Monday, October 1, 2012

'Welcome to Planet High School' Guest Article by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.

This is the second article in a series of four from Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. for parents of teenagers. He is the renowned author of the 1-2-3 Magic series and Surviving Your Adolescents.

Welcome to Planet High School
by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.

One of the toughest parts of being the parent of a teenager is trying to figure out which aspects of your kids' behavior are trouble and which are normal. Some days, it seems that most of what teens do is strange, aggravating and worlds apart from the way they used to be. What ever happened to that easy-going nine-year-old whom I used to enjoy so much?

Below is a list of characteristics you can reasonably expect to see in your normal, average teenager. Anticipating these can help you in several ways. First of all, it tells you that these new traits are not necessarily dangerous. Second, knowing what's normal can allow you not to take these qualities personally—as if they were your fault, or as if they represented some kind of personal rejection. Finally, memorizing this list will get you to work on one of the primary jobs of the parent of an adolescent: toleration of nonessential differences.


Adolescence is a time of massive, multiple changes. Some of these changes take years, while others seem to occur almost overnight. Some changes are exciting, while others may be bewildering or even upsetting for teens and parents alike.

Physically the body of an adolescent will change more than it will at any other time of life except infancy. From the beginning to the end of puberty, adolescents on the average add 10 inches in height and 40 pounds in weight. The growth spurt for girls begins around age 11, on the average, and is completed by age 16. Girls' hips broaden relative to their shoulders and waist, and they tend to add more fat on their arms, legs and torso. The growth spurt for boys starts around age 13 and continues until about age 17 1/2. Boys' shoulders broaden relative to their waists, and they develop larger skeletal muscles while decreasing arm and leg fat.

During puberty the sex hormones start to do their thing. This means that perspiration, oiliness of the skin and hair, and body odor all increase. Sex hormones also see to it that primary and secondary sexual characteristics develop. Teens do not always greet these physical events with enthusiasm. Girls react to the arrival of their first period with surprise and mixed emotions which depend, in part, upon how much support they receive from family members and how much prior information they have. Boys usually have more advance information before they experience their first ejaculation, but in general they receive less support for the physical changes of puberty than do girls.

While the physical changes mentioned above take a few years, it may seem to parents that some of the other changes I'll describe in this article occur overnight. One day, without warning, the child's bedroom door shuts and stays shut. During one summer month the youngster seems to have become glued to a new set of friends, and suddenly he could care less about family affairs.


Make no bones about it. Teenagers are weird! They love weirdness, shock value, strange sounds, colors and clothes. Being different—from adults, not from each other—becomes an important goal in their daily activities. Forging an identity does not mean slavish imitation of your own mother or father.

While in a grocery check-out line one day, I was struck by the appearance of the young girl who was ringing up the orders. Though she had a very pleasant personality, the amazing thing about her was her hair. Half of her head was sporting a blue crew cut, while the other half had spiked, orange hair. While gazing at this remarkable display I found myself trying to decide if she had been cute before she had done this to herself.

It may be true that all generations think the music of the next generation is weird. My parents thought Elvis Presley was extremely odd and almost immoral, while my friends and I loved his music. Now I myself don’t like rap “music,” cannot understand how anyone would ever want to listen to it in the first place, and don't see how it qualifies as music.

Among teens, army jackets have, to some extent, been replaced by clothes that are pretty much falling off their owners' bodies. Boys' haircuts appear to have been done by placing a bowl over the head and simply shaving around the edge. Pierced ears—by themselves—are now old-fashioned. The new trend is to pierce—apparently as many times as you can—anything made of flesh that sticks out. Noses, tongues, eyebrows, navels. A body part doesn't have to stick out much to qualify as a target.


Parents will find that their teens are becoming more and more distant from them, both physically and emotionally. The child doesn't want to eat dinner with the family as often as before. She is less interested in going out with you as well, whether it's for dinner, to a movie or for family get-togethers.

Privacy becomes more important to the adolescent. Her door is now shut more of the time, and you're left wondering what's going on in there that wasn't before. It's certainly not all homework. The meanderings of younger brothers or sisters into your teenage daughter’s bedroom may be met with bursts of temper and demands to be left alone.

Communication also isn't the same. Where you used to sit around and shoot the breeze after dinner, now the kid is gone without having said hardly anything. It doesn't seem she tells you as much as before about things that bother—or excite—her, though she appears to be able to talk on the phone for hours with friends. Innocent questions, such as "How was your day?" are often met with an attitude of irritation or suspicion, as if you were unjustly prying into her affairs.

Your daughter is showing more and more independence. For one thing, she is simply not home as much as before. It's nice she has a job, but between that and her friends, you hardly ever see her. Your suggestion that the two of you go out shopping for clothes met with an icy stare. Now she'd rather do that on her own.


Your child's social focus has shifted dramatically away from home and toward friends. During his spare time he wants to go out with his buddies. He seems to have little time for family, or for you, or for doing what he's supposed to around the house. Essential tasks like cutting the grass don't get done, but there seems to be plenty of time for frivolous encounters with friends. Half of these kids you haven't even met, and some of those you have met you're not at all sure you like.

When a relationship with the opposite sex develops, it is positively obsessive. Long and extremely private conversations on the phone are followed by starry-eyed wonder or unexplained moodiness. The question, "Is there something wrong?" inspires a snarl and a not-too-gentle hint that you should mind your own business. When—God forbid—a romantic relationship ends—after months of breakups and tearful reunions, you find yourself unable to sleep at night, worrying about depression and suicidal potential.


The teenage years are a time of great excitement as well as great turmoil. Part of the excitement comes from what the teen sees as the unlimited possibilities ahead. The mind of the adolescent, therefore, is occupied with more dreams than experience. The dreams are endless and—in a sense—they are always instantly available in one’s fantasies. On the other hand, the dreams are not realities yet, and this yields an often painful sense of inferiority and lack of identity. The career that may come does not exist and may not even be chosen; the family (spouse and kids) one may create later is not here now.

