- Posted by admin
- On November 16, 2015
- auckland, blog, joy, kidz therapy, new zealand, parenting, teenager, teenagers, therapy
The parent of a very anxious 13-year old recently described to me a familiar scene. The boy had muddied his shoes, and his mum had left them to soak in the laundry sink, after dutifully giving them a good scrub. The next day in the rush to get ready for school, the boy yelled at his mum: “Where are my Converse sneakers?” When she asked him to find some other shoes because they were still soaking wet, he looked at her as if she was from another planet, telling her unequivocally that to go to school in anything other than his “Converse sneakers” would be tantamount to social ostracism. He stood there, refusing to go to school until his mum put the precious sneakers in the dryer for an excruciatingly long, bumpy ride. Neither mum or son got to work or school on time that day.
The same parent subsequently also complained of the long hours her son spent locked up in his room supposedly “doing homework”, and said that her son simply could not see past his own point of view. Time after time, her son berated his parents for being unfair by not buying him the latest iPhone, and for demanding that he do a few chores before he played computer games with his friends who were online. He constantly felt slighted and put upon, and that everything was “unfair”.
While understandably frustrated, the boy’s parents were describing the extreme effects of a very normal developmental stage first dubbed “egocentrism” by the psychologist David Elkind. The teenager’s mind is growing rapidly at this stage, and his or her new thinking abilities have to make a leap from childhood to adulthood. That leap is a large one, and there are often many missteps along the way. Adolescent egocentrism is such a misstep, but is a developmentally normal one, which means everyone goes through it. In other words, teens and older tweens can no more stop themselves from being egocentric than a toddler can fix his inability to stay out of the kitchen drawers.
But what is egocentrism? Egocentrism is associated with a few traits, more significantly between the ages of 11 and 15 years who go about their lives with an “imaginary audience” in their head. They analyse everything they do from the perspective of how it must look to others. This may sound like it’s a good strategy for teens- they learn to watch their behaviour and be considerate of others thoughts and feelings. But, the problems is that teens at this stage often haven’t learnt to distinguish between what they think other people are thinking, and what other people’s actual thoughts are. This is the driver behind thoughts such as “They will think I’m a freak if I show up with pimples,” when the reality is that most other teens are probably more preoccupied with their own acne than someone else’s. The teen confuses his own thoughts for those of others, and finds it difficult to think beyond his own mind.
The imagined audience brings self-scrutiny, criticism and even shame, so it is not surprising that teens spend vast amount of times in their rooms. Staying for long periods in their room gives them a chance to get away from the imagined limelight. They explore their newly-developed thinking abilities and end up engaging in self-conscious ‘’self-examination’’: exploring themselves, and their thoughts and feelings. This introspection eventually leads to knowing themselves, developing their identities, and helps them make good decisions in the long run. However, problems arise because teenagers feel every emotion strongly and have a hard time looking beyond their unique, newly-discovered thoughts and strong feelings to the impact of their own behavior on others. So, being told to stop playing and help clear up can sometimes seem like a huge assault. It is also the reason why a teen finds it so difficult to understand why a parent would think the iPhone he wants so badly is anything less than a basic need, and that dishes and chores need to be done when “I really didn’t feel like it”.
If these issues are part of the normal development of teenagers, does that mean that parents have no choice but to bear them through gritted teeth? The best way for you to help your child through this period is to remember your own adolescence and be as patient and empathetic as possible. Share your own experiences but avoid talking about how much more difficult it was for you. Don’t be dismissive. A large part of the ‘’work’’ of adolescence is to develop the skills of empathy and adequate social perception, which they will learn as they interact in a growing number of intimate relationships, including through their relationship with you. Most teens will learn that what they say and do impacts others, and what they are experiencing and feeling is not unique to them but is also experienced and felt by others. Finally it’s good to know that the egocentrism of adolescents usually begins to decrease between age 16 and 18.
Amrit Kaur, Clinical psychologist at Kidz Therapy