For personal reasons the following article has taken quite a bit to put together but finally here it is!…
Parents of adolescents often wonder if their teenagers are purposely being defiant or are purposely trying to drive them crazy just to prove a point; however, although there are cases in which a teenager is lashing out due to neglect or abuse, there are other cases in which a teenager is simply acting and behaving in the natural ways his or her body and psyche demand. I hope this article helps other parents of adolescents better understand how the adolescent brain works; I certainly have learned a lot.
Before we go on to the physiological and psychological changes, I want to provide you with 4 scenarios for you to consider; after you read the whole article maybe you will see the scenarios from a different perspective and may better understand why this article took a bit of time to put together.
**names have been changed to protect identities
Scenario 1. A 10 year old girl named Amy was being molested and bullied at her house, she was afraid to share what was happening with anyone out of fear of what could happen. The only other person she confided was her friend Eliza, who was also 10 and whom Amy had known for a bit and felt close as Eliza was also experiencing abuse. After Amy told Eliza, the girls made a plan to ran away together; somewhere where the abuse would stop; they would do so after a big town event as everyone would then be focused on other things. A week before the event, Amy approached Eliza and told her she would not be able to ran away with her because things had been fixed and she was going to head to a better place. Eliza begged Amy to take her to this new place but Amy told her that would not be possible. She gave Eliza a big hug and kiss and they went to play. Eliza spent all afternoon wondering where Amy was going and how lucky her friend was. The next day at school Eliza’s favorite teacher approached her as soon as she walked in the school, and told her Amy was dead. Eliza couldn’t understand how; it couldn’t be real, she had just spent time with her the day before. No one ever told Eliza exactly what happened but she always felt her friend took her own life to escape the abuse.
Scenario 2. A 17 year old girl named Janice who had been raised in a family whose belief was that women are only good to marry, be pleasing and be taken care of by “prince” charming, experienced severed distress after her long term boyfriend John broke up with her. Janice had always thought they would get married and now her world was falling apart. Janice considered suicide but then chose to act out by dating guy after guy, covered her body with tattoos and become outright disrespectful to her parents. Thankfully Janice later on reached out to her half brother who was a marine and he took Janice in. He accompanied her to therapy and treated her like a human being instead of someone who was to play the role of a “princess”. Janice was bright and blossomed and through therapy and the love of her brother she grew up into a strong woman. She apologized to her parents for her disrespectful behavior and gently but firmly expressed how she had felt growing up in their house. Janice later became a marine, got married and had two beautiful children. She was wise enough to seek counselling before having kids in order for her and her husband to learn skills to better help them raised healthy children; Janice and her husband were non pretentious and committed to healing the past and the history with their parents so as to prevent their kids from experiencing life the way they did.
Scenario #3 A young lady of 15 named Erin had experienced the divorce of her parents and had explosive arguments with her father. Erin’s mother and her step dad were trying to raise Erin and her siblings. They were trying to provide a stable environment and the counselling they felt all the kids needed; in order to help them process things (past and present). Erin was a straight A student, involved in various sports and extracurricular activities. She had always been a sensitive girl. Erin was having trouble connecting to her peers and soon she was approached by girls older than her who were not a very good influence. These girls didn’t care much for school, chase after boys, lied, liked to steal, drink and do drugs. They came from families who were busy with work and their way of making it up to their children was to give them anything they wanted. Soon Erin started to question the structure in her house and equating love to material things. She got introduced to boys in that circle and fell in love; her parents didn’t approve. The more they fought the more Erin’s mom and step father became more rigid until their home felt like a war zone. Erin ran away from home and talked to her parents in ways and with words she had never used before. She started missing school, quit sports and started secretly drinking. Thankfully Erin agreed to counselling; after being away from home and realizing no matter where she would go, she did not have the same treatment and care as she did at home. Erin’s parents learned they too needed to be more lenient and use a good counsellor as a mediator until good communication was back on the table. After a while Erin dropped the group of girls who had peer pressured her to move out, bumming from house to house, etc. She realized they were not there when she would “need” them. Erin refocused on school, got back to being an “A” student, rejoined sports dated someone nicer and healthier. Although Erin’s life has ups and downs, she is at a much better place and regained closeness with her mother and step father. Erin is also working on her relationship with her father.
