I know the sound of changing hormones all too well. As a mother of six, with one out of the teens (hallelujah) and five more to go (yay?!), the transition into the adolescent years is marked by a noted change in attitude, clothing, use of technology, and the dreaded monosyllabic tone which moans the once touted, loved name of “Mom” to “Moooooooooooooooooooum” (yes, I meant to place the ‘um’ at the end, and I didn’t even know the word ‘mom’ had so many syllables).I have learned to respond with a, “Yes, dear one,” or “What is it, my most loved child?” or just a low, slightly maniacal laugh. If you’re currently parenting teens, you know exactly what I mean. Yes, this is the day we all fear when we go from being their world to the person who ruins their world. From being their wealth of knowledge to a world class idiot.
I honestly don’t know how that happened, but it has now six times for me. I used to be asked to be the chaperone — now they beg me to not show my face anywhere they are with their friends. How was I to know that my husband and I slow dancing at a prom was “not Kosher”?
Well, fortunately science has given us some reasons why this happens.
The normal brain development of an individual proceeds rapidly and undergoes many important changes during adolescence. The biggest change is in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain just behind the forehead. This part of the brain is responsible for something called executive functioning, which includes problem solving, planning, social awareness, strategic thinking, and inhibition. It’s the part that tells us, “Uh, maybe this is not such a good idea after all.”
The frontal lobes are growing rapidly but do not fully stop growing until our mid-twenties. This is a major reason behind the why of your teenager’s impulsivity and acting without thinking, even when you think the decision was a “no brainer.”
Different regions and circuits of the brain grow at different rates. The brain circuit for processing fear, the amaygdala, develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seat for reasoning and executive control. This then makes teenagers more susceptible and have an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety, but have an underdevelopment of calm reasoning (Friedman, New York Times, June 28, 2014).
Have you ever found yourself in this situation? Your child is freaking out, crying uncontrollably in their room and tell you they can’t go to school. You assess the situation and think:
A. Your child has the stomach flu with a fever and therefore they are irrational. B. The outfit they picked out last night to wear magically changed overnight and suddenly is now the ugliest thing ever and they have no clothes to wear (even though their closet and drawers are overflowing).
C. They don’t like changing in front of the other kids in gym, and today is gym class.
D. They just got a text stating they have a Chemistry test and they forgot. Or…
E. All of the above.
I know I certainly have had these as viable, highly probable answers, and still got it wrong. Teenagers are more susceptible to anxiety than at any other time in life. With the advance of technology and social media and the growing number of broken families, interpersonal skills and problem-solving skills have also suffered highly among teens. This makes school interactions with peers and adults challenging and frustrating for teens. Oh, and don’t let me forget… OVERLY DRAMATIC!
But there is another part of the brain that is fully active in adolescents, and that’s the limbic system. That is the seat of risk, reward, impulsivity, sexual behavior, and emotional control. Teenagers do have frontal lobes, which are the seat of our executive, adult-like functioning like impulse control, judgment, and empathy — but the frontal lobes haven’t connected into fast-acting connections yet.
The brain actually connects regions from the back of the brain to the front, so the last place to have these fast-acting connections is the frontal lobe. When we ask the age-old question, “If your friends jump off a bridge, are you going to follow them?” a positive response is a little more probable than we may think or hope. Especially if the bridge has a sparkling river or lake beneath it which is calling out to your child’s sense of adventure.
Other factors besides peers are interwoven into the struggles teens face. Parental rejection, poor family communication, and a lack of affectionate bonding with parents are examples of family factors that negatively impact identity development (Heaven, 2001).
Therefore as parents, we should aim for a balance between behavioral and psychological autonomy from parents, whilst maintaining a close and supportive relationship. This is the ideal setting for identity achievement. This period of boundary testing, negotiations and self-regulation, however, is likely to be the most testing and stressful for both parents and adolescents (Noller & Patton, 1990).
I do not know about you, but I found that my once compliant, carefree child who thought I was awesome and knew everything about them, suddenly at age 12 or 13 discovered I am not intelligent, fun, and overall awesome, but stupid and confused and understand “NOTHING!” about them. One daughter smited me because I brought cupcakes to her and her friends who were hanging out at our home. Who knew bringing cupcakes was wrong?
Sometimes if I even darken the door to where they and their friends are congregating, I get “The Stare.” You know, the one that says, “Leave, you weirdo.” I remember feeling so embarrassed when my mom dropped me off at school in her robe and sunglasses and tried to hug me. I told her in no uncertain terms she would be making the drop off a block from the school. She also would tell jokes to my friends all the time and want to be where we were. I told myself then that I would not embarrass my kids like that one day. So much for that resolution! I’ve become a lot like my mom in older years (so my kids tell me).
You are likely to also see resistance from teens regarding following their parents’ belief system or cultural traditions, especially if these are different from what they see in their community. This can be very disheartening and even scary for parents to face — and empathy is not a skill that teenagers readily use. But there is hope. With the knowledge that it truly is not personal when it comes to teenage brain development, we as parents can take solace in that “this too shall pass,” but also that we can be armed with knowledge of what our kids need now.
Studies show what makes for healthy, positive relationships so we as parents can best serve our teens.
