What is the Brain Science Behind Adolescent Behaviour?
Teenagers. Ammirite? They behave like adults sometimes and like children other times. They say mean things and they are constantly pushing boundaries. What’s a parent to do?!
Did you know that adolescence (stage between childhood and adulthood) works out to be ages 12 to 24 (give or take), based on the development of the brain? The prefrontal cortex (logical rational part of our brain) isn’t fully online until well into our 20s.
The reason that is important to remember is that a lot of the behaviours we complain about in teenagers are completely normal and age appropriate. Some may have nothing to do with our parenting and some result from how we respond to their behaviours. We can make things better or we can make them worse…
Luckily, Dan Siegal, reassures us in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain:
There is no such thing as perfect parenting. But there is a way to make sense of our lives so that we move toward authentic ways of relating that are supportive of our kids and ourselves. So please keep this in mind: It is never too late to course correct, to come to a deeper understanding and enhance the way we connect in our families with the people we love and care so deeply about. If change were not possible, there wouldn’t be much reason to dive into this material. But science and experience reveal that with self reflection and understanding, non-ideal patterns we’ve adopted from our own pasts can be transformed. Be patient with yourself and with your family members. With kindness and understanding, to yourself to others, change can be nurtured and good things can emerge.
I love that the middle part of the book focused on the parent dealing with their own past trauma. It is only through doing this hard work that one can understand how to connect with a teenager. Siegel reminds us that it’s important to think of this stage not as a ‘stage to get through’ but rather an important stage of development to become a heathy adult. Anyone dealing with the challenges of a tween, teen, or young adult would benefit from reading this book.
Here’s my personal example:
Who REALLY Started It?
My not-even-tween-yet child was picking on everything. Nothing was good, everything was annoying to him and he did not hold back telling me. He complained, he moaned, he resisted, and of course he pushed back on anything I had to say. I was patient, I was. I let a few things slide, you know, because I’m nice. But my ‘don’t confuse my kindness for weakness’ ‘tude was starting to come out.
Finally, I exploded, “What is your problem? Why do you have to ruin every single family walk? All I want is for us to walk together as a family and enjoy it. We need the exercise, we need the fresh air, and we need to spend time together as a family! Why do you have to ruin the entire day by whining and complaining about everything?”
Whoa. See what happened there? I exploded at him. Okay, that’s not all that happened.
If we were to look at the timeline from my perspective at the time, I would have complained that the ‘problem started’ was when he wouldn’t stop whining about everything.
However, if we were to take a few steps back and look at the whole thing a bit more holistically, we can see that the problem probably started a lot earlier when he was trying to connect with me and got rebuffed when I was too preoccupied to notice that he wanted to connect. He probably felt hurt at some point in time and I was completely oblivious. So he did what most people do, he let it affect how he saw the world. And the world doesn’t look so good when you’re needs have been ignored.
Let’s be honest; it really blew up when *I* blew up. That is to say, it wasn’t a problem until *I* made it a problem and then blamed him for it. *I* was the one who ruined the day!
What Can I Do Differently Next Time?
Notice that I specifically chose the word “differently” rather than “better” in this question? And note that I’m asking that question not to shame myself ‘for not handling the situation well this last time’ but to ‘learn for the next time!’
As I’m not a fan of behaviour modification (I no longer believe that I can control the behaviours of my sons, or anyone really, in any meaningful manner), I can only continue to build on my process to provide the best environment I can for them, given the resources that I have.
The key is to reflect on my process. I wish that someone had told me all this a few years ago when my tween was struggling and I wasn’t helping him!
What I have learned to do when I my spidey senses tell me that I’m in a minefield:
- Firstly, check my own state of mind. Do have any unmet needs that are bubbling inside? They are often invisible initially, but I now can recognize them if I’m hearing myself say things like “That’s not fair!” or “I’m too tired to deal with this right now.” or “You don’t appreciate all the stuff I ALREADY do for you – and you complain about THIS?!”
- Then, I find a way to connect instead of criticize. That is to say, if his feet hurt and therefore it means we can’t go for our walk, I’ll reach out and spend the time to figure out what this is symptom of, instead of jumping to my conclusion “Yeah, your feet don’t seem to hurt when you are playing video games, why do they always magically hurt when I want to go for a walk?”
- Lastly, I put on my Protective Mommy Gear. It doesn’t come with any Owner Manual, I just discovered it one day and put it on. What is seems to do is to help me not taking anything my kids say personally. It also seems to negate my Angry-at-the-World Glasses which filters out all the wonderful things they do (and are!), focusing in on the misplaced toy on the floor or the unmade bed. When I have the right equipment, I have a better chance of not setting off a hidden mine.
New Process and New Team
I’ve been working on this for a while now, so it’s a bit more comprehensive than it used to be and I find that I have to practice, refine, and reflect often.
What I do now is I ground myself before I say anything. I even work hard not to do my internal eyeroll thing, which I think they can pick up.
Then I get Curiosity to step up while I ask Criticism to stand down. Sometimes Humour comes, but I have to be careful, because Humour often gets mistaken for Condescension… which can trigger a whole new set of mines and then we have to start all over. So Judgment is replaced by Courage, and Faith takes over for Fear. And of course, Love is always a starting player, much more effective than Shame.
I’m learning to accept that it is what is, we start where we start, and sometimes, I just have to listen and not try to fix things right away. Then, and only then, can we collaborate to find a solution that meets both our needs.
I hold on to my highest level values:
- LOVE: Relationship First
- ASPIRATIONS: Aspirations for them to get ‘there’ at their own speed
- YOU: Take care of my needs or at least be aware which ones are unmet!
- EMOTIONS: Allow ourselves to have emotions without hurting each other.
- ROUTINES: Slowly build the process and be okay when things don’t work exactly as I want them to.
- STORYTELLING: Make sure that the narrative isn’t about blame or shame but rather learn and grow.
And then I let go of my expectations for the consequences.
I will categorize any result as 1) a roaring success, 2) a learning opportunity to change the process for the future, or 3) both!
Join me on my journey?