Scenario#4 During break at a workshop on mental health; Billy age 16 approached one of the coaches. Billy was severely distress and was experiencing serious difficulties in his life. His father had lost his job and was drinking too much which lead to the beating of Billy’s mother. Billy got in physical fights with his father in order to stop him. Billy was also failing at school as he was missing classes trying to work odd jobs to help his parents. To top it off Billy’s girlfriend cheated on him and told him it was his fault for not having time for her; Billy started to feel suicidal. In the middle of the conversation the event organizer called the coaches back to the podium. The coach Billy was speaking to gave him her card and ask him to please write down his number for her. Billy looked disappointed with the event organizer for stopping the chat. The coach felt torn and could not get Billy out of her head. As soon as the event was over she went home, walked into her office and started dialing Billy’s number…no answer. She tried a few more times….nothing. As it was late she chose to call back in the morning. Although her expertise wasn’t children or adolescents, Billy had chosen her; she spent all night getting reacquainted with her books on child and adolescent psychology. She went on the internet to search for resources and sending emails asking for advice from Counselors who had experience with cases such as this one. She also kept reminding herself no matter what, it came down to “trust”. He had trusted her and she was determined to tap not only onto her knowledge but also her experiences in order to best help him. The next morning she waited till 9am and starting dialing…no answer. Finally around noon she got an answer. She asked for Billy but was told no one by that name lived there. She tried to explain who she was and without divulging much explained to the lady on the other end of the phone that she was trying to help (in case the lady was Billy’s mom). She left her number just in case. She tried various variations of the number; she was unable to reach him and he never called. To this day she does not know how he is doing or if he even is alive.
Because of cases such as the above is why I chose to write this. Although in my background I have a Diploma on Behavioral Counselling, I am by no means an expert on Child or Adolescents Psychology. I never chose it as I’ve always felt called towards the adult mind yet to be entirely honest, I also chose not to focus on it because I have never felt quite prepared and comfortable “treating” children or adolescents. I believe it is good and wise to know one’s limitations; it is out of respect and love for their minds that I choose not to “tamper” with it. Due to my own history, I don’t feel I am the most qualified to “objectively” handled those type of situations, yet at times life has pushed me to situations where I have had to push past my fears and simply guide from the heart.
This article is mostly written from a mother’s perspective but its’ also written by someone who has had to confront situations involving adolescents (not just my own) and my own past. It seems as adults we want to believe we will not commit the same mistakes our parents did (whether big or small) yet after we have children, our own instinct to protect them may lead us to overprotect them. As life is wise, children become adolescents who are seeking to find their own identity and as parents we may find it hard to let go. As a wise counselor shared with me “Teenage years are all about letting go of the apron we have tied our children to ourselves. They often react in ways that are not pleasing so we may learn to let go and let life flow”
We all have met or have and adolescent whom we love and whom we would like to help but very seldom know how; that is why I chose to write this, hoping some of it can help you. I am more than open to your own comments and suggestions; for you don’t need a degree to share with me what has worked with your own kids–experience is a great teacher.
It is said the only other harder thing aside from being an adolescent is to be the parent of one. Why wouldn’t it be; during adolescence everything changes. All of a sudden your loving children who are often crying out for you to hug them, to kiss them, to accompany them everywhere become mini ogres who are screaming at you to get out of their room, to give them their space, to let them be. Sometimes it may even feel as if your adolescent could dissemble his or her room and could take it somewhere else they would; it almost feels as if someone took your little angel and gave you a badly made copy–they look the same but they behave differently.
The reality is adolescents and adults communicate entirely differently; let me give you examples: Your adolescent fails his test and says “but all my friends failed” to which most parents respond “I don’t care about the others, they are not my children. You are the one I’m concerned about”. As a parent you might even say “so if others try to throw themselves off a cliff you would do the same?”. The reality is, you as a parent may think you are saying the right things but your adolescent does not understand your language.
Sometimes as parents we try our best using all the tools we’ve learned growing up (what to do/what not to do) failing to realize today is not as yesterday was; generational differences; and our children are living in an entirely different world than the one we grew up in. This doesn’t mean we simply hand them over to the world and give them everything, for the modern world we live in has also proven not to be a healthy place for the development of mental resilience and development. It comes down to balance and the development of our language and behavior, so as to be better prepared for the changes our adolescents will undergo.
Although adolescence can be quite a challenging time for parents, let us not forget to our children it is a magical time but also a very confusing time; if we manage to guide it properly they will carry that magic and everything they learned within them, which will result in healthier, happier adults vs. uncaring, cold or sarcastic adults.
The word “Adolescent” in its Latin root means “learn to grow”; that is exactly what is happening with adolescents, they are becoming adults–not only physically but mentally as well. We are all quite familiar with the physical changes; genitals start to develop more, muscle changes, growth of facial and pubic hair, breast development, voice changes, menstruations, etc. However we are less knowledgeable of the mental changes or we many not understand them properly.
95% of the human brain develops from birth to 5 years–The most important 5% is developed during adolescence. I mentioned this to keep in mind as I
point out what I consider 3 basic things to better help us understand the adolescent brain.
