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Help for Confused Teens

by Flora Richards-Gustafson

With new experiences, hormonal and developmental changes, mood swings, an ever-changing body and dating, to say that the teen years are confusing is an understatement. Between the ages of 12 and 14, a young person starts to get better at processing complex thoughts, is more focused on herself and is influenced by peer groups more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s online article, “Young Teens (12-14 Years of Age).” As a teen matures, she’ll start thinking more about her future, have more interest in developing intimate relationships and will try to figure out who she is and her place in the world.

Developmental Changes

When puberty hits, there’s a surge in the production of hormones, causing a teen to change physically and psychologically. The creases in the brain start to get more complex, particularly in the areas that process emotional and cognitive information, according to the article by B.J. Casey, Sara Getz and Adriana Galvan, “The Adolescent Brain,” on the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine’s website. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in “Bright Futures Parents Handout, Early Adolescent Visits,” recommends talking to your teen about the physical changes he’s experiencing. If you need help with this discussion or if your teen has concerns, schedule an appointment for you and your teen to visit his physician.

Sexual Orientation

With puberty comes new sexual feelings and thoughts that can make it tough for a teen to understand who she is and, possibly, who she’s attracted to. As a teen simultaneously struggles with being independent and fitting in, feelings for those of the same or opposite gender may lead her to question her sexual orientation, according to the KidsHealth.org article “Sexual Attraction and Orientation.” The article states that most medical professionals believe that sexual orientation isn’t something a person chooses. Instead, it involves a mix of genetics, inborn hormonal factors, psychology, biology and environmental factors. To help a teen who feels confused about attraction and orientation, psychiatrist Jeffrey Fishberger of the Trevor Project in the article “When Teenagers Question Their Sexuality, Questioning the ‘Q’ in L.G.B.T.Q.” on the “New York Times” website states that it’s best not to tell her that she’s too young to worry about such dilemmas. Instead, have a non-judgmental, open and supportive conversation with the teen about her feelings and concerns. Assure her that she doesn’t have to be physical with someone to understand her orientation and that it’s OK for her to feel uncertain. A teen support group led by a gay-straight alliance can also provide a safe place for a teen who feels concerned about her sexual orientation.

Emotions

As the brain gets more efficient and better at processing information during the teen years, changes in the levels of dopamine and serotonin make teens more emotional and vulnerable to stress, according to Casey, Getz and Galvan. It’s not uncommon for a teen to feel happy one minute and be in tears the next. To help a teen through his emotional ups and downs, help him identify his feelings and the reason behind them. For example, a teen may feel disappointed because he didn’t make the team. As a young person talk about his emotions, don’t play them down. Instead, help him use what he learned to make good decisions about current and future actions. If a teen is depressed or exhibits signs of depression for more than a couple months, the KidsHealth.org article “Why Am I in Such a Bad Mood?” states that he should receive help from a mental health professional.

Transitions

Change is tough for youth. During the teen years, change can seem like a constant occurrence, but some transitions can be particularly tough for teen years. The Kids Helpline online article “Transitions, A Time of Change” shares that difficult transitions for teens include moving, beginning high school, planning for college, family changes, becoming a teen parent, changing gender, coming out and starting or ending a relationship. Transitions come with pressure, and coping with new experiences can be more than a teen can handle alone. To help a teen going through a transition, encourage her to talk about her struggles, keep a journal, engage in positive self-talk and set goals.

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