens understand better than anyone that adolescence is a period of substantial change for their children, but also their relationship with them. Our kids take their first steps into forging their own identities, deciding for themselves what they want out of life. Often, their decisions are bad ones. As parents, we want to maintain the treasured relationship we had with them as young children, but during these years must walk a tight rope between being their friend, and being their parent. Finding the right balance between friend and authority is a struggle all parents must go through, but with help, it can be made significantly easier and more fulfilling. Find out how with Ottawa Youth Counselling.

Understanding the Shift In Adolescent Thinking and Behavior


Adolescence, and all the drama associated with it, is about a whole lot more than just hormones. During adolescence, young teens are going through significant physiological and social transformations that play a role in describing and guiding the shift in their identity.


Teen Change
Too often adults dismiss adolescent and teenage behavior as ‘just a phase’, or ‘hormones’. While these explanations offer a certain kind of understanding, they lack the depth necessary to truly understand and help with the changes adolescence are struggling with.


For parents, teachers, coaches; and anyone who plays a role in the life of these budding adults, understanding the nuances of this tremendous shift offers us the opportunity to increase our ability to respond positively to teen behavior.



During adolescence we are subjected to a trifecta of intense neurological, cognitive, and social changes. All of these developments fundamentally change our understanding and approach to life, and all of them hit us at the same time. Before you can learn the best ways to help the adolescents in your life, it’s important to recognize the nature of these changes, and how they interact to produce the thoughts and behavior characteristic of teenagers. Consider each of them below:


Neurological Change

During adolescence, research indicates that the brain is undergoing a period of significant structural transformation. Taking several years to complete, current science suggests that this period of transformation is when we establish much of our capacity for abstract thinking. During this change, our brain is in an unstable state. We are establishing cognitive abilities that yield certain thoughts and feelings, and therefore decisions and behaviours; but from a brain that is not quite ‘finished’ building itself.


Cognitive Change


Much of the neurological change taking place during adolescence happens in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with rationality and problem solving. We gain the important cognitive ability of metacognition, the ability to think about our thinking. Instead of being limited to our own thoughts, we can ‘step outside’ them, think about the view points and thought processes of others, and integrate them into our own thinking.


How to Deal With Teens


Adolescents struggle to process the flood of all this new information. While they can perceive new viewpoints and ways of thinking, they can’t process all of them, and have a tendency to get stuck in the rut of viewing the world in black-and-white. This helps to explain why so many teens are drawn to niche communities. Having spent their entire life living their lives according to their parents values, adolescence exposes them to other ways of thinking. Unable to process every new way of thinking, they often adopt one that resonates with them. Gamers, Emo’s, Skateboarders, Athletes, Cheerleaders; all these identities offer a new way of looking at the world and behaving within it. Until the mind has finished developing, teens struggle to understand the world beyond the terms of their community.


Social Change


teen social changesOn-top of new neurological and cognitive structures, adolescents must also struggle with new social ones. This is the time of life where we begin dating, we get our first jobs, we’re expected to be more independent at home and at school.


Among these social changes is one that hits closer to home, that of family relationships. Where a child was once fundamentally attached to their parents for validation and guidance, adolescence marks the beginning of a shift towards peers for the same connection. Parental values now must compete with that of social groups when shaping the identity of an adolescent, something many parents lose sight of to their detriment.


How To Help Your Teen and Yourself Cope With Adolescence

To learn more about how to help your teen and yourself cope with the changes they’re experiencing, check back to the Ottawa Youth Counselling blog next week!