- Independence. The first signal an adolescent’s brain gives is that he or she wants and has to become independent; his or her own self. This can be hard for a young person as he will look around and realize how alike he is to his father and mother. Of course he will be alike, he just spent 10 or 11 years trying to imitate his parents, now all of a sudden the brain says “hey you, you need to be your own person”. The young person doesn’t know how to handle this command; he doesn’t just look alike due to DNA but acts alike; at that moment parents go from the role of “best friend” to “arch enemy” as parents represent the opposite of what the brain is asking for. Their brain keeps demanding of them to stop being a “branch” version of his parents and to become his own version. At that moment the adolescent starts to rebel, to contradict parents just for the sake of contradicting; it matters not how much logical thinking parents may use, the adolescent will try to say or do the opposite. Often they will use the words “It’s not fair” simply because they disagree with you. They don’t know what they want, their brain pushes for something but they remember wanting something else; as you can see, it can be hard to be an adolescent. Rebellion becomes a constant; if parents say yes to something the adolescent says no. If a parent has piercings the adolescent doesn’t want them, if the parent doesn’t have them then the adolescent wants them, etc. They will do anything to “separate” themselves from you. Experts say we should not get too involved in that as it is part of their growing up and to try to control it will only cause fights day in and day out (of course this doesn’t apply if your child’s safety is at risk). Keep reminding yourself that all of it, is a “life milestone” ” a stage”, eventually he will stop doing it and his brain will start to level up. You are not going to see your son grow up, be 40 years old and throwing a tantrum at work, screaming at everyone because it “wasn’t fair” they did not order the doughnuts he wanted. Chances of that happening are slim to none if you did your best to provide balance; don’t’ overprotect but also don’t just ignore everything–pick your battles. If you choose not to pick your battles, you ran the risk of jeopardizing your future relationship with them. Also when you choose to fight over everything, you lose “Authority”; the more you fight the more ground you lose; ground and rapport you may later on need.
- The Prefrontal Cortex. It is the part of the brain located behind the forehead, it is that specific part of the brain that undergoes the most changes during adolescence; “it is remodeling itself”. The Prefrontal Cortex regulates judgment, responsibility and the ability to discern. We have all seen a house that is being redone; it is a mess; why then do we expect our adolescents to act or behave as if they got everything figure out? Here is another example, you say to your son “you went to a party without permission, then you went to another party at another location without letting anyone know, you got in the car of a stranger and forgot to take your cell phone? Don’t you realize just how dangerous that is?” and your adolescent replies “No” or “You are making a big deal”, “You don’t understand”. As parents we assume the child is trying to be difficult but the reality is, the adolescent doesn’t really understand what you are saying. As parents we may get angry thinking our children are trying to test us or disrespect us but the fact is they don’t have the same “mental tools” to handle things as you do. As you can see, it is important to try to see things from their perspective; however, it is also extremely important not to make excuses for them when you see them being outright disrespectful, mean, or wanting to harm themselves–at those times you can’t simply say “It’s okay, its adolescence” “it’s okay, his brain isn’t develop yet”...during those circumstances is when you need to use discernment and authority if needed. In our modern world we see a new generation with growing numbers of them experiencing depression, anger, lack of caring etc –usually the result of unhealed trauma–trauma can be caused by either extreme; too much of something (over sheltering/constantly making excuses) or too little of something (neglect, violence). It is important to remember although your adolescent may act as if he doesn’t want you around, he needs your balanced judgement. His own ability to discern is not working, the ability he had when he was 7 is temporarily “out of order” as such he needs you to be his guide and guarding angel. To simply choose to over shelter could result in continuous fights or in adolescents who will do all you ask but later will become adults who lack the ability to care or to make their own decisions. On the other hand to simply dismiss everything may lead your child down the path of serious consequences such as substance abuse, physically abusing their own bodies, eating disorders, depression, suicide, etc as ways to try to cope with things or to get your attention. Cases like that are when parents need to be cautious as your adolescent needs you to take charge. They may claim they want to be left alone but if they are exposing serious signs towards the things mentioned above, what they need most is you. They don’t need another gadget, they need you! They don’t need a bigger house, or nicer shoes, they need you–they need the you who is in control (control doesn’t mean anger/authoritarian) it means the ability to discern and make the best choice possible for an adolescent who is overwhelmed. If your adolescent is experiencing or meddling with the things I already mentioned; such as substance abuse; he needs you to take a stand. He needs you to say “NO more, I love you and I will do what I need to, to protect you, even if you don’t like me or hate me. I will rather have you hate me than to see you throw your life away or be at your funeral” . You then need to be wise and humble enough to seek an experienced therapist and resources to help your adolescent. You will also need to be willing to confront your own demons, as chances are if your adolescent is experiencing such distress there are traumas which you may not be aware of or pain which has been bottled up for too long. If that were to be the case, in therapy your adolescent will need you to own up to what you have to own, but you also will need to stand your ground when your child tries to put blame on you which doesn’t belong to you; otherwise you are enabling victimization, which is different from having been or felt the victim of something–an experienced therapist will be able to discern and guide. At times like these, it might be best to focus on the advice of a good professional; sometimes running to family or friends can make things harder. They may mean well but chances are they lack the neutrality and judgement might be passed towards you or towards your child. It is good to seek or heed advice from family and friends when things are not so volatile, however during precarious situations it is best to seek someone neutral. Those who do love you and your child will support you without judgement and will not take offense for not taking their advice. Ultimately what matters are the results; to keep your child safe, healed and to help him develop into a productive adult of good nature.
