The “Difficult” Years: Why Adolescence is So Stressful?

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Adolescence, especially the teenage years, is notorious for being an incredibly stressful stage in our lives. Both young people and their families experience the tumultuous impact of this developmental chapter. It can be challenging to navigate and provide the right kinds of support.

These years are defined by dramatic changes, both physically and emotionally. Parents might notice their child becoming more and more withdrawn at home, spending a lot of time in their rooms, and becoming less physically affectionate. This may worry parents and make it hard to distinguish between normal adolescent changes and more serious underlying issues.

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Young people might notice they are far more interested in friendships and romantic relationships than they used to be. They may notice their emotions feel harder to control. This is also the time when many mental health illnesses develop, which makes for a cocktail of really challenging things to navigate.

So what is adolescence, why Adolescence is So Stressful, and what kinds of major changes come along with it? Let’s explore the three overarching reasons why adolescence is an important life stage, and also why it’s one of the most stressful and difficult times in all our lives.

What is Adolescence?

Why Adolescence is So Stressful

Adolescence is the life stage after puberty starts in which a young person grows from a child into an adult. In other words, adolescence starts when a person is no longer a child, but not quite an adult. This usually happens from around age 10 to 19.

This developmental period is when major emotional, social, physiological, and neurological changes take place. It can be a daunting, painful, and thrilling time. There are actually three major stages of adolescence, each with their own characteristics:

  1. Early Adolescence (Ages 10-13). Bodily changes due to puberty, increasing desire for privacy, and black-and-white concrete thinking.
  2. Middle Adolescence (Ages 14-16). Growth spurts, interest in romantic and sexual relationships, concerned with appearance, increasing conflict with parents in a struggle for independence.
  3. Late Adolescence (Ages 17-19). Completed physical development, better impulse control and critical thinking, solidified personality and personal values.

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‘Storm and Stress’: Why Adolescence is So Stressful

Why Adolescence is So Stressful

Let’s dive into the components that – working together in unison – create what Hall refers to as ‘storm and stress’. Physical and neurological changes that contribute to emotional and social changes contribute to the stressful dynamic of adolescence.

By understanding the elements of change that define adolescence, we will have the knowledge to better support the young people in our lives. Visit BetterHelp for a myriad of useful mental health resources and counseling to support the parents of adolescents and teens.

And if you are currently going through your teenage years, you will hopefully realize that you are not alone in these anxious, bewildering, and complex times.

Physical & Hormonal Changes

Sexual and physical maturation during adolescence contributes to many of the challenges adolescents face. Puberty brings with it a host of hormonal and physical changes to our bodies, such as new hair growth around the genitals, enlarging testicles and breasts, and deepening voices.

Boys in particular experience dramatic and even painful growth spurts in their middle adolescent years. And most girls start menstruation around age 12. With all of these body changes can come confusion, embarrassment, fear, and social anxiety. We are also dealing with a slew of new hormones that make emotions and moods much more challenging to regulate.

Brain & Emotional Changes

Perhaps the change with the most impact on our behaviors and emotional states is the brain changes that take place in adolescence. In childhood and early adolescence, we operate primarily using more primal parts of our brains like the amygdala.

But in adolescence, our prefrontal cortexes significantly develop, creating an imbalance between amygdala regulations and use of prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex allows us to think critically instead of just acting on every impulse we have.

These dramatic neurological changes contribute to heightened brain responses to stressors. And because adolescents become very sensitive to stressful things during this time, they may deal with an increase in psychological dysfunctions like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. 

Social Interactions & Desire for Independence

In middle and late adolescence, young people become far more focused on building friendships. They are very concerned with connections and the opinions of others. They also become increasingly curious about romantic and sexual relationships. Along with this is a natural instinct to gain space from their parents or guardians, defy authority, and have more privacy.

This is a time of self-discovery, and formulating opinions, values, and personality traits that are independent from the ones they were taught as children. This need for privacy and independence is completely natural and healthy, but it often becomes a significant source of contention within families.

Final Words

Adolescence is notorious for being a stressful, challenging time for those going through it and the parents who care for them. It can cause tension in the home, challenges at school, and even trigger the onset of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

Adolescent changes may lead to young people seeking substances to self-medicate or make impulsive decisions that could negatively impact their futures.

The most important thing is to understand the physiological and neurological changes taking place behind the scenes, and that many of these things are normal stages of growing up and becoming an adult.

Find ways to listen openly to the adolescents in your life who need more support, compassion, and guidance than ever.

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