Chapter 2

Why Do Teenagers Act the Way They Do?

Photograph of Mother and Daughter hugging

Teenagers do not grow up in isolation: They are influenced by all that happens around them. This begins from an early age. Among the most important influences on children are parents, caregivers and the family. We look in more detail at these influences, especially as they relate to drug prevention.

The Most Important Influence

Most of us are aware of how important the early years of childhood are. During this time children learn so much that will influence the rest of their lives. Habits and behaviors are often established during these early years including not only the obvious, like being polite and how to respond to strangers, but also how to express emotions like love, hurt, joy and happiness.

Cartoon showing the 4 emotions

Children have a natural tendency to be spontaneous and honest in their expression of emotions when they are growing up in a loving and caring family. They learn values and an understanding of right and wrong from their parents. To a child, family is the most important influence on the kind of adult they will grow up to be.

Of course there are other influences, these include:

In other words, what the child witnesses and experiences - what the child learns both from family, school and community - sets the stage for their future. Recent research into how the brain develops confirms this. The family, school and the community, in a sense, are like a womb that nurtures the child and determines the characteristics (or assets) that a child will have in their future as an adult.

Teenage years as a time of change

As they grow up you will notice physical, emotional and behavioral changes in your child. The child becomes increasingly influenced by their friends. He or she begins to want to spend less time with parents and family and may even become critical of the family. This becomes particularly tough for parents and caregivers, as it can easily create a sense of failure or rejection for those who are trying their best, but begin to feel that they have not done enough. These changes in your child are normal and characteristic of the transition into young adulthood… and it does not mean that you don’t continue to have an influence.

On the one hand your child has an increasing desire to be independent, while on the other hand not wanting to lose the emotional and physical support of the family. The young teen wants to be like their friends. She wants to do what they are doing, or at least what he or she thinks they are doing.

"All my friends stay out 'til midnight" "All your friends are in bed by 9pm"

Sometimes their behavior is seen as a way of rebelling against their parents, but it is just a way to get more space and independence in their lives, rather than because the parents have done anything wrong.

It is also important to remember that teenagers often communicate not so much through their words but more through their behaviors. This can be especially true of boys.

The prevention-smart parent needs to observe what their child does as much as what they say. You should try to open up communication by showing interest in them and avoiding negative confrontation and prying.

Teenagers have a deep sense of love for their parents, but this may appear to get lost as they go about their day to day lives. Teenagers aren't always good at showing their love and thanks for you as a parent but look out for it as they grow up and mature.

Thank-you for being such a good parent. I'm sorry you've had to wait until my 36th birthday for me to say it...

Brains and Hormones

Puberty - the physical changes that occur during adolescence - are also linked with changes in behavior. The hormones that cause the physical changes also influence the growth and development of the brain and the body. Their effect on the brain greatly influences feelings and behaviors at any given moment – and, sometimes these feelings and behaviors can often seem to change from moment to moment!

There is some truth in the statement that a young person’s behavior is a result of their ‘raging’ hormones, but of course it is not that simple. The hormones cause the growing youngster to have a growth spurt and to experience changes in the body that prepare them for adult life. These very same hormones also affect the brain - which is also going through its own development. The reaction of both the body and the brain can often appear ‘clumsy’. For example:

'Clumsy body'

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Most of the time, these decisions cause no harm and we can easily see them as part of growing up. However if these decisions made by a developing or “clumsy” brain involve experimenting with drugs or alcohol, or participating in other risky behaviors, they may actually cause significant harm.

Just like being physically clumsy, being 'brain-clumsy' in their behavior, may also cause the young person to ‘fall’ and hurt him or herself. Fortunately, as with physical falls most of the behavioral falls such as drug experimentation end up causing no lasting harm, except for the legal risk they pose.

Physical changes of puberty

Puberty is an exciting time for the body and for its owner! Physically, parts are growing and developing, and providing new sensations and experiences that strongly influence the way teenagers see the world.

And the way the world sees teenagers!

At times teens feel strong, totally in control; other times they feel like they are totally dependent on everything around them to tell them who they are! They have no roadmap of what is normal: How should they look, how should they feel, how should they express themselves? How should they use all these newly acquired body parts – are they only for show or are they there for a purpose?

