pediatric housecalls Robert R. Jarrett M.D. M.B.A. FAAP

Puberty: Psychological Stages – Part 2

Previously in this series about puberty we’ve learned about the physical changes girls and boys traverse morphing into women and men and how early research by Dr. James Tanner (of the Tanner Scale of puberty) helped further our understanding.

We’ve learned that puberty stages don’t match actual ages and that neither does physical puberty match psychological/emotional puberty. In fact, we had just dropped into the “black hole” that is “phase two” of psychological puberty when we ran out of typewriter paper.
Physical maturity and psychological maturity don’t happen at the same time
Today, we’ll resume where we left off: standing in the doorway watching our offspring once more amble into public and worrying how badly they will publicize our feared lack of parenting skills this day; and, increasingly understanding what our own parents meant when they cursed us with: “I hope you have a kid just like you.”

Emotional-Psychological-Neurologial Changes

We’ve already described the relatively uneventful “Phase One” which brought your adolescent new same-sex confidences along with some bonding to adults not in your immediate family. And we were just discussing that “Phase Two,” physical Tanner stages 3 and 4, is where the real drama of puberty takes place: boys do growth spurts; girls begin menstruation; body odor, acne and shaving begin; and all just as they become incredibly egocentric, narcissistic and obsessed with their looks and peer pressure.

Constantly questioning every societal convention and rule becomes the never ending mantra for their constantly changing persona all the while attempting to clarify their burgeoning interest in sex and how they fit in to the world.

Phase Two (con’t)

Unless you’re a professional family counselor involved with lots of teens, you probably won’t notice the “big picture” of teen emotional puberty which is: looking down on the Serengeti plains from 10,000 feet, all the Wildebeests seem to be moving in the same direction. For both boys and girls that direction is independent living – in every aspect… physical, emotional, financial.

Yea, I know the poor young soul standing in front of you wouldn’t even make it to midnight of the first night alone in the jungle without being eaten by something with sharp teeth. But, in reality, the hormones surging through their body doing a number on their appearance are, perhaps for the first time, also changing their life’s goals to coincide with that of your own: to get out of the house… eventually. That is what you want, isn’t it?

Puberty, like the migration of Wildebeests, has one goal: IndependencePuberty, like the migration of Wildebeests, has one goal: Independence

From your viewpoint inside the herd you may only see your offspring flailing and roaring back and forth aimlessly across the plain knocking over trees, intimidating squirrels and only barely keeping from falling off the edge. And you may not see that there are other teens – a lot of them – mostly grazing placidly up the middle of the herd.

Preparatory Work

Why is that? For a million reasons, mostly undefined. But, this is the time where all your prior difficult preparatory efforts really begin to pay off—and, of course, where the heavy price is extracted for the silly things you did and didn’t do, like “helicopter parenting.”

There is obviously more than enough “luck of the draw” and “accident” involved in making it through “teen-hood”; but, teens who have already had an education on appropriate methods of decision making and the chance to exercise it, surely have less difficulty now that the decisions are excruciatingly more costly to their lives.

Certainly teens who go into “phase two” already having developed the traits of a moral upbringing have a greater understanding of potential adverse outcomes and their effects on others. One can hope that teens who respect themselves and others, and who have already had experiences with success in meaningful work and accomplishment, might be less swayed toward inappropriate behavior.

That’s what I mean by “previous difficult preparatory efforts” made by parents. None-the-less, and no-matter-what, all teens must eventually “make it through” the whole course—and not without a lot of effort and risk. Some may do it grazing mostly down the middle and others do it by excruciatingly wandering all over the plain; but, rarely do any of them escape the roaring and drums of the night.

Breaking Free

Parenting in “Phase Two” is unique to every parent and child – using their strengths, past experiences, styles and motivations. The key is to understand and constantly keep your eye on what is happening: breaking free from mother and father and becoming a unique, functioning, sustainable individual. Parents must allow it to happen.

Parenting, more than talking about sexParenting is a lot of preparatory work about life skills

It would be great if you can figure out how to guide them into measured steps of increasing independence as a reward for demonstrating responsible behavior. The “head in the sand” approach WILL NOT WORK in this day and age because there are too many others out there who want their own agenda’s at your child’s expense – and you can bet they’ve got their heads above the sand and eyes wide open!

Their residing with you (and of course the law) gives you entitlement and moral obligation to hold them to certain standards of behavior – it’s up to you to find ways to bring it about logically and respectfully enough that it can be obtained willingly. Assuming that we all continue to grow in maturity all our lives, this just might be one of your own maturity tasks: to learn how to let go.

Forewarned is Fore-armed

The “birds and bees” talk cannot be only about sexual growth and functions. And it cannot be a “one shot fixes all” event. Often one of the greatest tools a parent has, is overlooked because it is feared so awkward by the parent.