- Discernment. As mentioned the adolescent Prefrontal Cortex demands of your child to become independent; to do so will be painful for him as mush as it will be for you to watch. It is hard because the adolescent realizes that everything he learned was from you; even the way he showers he learned from you. Realizing he is a mini copy, he may experience anxiety and/or anger. They want to learn to experience everything all over again, such attitude leaves you wondering “why? we already taught you how to do things” but his brain is demanding of him to have his own ability to discern. Here is an example: One day your are driving somewhere and you have figured out what the best route is but your adolescent starts to challenge you. He starts to question out loud your driving abilities, your choices and saying there is a better way. Many parents get frustrated and an argument starts. The best thing is to try to remain calm; you know who you are and why you picked that route. The optimal solution would be (if you have time, if not another time) to follow your child’s advice and see how it goes. Having already checked your plans, his route will most likely take longer but you now taught him that you are willing to listen to him, to try something new and that you respect his opinion; he feels validated which later on leads to trust. Of course you can’t do that every time with every challenge; you are not supposed to but you can meet your child halfway.
The following is an extract from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
“Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.
Other changes in the brain during adolescence include a rapid increase in the connections between the brain cells and making the brain pathways more effective. Nerve cells develop myelin, an insulating layer that helps cells communicate. All these changes are essential for the development of coordinated thought, action, and behavior.
Changing Brains Mean that Adolescents Act Differently From Adults
Pictures of the brain in action show that adolescents’ brains work differently than adults when they make decisions or solve problems. Their actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex. Research has also shown that exposure to drugs and alcohol during the teen years can change or delay these developments.
Based on the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to:
- act on impulse
- misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
- get into accidents of all kinds
- get involved in fights
- engage in dangerous or risky behavior
Adolescents are less likely to:
- think before they act
- pause to consider the consequences of their actions
- change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors
These brain differences don’t mean that young people can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. However, an awareness of these differences can help parents, teachers, advocates, and policy makers understand, anticipate, and manage the behavior of adolescents”
Our commitment as parents is to help our children to grow, to guide and to not try to turn them into us. Throughout life I have met parents who often praised their adolescents as “little angels” “don’t’ misbehave” “wouldn’t do that” etc. Usually those children are so afraid to disappoint that they choose to please, to have no voice nor real opinion. They are rewarded for being “good” yet more often than not when children are over sheltered they grow to become cold adults who lack the ability to actually feel for others because they were never given room to make mistakes, to own up for their mistakes; instead their parents choose to cover up “bad behavior” and to over protect them. Reality is teenagers makes mistakes; it is natural and healthy; so long as it does not endanger their lives. To repress all their feelings will later on express itself in worst maladies and conduct.
Let’s try to teach our children that is okay to make mistakes, to live life but also to be responsible. If you remember the scenarios I presented to you earlier on, you will see how no one case is really like the other…parents can do the best they can yet trouble will still emerge, so don’t blame yourself or your kid (the case of the young girl who learned on her own that her parents were not the enemy). The importance of not over sheltering/creating dependence (as was the case of the young lady who had to ran away to live with her brother). Neglect (the cases which presented suicide or suicide tendencies)–A couple of those cases did require more protective parents, one case required parents to learn to let go a bit more and one case require for parents to let go a lot, to guide rather than to attempt to live through their child. There is no exact textbook on how to parent but perhaps trying to learn more about communication and the physiological changes that will occur over time, can help minimize the risks.
Adolescence is the best time of life only followed by the new experiences which will arrive when they are off to College, University or whatever path they have chosen. If we can help them to hold onto that magic, no matter how hard life gets, they will always bounce back. They will live to infuse this world with their idealism and hopefully leave this world a better place than they found it.
“I am your parent first then your friend. I am here to give you boundaries to become a functional responsible adult but I won’t cut your wings. At times you may hate me but I don’t care. I love you dear child and will show you that by being more concerned for your spirit than my popularity and reputation”