Published 17 April 2019 at 21:06
When my delightful, well-behaved daughter hit her teen years, her defiant, impulsive and irrational behavior, left me and my husband zapped and lost. Each situation was a battle and each day was a war. We had no idea what had hit her. We were the same parents, doing what we had always been doing. What had gone wrong and more importantly, where we had gone wrong? One thing we were sure of was, this is not how we would like things to continue. It led me to do read and research on what psychologists had to say about the teenage brain right from the beginning of the psychology like G Stanley Hall to present-day thought leaders like Dr. Dan Siegel.
When I started coaching teens and parents, this one question I have seen come up again and again from parents “My child was not like this. What happened?”
This article is a bid to answer this question. It is an outcome of my research, my observation, and experience with my own two teens and the teens I have coached.
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What’s happening in their head?
We normally tend to blame it on raging hormones. But its more than that. Adolescent brain changes in very powerful ways. Children’s brains have a massive growth spurt when they’re very young. By the time they’re six, their brains are already about 90-95% of adult size. The brain during adolescence includes a rapid increase in the connections between the brain cells and making the brain pathways more effective. With this reshaping and reconstruction of the teenager's brain, their information highways are being sped up (a process called myelination), and some old routes, closed down (this is called pruning); some are re-routed and reconnected to other destinations. And above all, old information highways are making lots of new connections to other highways, and other “cities and towns” (this is called sprouting). It's a massive construction project, unlike anything that occurs at any other time in life. In such a situation, things rarely flow smoothly, and surprise destinations thrive.
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How does all this manifest as in the teen behaviour?
One of the important things to remember is that what a teen does and is exposed to during this critical time in life, has a large influence on the teen's future because experience and current needs shape the pruning and sprouting process in the brain. All the pruning and rerouting manifests itself in behaviors which they had not shown earlier in their childhood. Here are enlisted some of the behaviours adolescents tend to show.
Moody Teen: Just leave me alone. No one cares for me. No one understands me.
As parents, our first thought is ‘the child is being disrespectful and needs to be punished’. But the child might be frustrated, confused, or even scared by the changes taking place in their lives. They might be feeling unsettled by the intensity of the emotions they experience.
A different approach to punishing could be: Listen with full and complete attention to your child calmly first. Once they have vented out to their heart’s content, ask them “what is bothering them. Is there something you can help them with”? If after that also the child does not want to talk, it’s best to leave them alone. Sometimes they need that lone time to reflect.
But the fact that you are listening to them and reaching out to them gives them the comfort of your presence and availability. It gives them the strength they need to deal with what they are going through.
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Demanding teen: All my friends have the latest iPhone. Why can’t I have one too?
The teen brain is preparing them to learn to form new bonds which are essential for the survival and continuation of species. That is why in this age peers play a more important role in their life than their parents. So, it’s natural for them to cave into peer pressure and demand things they see others with. For them, it is a way, in fact, sometimes, the only way to forge new bonds.
Often as parents, we either give in to their demands or dismiss them as unnecessary and non-sensical. Or we end up lecturing them on desires and self-restraint in a bid to guide them.
Instead, consider asking him, is it something he needs for the better efficiency or is it something he wants to help make new friends. If it is to make new friends then, are there better ways to form friendships. These situations can be excellent opportunities to train them on how to form healthy and meaningful relationships. This will help them in their future long-term relationships. This will also lay foundations for good social skills.
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Pushing Boundaries teen: Why do I have such strict boundaries. All my friends can come home late. You guys don’t trust me.
The brain is preparing them to move out into the world and explore it on their own. This cannot happen if the brain is not preparing them to take risks. Trying out new things is thrilling for them, including challenging status quo and challenging authority. It gives them highs and lows of a roller coaster ride. The teenage brain is designed to challenge the status quo. They are full of excitement and new ideas. All one has to do to validate this is to search for how many under 30 billionaires we have today. Who knows, your teen who is pushing his boundaries might be the next youngest billionaire in making.
We parent usually end up feeling hurt. A most common reaction I have come across is “I do so much for them, that is not respected or acknowledged. All I hear always is “complaints”.
Instead of curbing them or feeling threatened by this behavior, I encourage parents to explore it with them. One of the ways parents can handle this is by setting reasonable boundaries in consent with them along with the consequences if the boundaries are broken. The key here is for us to remember these boundaries ourselves and carry out the consequences when they are broken.
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To wrap up
Changes in the teen brain have been designed by nature to help them get out of the safety and comfort of their family and home and explore the world on their own and start their own life. This is a time when they explore their individuality. This is when the pros and cons of something weigh against how exciting something appears to be. Knowing this makes it much easier for us parents to parent them by being a part of their journey. Make your disapproval of poor behavior known, but focus on what your teenager is doing, not who they are. Continue to affirm their worth as a person even as you explain why their behaviour was unacceptable.
What have been your experiences when your child hit adolescence? We would love to hear from you. Write down in the comment box or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Shalini Bindal
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About the Author:
Shalini Bindal is an ICF-trained, Professional Certified Coach. She does personal coaching for Women and Teenagers. Before becoming a Coach, Shalini was a HR professional and Corporate Trainer. A mother of two teenagers, Mrs. Bindal has lived in India, Belgium and now in Hong Kong. Email her for a 30-minute free face-to-face or virtual session at email@example.com.