Talking nonchalantly about what it will be like to be a teen, that they might want to challenge conventions, that they will need to learn techniques of decision making, that actions have consequences and what they are… all those things, done long before they happen, in a non-challenging tone can make a huge difference.

Talk about “when you disagree with me how are we going to solve issues and allow you to be heard and learn while still allowing me to teach and keep you safe?” Let them know that it’s ok if they are a Democrat or hold other equally bizarre opinions which are different than yours.

Let them know that as their parent you feel obligated to at least know that they’ve heard the truth and correct principles; but, that you understand they might not currently see the benefit in them that you do. [Remember, that more often than not you will be vindicated when years later their positions will be similar to their parents and they exclaim “I’m just like my mother!”] Be patient.

Parenting, a skill to know how to let go appropriatelyParenting, a skill to know how to let go appropriately

Let them see that on many items of less-importance their acting on incorrect opinions isn’t something upon which you’ll continually intervene, even though it may be painful to you to watch; but, that actions affecting their safety or well being IS an area where you won’t compromise and may need to take preventive action if it comes to that.

Not In This Alone

It seems trite and hokey to say, but: “you’re not the only one in this thing you know!” “Stranger danger” is something we teach our kids; but then often forget to un-do appropriately when no longer needed. The concept has been around long enough that perhaps you were taught that yourself.

I hope neither you nor your kids are so hesitant and stand-offish with others that you’ve got no one to talk to about this or brainstorm with. With seven billion people on the earth there surely is someone with your answer. Although, perhaps unfortunately for you, most of us out here with your “answer” are “strangers” to you.

On more than a few occasions I’ve watched a light go on in a distraught parents eyes as I’ve merely recounted an experience which seemed to relate. There are a lot of us out here to talk to, commiserate with and bounce ideas off of – some of us even know how to interpret the Serengeti jungle drums of the night for you, which may be troubling your kid.

Make It Through

The migration through psychological puberty is long and dusty, but listen to me: “It does end.” Honest. And the bottom-line is simply to make it through “phase two” physically and emotionally intact – both of you.

When the bedroom door slams, the eyes roll and the questions have long ago turned to challenges and insults, it’s easiest to withdraw yourself – if only to avoid the pain. The absolute greatest danger in “phase two” is when parents lose touch with their child. There is no alternative reward that will make up for loosing touch.

Even though outwardly they currently may be completely unrecognizable, that kid is still in there – the one you were once so fond of. Even if you have to sneak into their bedroom to see them while they are asleep in order to remember them, do it. A reasonable facsimile will eventually emerge.

Keep the dialogue going no matter what. Even if it’s completely trivial and excruciatingly un-meaningful to the problems you know they are suffering. There needs to be a safe-haven of communication, one that doesn’t explode. Content ceases in importance when things aren’t right.

I asked a father of ten once (eight boys), “How have you done it?” His reply: “Never allow them to push you out farther than you can still hear each other.”

Phase Three

Parenting, keeping communication openParenting, keeping communication open

Almost imperceptibly you realize that the air has changed and observe that it seems there is more of the Serengeti behind you than ahead. And in fact, you can even start to smell the palm trees around the watering holes.

Physical Tanner Stage Five likely has been reached, growth has slowed to tolerable levels, menstruation is predictable and confusion is yielding to being able to define themselves and some goals for their lives. The sullenness and arguments are welcomely less frequent and intense; but remember, even though it is “phase three” it is still a phase of psychological puberty and things aren’t over just yet.

Perhaps the greatest idealism in your son or daughter’s life occurs in “phase three.” They are often quite a bit less self-centered and can even be a little altruistic at times; but, they are usually still quite intolerant of the opinions of others. Life and it’s choices seem quite black or white to them. All or nothing.

They have come to grips, at least somewhat, with the amount of dependency they still have on their parents and family. Perhaps it’s because they recognize an end-point to it and the reality of attaining their own future goals. That, probably as much as anything, seems to give them more self-assurance and a better self-concept.

The ability to do abstract reasoning is still increasing so the recognition that they don’t have all the answers is at least a thought they can entertain. Life’s great questions are out there and there must be answers that they could find. But remember, neurological maturity has been found not to complete until their mid to late 20’s; therefore, some decisions may still seem quite impulsive and a bit short-sighted.

Sexual tensions will have turned somewhat from the physical to emotional intimacy if everything is going well; so, adult love and commitment is recognized as the appropriate goal (even if it is not always what is sought out at the moment).

There are those who feel “phase three” really never ends through life because there’s always something more to learn and discover about oneself.

However, from a parents standpoint, somewhere between when they are 20 and 24 or so, we suddenly “get smarter” again in their eyes. And that’s when we know that magnetic north is back to its proper place in the heavens and the world has become right again.

The wildebeests have arrived… wherever it was they were going.


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6 Posts in This Series