For example:

During the teenage years, change is constant and goes on in many ways at once. While change is occurring in the body, it is also occurring in the brain. These changes experienced by the growing young person are expressed physically, emotionally and in their behavior.

At the same time as these changes are occurring, the young person will have many feelings of uncertainty – an uncertainty that can make them vulnerable and open to the influence of family, friends and media.

Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man - or the woman!

The prevention-smart parent has a real contribution to make in helping the excitement of puberty not to be overcome by the confusion of puberty.

I think I'll take excitement any time!

Impact of the changes in the brain

Let’s just take a moment to explore some of the exciting new discoveries of how the brain changes and functions during the teenage years.

Some adults would ask,

does the brain really function during the teenage years?

Sometimes we may not think young people's judgments or decisions are reasonable. Most certainly, this is true at times and most certainly, it is not simply because they choose to be unreasonable or are just being difficult.

I don’t know! I knew I shouldn’t have done that, but I just did...

Cartoon showing men at work on a brain

The brain, as mentioned earlier, is going through a period of rapid development that is directly influencing thought, emotions, judgment, self-esteem, self-confidence, communication and, in the end, day to day behavior. Remember as it develops there can be “clumsiness” on the way as we said above so it does not always make what we would see as rational choices.

Latest research: Drugs and the Brain

New findings from research on brain development and function create an increased concern about the long lasting effects of drugs on brain development.

  • Most findings suggest that most young people will not have noticeable permanent damage.

  • For those young people who do show noticeable damage, it will largely be a result of:

    • The type of drug they used (stimulant, opiate, depressant etc).
    • How long and how frequently (pattern) they used.
    • Family history of drug or alcohol use.
    • The age when they started using.

The Brain: Childhood to Early Teen Years

Child holding hands

During the years of childhood and the early teen years, the wiring or connections in the brain are increasing incredibly in number.

1, 2, 3, ... one zillion five hundred and sixty-three thousand, ...

However, as the young person becomes a teenager, the number of connections in many regions of the brain begins to get weeded out or pruned. This brain remodeling may help to make the brain more energy-efficient. Also, experts believe that brain development may give rise to many of the behaviors that we commonly see in teenagers, such as risk taking and careless decision-making.

The Brain: Middle Teen Years

During these years young people are largely influenced by doing things that bring a reward or make them feel good. For example:

Drugs and alcohol can sometimes appear to increase this sense of a good feeling, even though it comes from a dangerous source. This can encourage the teen to repeat the drug use. Drug use runs the risk of becoming an easy but false pathway to the positive sensation that they seek as it can appear to give pleasure, make people feel good or increase awareness.

Houston, we have a problem!

No, we have a challenge! The role of the prevention-smart parent continues to be helping their children to understand that the use of drugs and alcohol is a false and dangerous pathway to positive sensation and experiences and that it can end up causing harm and negative outcomes.

One way of doing this is to provide as many positive opportunities that help build a child's ability to resist using alcohol and other drugs and to help them make safe choices about their health.

Positive Experiences

Sit with your children or with a group of friends and make a list of all the things that you can do to make your children feel good about themselves and have positive experiences.

Now the challenge: put your words into actions!

Growing influence of the social environment on behavior

By now it is clear that the teenage years are a period of change. This change is not only one that is experienced by the young person but also affects how that young person is perceived.

What is that boy wearing? He must be a hooligan – look what he’s wearing!

Parents may have expectations that do not always take into account this period of development. Teachers expect added responsibility and performance in an increasingly complex world which makes demands on them for such things as exam results.

The surrounding community start to view teens in a different way – they are seen by some as helpful to the well being of the community through their involvement in charities or other well intentioned activities. But they can also be seen as different and cause for concern for some people – even when they aren’t. Teenagers do have a general sense of wanting to help and feel wanted and needed.

So we often have a difference between the reality of what teenagers are like and the perception of teenagers and their behavior.

How do our children see the world?

There are also other experiences that have an impact on the teens: their daily social experience which includes what they see and hear on television and the internet, radio, music, text messages, talk, school, after school activities.