The result is that adolescents spend a lot of time in fantasy. Their whole life is before them, and they like to dream about what it will be like. The psychological pain that may result from the current lack of fulfillment can be partially managed by such daydreaming. Teens also have not had a lot of experience yet in testing these dreams out against reality, so many of their notions may seem crazy to their parents. The inexperience of adolescents, however, does not mean that teens have no opinions about anything!


Younger adolescents become extremely focused on their own thoughts, feelings and activities. In fact, some writers have pointed out that it’s almost as if the child feels she is constantly on stage in front of some imaginary audience. She may feel that her own experiences are so intense and unique that no one else—least of all her parents—could possibly understand what she is going through. In feeling misunderstood, teens forget that their parents were adolescents once too. In a sense, though, the kids have a point, because many parents react impulsively to their adolescent offspring and don’t take the time to recall what it was like when they were that age. Parents may complain that “she’s too wrapped up in her own little world” without remembering what that “little world” was like for them a long time ago.

The other side of self-consciousness, of course, is egocentricity: the whole world is watching and everything revolves around me. This orientation toward life is definitely a mixed blessing. The adolescent may feel that her successes are marvelous and amazing—testimonials to her incredible potential. On the other hand, failure and being criticized in front of others can be excruciating. “That’s just great. Now everyone will think I’m a total dork!”


Adolescents take risks. They are experimenters. We worry about their driving, drug use, smoking, drinking and sexual activity. Teens can be dangerously creative. One study of adolescent mortality, for example, reported a number of teenage deaths that were due to skateboarding under the influence of alcohol.

Some adolescent risk-taking, of course, is due to a natural, healthy curiosity about life. There are so many fascinating new experiences to be discovered! Teenage experimentation also results from the urge to do things differently from one’s parents. “Mom and Dad are such a drag sometimes; don’t they ever have any fun? I’m going to do things my way and enjoy life.”

Some risk-taking also results from the egocentric adolescent view that one has unique awareness and special abilities that will not allow injury. Even though teens are at a point where they can intellectually appreciate the possible consequences of certain behavior, they don’t always “put two and two together” when it comes down to their own actions. Sadly, every year thousands of teen pregnancies and auto fatalities are caused, in part, by this unfounded sense of invulnerability.

Variation Among Teens

Not all teenagers, of course, will exactly fit the description of “normal” adolescents that we have just proposed. Along the lines of the study we just mentioned, you might think of teens as very roughly falling into three categories: Straight Arrows, Experimenters and Seriously Disturbed. The middle group, the Experimenters, is what we just tried to describe as the “normal” teenager.

What you see in the Straight Arrows are fewer of the characteristics that tend to grate on parents’ nerves. While these kids may feel just as self-conscious inside and may be just as inexperienced as the other groups, the Straight Arrows show no sudden changes, less slow change, and less weirdness. They are less independent, more inclined to stay involved with the family, and less critical of their parents. Arguing and risk-taking in this group are minimal.

While the Straight Arrows are less aggravating, they may not be as emotionally well adjusted as the Experimenters. The normal teenager aggravates his parents on a fairly regular basis. The irony here is that if you have a teenage child that doesn’t worry or aggravate you at all, perhaps you should be worried! Take this with a grain of salt, of course, because many kids who are Straight Arrows on the outside are doing just fine. Others, however, may be far too shy, withdrawn or depressed.

The Seriously Disturbed group, on the other hand, aggravates and worries their parents far too often. They are extremely weird, rebellious and argumentative. In regards to driving, drugs and sex, these kids take serious risks on a regular basis, but their parents don’t know the half of it. These teens are inexperienced and actually naive, but they come across as egocentric, totally independent and cocky. They are very involved with friends whom their parents have either never met or whom they don’t like.

A parent’s job can be complicated by what “types” of adolescents they get and in what order they get them. Imagine your first teen was of the Disturbed variety. You got baptized early. If your next child turns out to be a normal Experimenter, she will feel to you like a Straight Arrow. What a relief! And if your first adolescent was Seriously Disturbed and your next one turned out to be a Straight Arrow, she must have felt like a gift from heaven.

On the other hand, what if your first was a Straight Arrow? You got spoiled and perhaps developed some unrealistic expectations about what average teens are like. If your next child turned out to be an Experimenter, you may have seen him as Seriously Disturbed and in need of psychological treatment. And what about a Disturbed teen who follows a Straight Arrow? This sequence, of course, is tailor made to drive parents crazy.
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Adapted from Surviving Your Adolescents: How to Manage & Let Go Of Your 13-18 Year Olds, 3rd Edition by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. © 2012 (available both as a book & an audiobook). Nationally recognized as an expert on child discipline and Attention Deficit Disorder, Dr. Phelan has practiced for over 25 years and he appears frequently on radio and TV. Over 1,300,000 copies of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 books, videos and audiobooks have been sold (Spanish versions are also available). Visit your local bookstore for Surviving Your Adolescents, 1-2-3 Magic or any of Dr. Phelan’s other books, or call toll-free 1-800-442-4453 or visit

 Dr. Thomas W. Phelan is an internationally renowned expert and lecturer on child discipline and Attention Deficit Disorder. He appears frequently on radio and TV, including regular appearances on "Fox News in the Morning" on WFLD-TV in Chicago. He has been quoted in numerous publications, including Parents Magazine, Reader's Digest, Today's Parent, Ladies Home Journal, and The Wall Street Journal.

A registered Ph.D. clinical psychologist in private practice since 1972, Dr. Phelan has produced many video, book and audio titles for parents and teachers.

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