Here are some tips for parenting teens effectively:
1. Take a deep breath and remember that you are the adult. Do not fall into fruitless arguments. Once you have stated your position and the child attacks that position, do not keep defending yourself. Just restate the position once more and then stop responding to the attacks.
2. Help your child with decision-making before the teen years. Children who know by age 10 or 11 how to make sound decisions tend to exhibit less anxiety and sadness, get in fewer fights, and have fewer problems with friends at ages 12 and 13, according to a 2014 study of 76 participants published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2017).
3. Explain the consequences in advance. Make it as clear as possible what the child is to expect if he or she performs the undesirable behavior.
4. Speak life into your child. Praises go a long way.
5. Schedule a regular family night. Have a regular evening to eat as a family and participate in a family activity such as a movie, game, cards, hiking, or going for a walk and share about your day or week. Teens may give you attitude or the ever wonderful “eye roll,” but these are the memories they will share with their children.
Studies in Australia have also found a connection of healthy, well-adjusted teens to parents who were at home and present, even if they were not interacting in conversation. Our teens still need to know their parents are a “base” by which to explore their world.
6. Help your children “unplug.” Teens (and we as adults) spend so much time on devices that we do not engage in conversation. As a result, we lose our “peripheral” in relationships. Constant online interaction and screen time can keep kids overwhelmed by all the data and intrusions as well as making them vulnerable for increased stress, bullying, lack of sleep, and comparative ideals towards their peers.
7. Monitor stress levels. If stress is affecting your teen’s health, behavior, thoughts, or feelings, make the necessary changes to alleviate pressure.
8. Listen carefully to teens and watch for overloading.
9. Learn and model stress management skills.
10. Support involvement in sports and other pro-social activities.
11. Be consistent in your promises and in how you discipline. Teens need the boundaries there no matter if they fail at something.
12. Remember that your behavior serves as a model for your children’s behavior.
13. Listen for the feelings behind the words. Remember, teens do not always have the cognitive functioning skills to think through the cause and effect scenarios. They speak and act quickly, but not wisely.
14. Help your teen to laugh at themselves and others.
15. Parents… Stay Out of the Drama! Sometimes we as parents need to intervene. But when it comes to basic interpersonal problems which can be solved and no one’s safety is involved, we do not need to know “the business,” and the scoop on everyone’s family situation. We also do not need to solve every problem our teen has.
16. Respect your teens’ opinion and acknowledge the value in them. If we respect them, they in turn will respect us.
17. James Dobson once stated that rules without relationships do not work. Take time to listen. Teens do not adhere to parents’ instructions if they feel they have no connection with them.
18. Treat your child how you want to be treated, even when you’re having a bad day. A 2014 study of 188 children compared the effect of mothers who were warm, affectionate, and approving during disagreements versus mothers who became angry and argumentative. Teens at age 16 who had affectionate moms when they were 12 showed brain changes linked to lower rates of sadness and anxiety and greater self-control, according to the study led by researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia (Shellenbarg, Sue. Wall Street Journal, New York. 9 August 2016).
19. Allow your teen to have privacy. We as parents only invade this if we suspect harm to our child.
20. Address any abusive or inappropriate language with a firm and clear message. Today it has become acceptable in teen culture to swear and verbally abuse others like no other previous generation has! While parents can’t totally prevent abusive language from their homes (in music, television, and other media), teens appreciate knowing the limits.
Language is a powerful means by which teens control the actions of others, including dating partners, parents, and peers. Be especially vigilant for expressions that put down others, no matter how “innocent” or “joking” they may seem, and point out what these expressions really communicate.
21. Pray as a family. As your children see you model your faith, commitment, and willingness to talk about questions in theology, the more likely they are to not feel uncertain about their own faith and identity.
While these are suggestions and not fool proof, they can be utilized to improve you and your teen’s relationships.
I cannot stress it enough. Try not to pressure teens to talk, but rather make yourselves available. Some of the most amazing talks I’ve had with my kids are when it is impromptu. There have been times I know I need to go to bed, but my child starts to open up about an issue. I want so much to go to bed, and I could make a convincing argument for it, but the hour or so that I gain connecting with my teen is well worth me drinking the extra coffee to stay awake the next day!
While I may never be “cool or hip” and my dance moves which were famed in my early years are now an embarrassment, I take comfort in knowing that it truly is not personal (although it can feel that way) but is rather a natural, neuropsychological phase that all teens must navigate into adulthood.
Until then, the prophetic words which my mother and father said, “Wait until you’re a parent. I hope you have a kid just like you!” still resonates in my thoughts. But one question: “Was I that bad?” Never mind Dad, do not answer that!
Friedman, New York Times, June 28, 2014.Heaven, 2001.
Noller & Patton, 1990
Shellenbarg, Sue. Wall Street Journal, New York. 9 August 2016.
“Smile,” courtesy of Rikki Gruen; “Brain sketch,” courtesy of ElisaRiva, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Blue,” courtesy of Daniel Sampaioneto, pixabay.com, CCO License; “The Look,” courtesy of emstichter, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Wistful,” courtesy of Nastya_Gepp, pixabay.com, CC0 License