This is sometimes called the perceived community. It is often this perceived community that creates the reality for many young people today. One reason for this is that they often have limited freedoms to explore and experience their real local world but have most of their views communicated to them through the media and things listed above. They have limited mobility, and limited money, to physically experience and appreciate the world at large.

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Furthermore, with increased ability to think abstractly, they tend to become more inwardly focused, and use their imagination to develop their own world or reality. Much of what teens experience as their reality today is "two-dimensional" as it is transmitted through the TV, computer or mobile phone. This can offer influences on behavior through stimulating imagination and can provide a false or unrealistic and often unhelpful pathway to reward and pleasure.

It can also help to develop a false perception of what other young people of the same age are doing. It influences how the young person behaves as they want to do what they think others are doing in order to be normal and accepted. The reality of how people behave is lost by going on the perception – or what they think - about how people behave which they see, for example, on the TV.

It is not difficult to see the possible damage that can be done to young people’s perceptions, and then behavior, when TV and the internet become their reflection and understanding of reality. They can have a real influence on this period of rapid change, when the teen is vulnerable. It can result in the teen not really knowing or appreciating what is normal and what is pretend. A “confused teenager” (as well as a confused parent!) is not really surprising.

It certainly indicates too the prevention-smart parent has to be conscious not only of the developing brain and body of the young person and how this can affect mood, thinking and behavior but also has to be aware of the impact that the media and other forms of common use of a child’s time have an impact on how they see the world and how they behave too. There's more on this in Chapter 3: What You Need to Know About Drugs.

You are a Source of Happiness for Your Child

Parents love to see their children happy. It’s the driving force for much of what they do for them. Parents can help lead their child to happiness. Researchers have made some interesting discoveries pertaining to what makes people of all ages happy. Social psychologist and author David G. Myers has compiled research-based suggestions for a happier life. They are as relevant for children as for adults.

  1. Give priority to close relationships. Intimate friendships – those who care deeply for you – help one weather difficult times.

  2. Seek hobbies, work and leisure that engage your skills.

  3. Give your body the sleep it wants. Lack of sleep often results in fatigue and gloomy moods.

  4. Exercise. Aerobic exercise promotes health and energy and is a protection against stress, depression and anxiety.

  5. Focus beyond the self. Reach out to those in need; doing well makes one feel good.

  6. Realize that enduring happiness doesn’t come from success. Having a sense of well being is better than being well off.

The need to be prevention-smart!

Growing up is a complex business. The changes in the body, the brain, the thought process and the way our children behave are part of that physical, emotional and brain growth.

It is not easy being a teenager – and not easy being a parent of a teenager!

The developments show in the way our children behave and often in a way that makes us feel concerned, and uneasy and unsure about how to respond. If things go wrong at these times it is not always a matter of being anybody's fault. It is natural growth and development. But we can try and help to prepare and support our children by being prevention-smart.

Being prevention-smart has to be part of the way a parent thinks and behaves from the very early age of the child. We have seen that the changes that occur during adolescence encourage the teenager to try out new experiences. These will help define who he or she is, and will become.

The experiences that they choose depend on which opportunities are, will be or have been available to them. As well as the values, beliefs and models or examples that the young person has learned from you, the family, school and community – but also from the other “influencers” such as the media.

Most will chose well. Some will chose not quite so well, but recover and get back on their feet; while others will chose poorly and develop a life that can become caught up in risk taking. Drug and alcohol use can bring such risks. As parents, we can be mentors, helpers, and models to our children as we help them to lead healthy lives and make healthy and positive choices. So, the message that all parents need to hear loud and clear is this:

Be prevention-smart: Be the person you want your children to grow up to be.

Making Healthy Choices

From what you have read here - and from your own experience and knowledge - make a list, either by yourself, with your children, or with a group of trusted friends about you think a prevention-smart parent can, or should do, to help make it more likely that their children will make healthy and positive choices.

Why Do Teenagers Act the Way They Do?

Be prevention-smart: Be the person you want your children to grow up to be.

Well Done!

Congratulations for completing Why Do Teenagers Act the Way They Do? Please login or register to complete the chapter review quiz.

Alternatively, you can find additional resources below, or proceed to another chapter.