Why is my teenager struggling so much?
Updated: May 14
What happened to the angel who was getting on with their reading and writing activities in primary school but is now struggling in secondary? Parents often raise their eyebrows to the heavens when talking about their teenager to fellow parents. The most often cited culprit blamed for a young person's unwanted behaviour is 'hormones' and the impact it has on their thinking and subsequent actions. Adolescence is a time when neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain are 'pruned' away, impacting upon decision-making and increasing the chances of risk-taking behaviour.
But could the increased and complicated language demands, placed on teenagers in adolescence, be the culprit? Is their unwanted behaviour a sign they are lacking the skills to communicate effectively with others, engage in learning, and deal with friendship issues?
New language demands for teenagers include:
- Learning new and complex vocabulary
- Listening, following and remembering longer verbal instructions in the classroom
- Complex verbal-reasoning and problem solving
- Understanding and using figurative language such as jokes, sarcasm and idioms
- Telling more involved stories -these need to be well-structured to engage the listener
If a young person has communication difficulties, these more refined language skills are going to be challenging. It may be that the child who had ok language skills in primary, now needs help with these skills in order to engage with learning and friendships in secondary.
And talking about friendships - social interactions become increasingly complex, just as the importance of teen group relationships take centre-stage for a young person's sense of who they are and where they belong. A teenager is expected to use social communication as well as relationship skills to:
- Talk in a group; staying on topic and knowing how to change the topic appropriately
- Negotiate effectively by switching between roles of 'listener' and 'speaker'
- Take others perspective into account whilst being mindful of how others view them
- Be assertive and have the confidence and language ability to make the right choices
- Repair communication breakdowns when they happen
Effective interpersonal skills are closely linked with good mental health. A teenager who is struggling with these skills, is likely to exhibit unwanted behaviour. But could bad behaviour be a communication breakdown which they are unable to repair? Research has found that 81% of young people with behaviour issues have a language difficulty. These difficulties were so severe they were described as 'significant.'
Unwanted behaviour can be a sign of an underlying language difficulty which may need further investigation. This would involve sharing your concerns with a speech and language therapist who will also gather information from your teen in order to target support where they need it most.
Therapy will improve the young person's self-awareness and build their self-esteem before developing the language skills required for conversation and managing friendships. By focusing on good interpersonal skills the young person can make better decisions and feel more confident when communicating with others, thus promoting well-being and good mental health.
Lisa Taylor-Jones is a speech and language therapist specialising in social communication difficulties and mental health issues in adolescence. She is the founder of Step Up Speech and Language where she supports schools to close the gap for their most vulnerable children and also works privately seeing children for therapy sessions in Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall. Request a free copy of my 5 Easy Ways to see if my Teen has a Language Difficulty on the contact page of my website www.stepupsl.com. Come and find me on LinkedIn!