Most parents find that adolescence is one of the most trying times, for both parents and their teenage offspring!  It seems as if suddenly your fun loving, carefree, obedient child becomes an overnight alien, is sulky, independent, rebellious, moody, wanting to be treated as a grownup one minute and in the same day behaving just like a child.  A confusing time for all, no doubt.

So how do we negotiate the rapids of adolescence? What do they really think?  You might find the following both enlightening and interesting:

Adolescence becomes an internal discovery of “who am I”.  This is their main developmental task. For some young ones the development into adulthood is more gradual and relatively painless.  However, for some it is a “storm-and-stress” period.  If this occurs, your fun loving, happy child now becomes moody, pensive, uncooperative, spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror or in the bathroom……. they formulate their own rules and it can seem as if someone has snatched your precious child and replaced it with an alien.

For parents and teachers it is important to know the developmental tasks of adolescence and how these tasks manifest in their behavior, their social skills, their academic performance and family relationships.

As their physical bodies mature they are experiencing emotions never experienced before.  There are surges of hormones rushing through their bodies.  They are between childhood and adulthood…. Sometimes more child than adult, and sometimes more adult than child.  They are seeking independence and yet at times still need and want the safety net of dependence. There is no doubt that extensive, far reaching changes occur during these few short years.

The developmental tasks of adolescents, according to  the book Human Development (DA Louw, DM Van Ede, AE Louw), are as follows :

  • “Acceptance of a changed physical appearance
  • Development of a clear masculine or feminine gender-role identity
  • Development of cognitive skills and the acquisition of knowledge
  • Development of an own identity
  • Development of independence from parents and other adults
  • Selection of and preparation for a career




  • Development of socially responsible behavior
  • Acceptance of and adjustment to certain groups
  • Establishment of heterosexual relationships
  • Development of a strong emotional bond with another person
  • Preparation for marriage and family responsibilities
  • Achievement of financial independence
  • Development of moral concepts and values that could serve as guidelines for behavior
  • Development of their own value system based on a realistic and scientific word view
  • Development of a philosophy of life”.

This internal focus associated with accomplishing the above developmental tasks can sometimes appear as if the adolescent can only think of him or herself and they can be incorrectly labeled as being “self-centered”.   This adolescent egocentricity is the “inability … to decenter from their own focus.”  This egocentrism can manifest in two forms, namely: the imaginary audience and personal fable.

I can still remember how I went through these stages and thought processes, and can remember even more clearly how irritating my mother found these behaviors!

Let’s look at imaginary audience.    According to Elkind and Bowen (1979) quoted in the book Human Development, “the imaginary audience is the result of adolescents becoming extremely self-conscious.   They think they are the focus of attention and interest of others, in the same way as when actors on a stage are watched by an audience… the effects of the imaginary audience are evident in adolescents increased concern about their physical appearance.

Teenagers can therefore become extremely self-conscious.  They feel as though all eyes are on them.   I can still remember being so self-conscious that I could not even walk straight.   A friend and I used to walk down the road past a house where two brothers lived and that we thought were real cute!   What an ordeal to walk past that house….. we would land up walking into each other  and acting ridiculous… all because we were self-conscious…. and those two brothers never noticed us!  Or if they did, they might have been puzzled at our inability to negotiate a straight line past their house.    I remember being so self-conscious walking into a restaurant and my mother telling me, “stop it, look around and see that NOBODY is even looking at you”.  I looked around and saw that no-one had even noticed my entrance, but it did nothing to alleviate the self-consciousness.

Teenagers hate being made the center of attention and can so easily be embarrassed.   That is why they stop kissing their parents in front of others and ask you to pick them up around the corner so that nobody sees them arriving at school!  Suddenly you as parents have become incredibly embarrassing to them; they don’t want you meeting their friends, they don’t want you talking too loud in the shop and heaven forbid should you be caught with insufficient money at the till.  Goodness me, there goes their reputation and they will never be seen in a shop with you ever again.

Giggling (for girls) is also a common characteristic of this self-conscious phase and I was so good at this I should have got a medal. My friend and I would laugh at almost anything and do so for hours on end.   I can still hear my mom saying, “What on earth is so funny”.  Of course, we could not give an explanation, we only giggled some more.

Let’s take a look at another characteristic termed personal fable.  The perception is that “they are unique and their personal experiences are unlike those of others.  An adolescent girl who falls in love may think that no one else has ever loved a man as much as she loves her boyfriend”.   So as a parent, your experiences are discounted and the fact that you think the boyfriend is a toad, just proves to the adolescent what little you as their parent actually knows/understands!

The experience of first love is so new and intense that all proportion can be lost and the inevitable demise of a romantic relationship is very traumatic for adolescents.   They have no previous experience on which to understand that life can continue after a set back and that “there are other fish in the sea”.

Personal fable also involves the feelings and beliefs that they are indestructible and invulnerable.  This translates into high risk behaviors involving alcohol abuse, risky sexual activity and reckless driving.  Boys blindly jump off cliffs into the unknown depths of some river, they summersault from balconies into swimming pools below, drive cars recklessly, go out late without regard for the crime statistics in our country.  Insurance Companies know that young people are at higher risk for vehicle accidents than older people and they load policies for under 25’s.    This is not much comfort to us as parents who hope that our adolescents live long enough to outgrow their high risk behavior!

It is our responsibility as parents and teachers to understand the developmental stages of children and adolescents and know what the characteristics are.    This enables us to support them where they need support, provide boundaries wherethey are needed and also to give them the space and the time to grow up into responsible adults.