New Degree Press, 2021
Best friends Jane and Molly dropped their backpacks on the dining room table as they came in Jane’s house together after school, talking animatedly.
Jane’s mom, Veronica, was working on her computer on the same dining room table and said, “Hey girls.”
Not even stopping the flow of their conversation to look at Veronica, they offered a brief wave as they headed into the kitchen to grab drinks and snacks before settling in on the couch and clicking on the TV.
Veronica, pretending to continue to work, strained to hear what the girls were talking about. This was her favorite time of the day, as she often got to catch up on what was going on in Jane’s life by eavesdropping on Jane and Molly’s after-school chats.
Veronica heard Molly say to Jane, “Can you believe Griffin just punched him like that?”
Veronica stopped typing. Griffin was Jane’s boyfriend. She was super curious now.
Jane replied, “Jeff has been my best guy friend since kindergarten. Griff needs to get over himself, I’m so mad at him.”
“I think it’s sweet that he’s jealous,” Molly cooed.
“You wouldn’t think it was so sweet if he were your boyfriend. He doesn’t want me hanging out with Jeff anymore.”
Veronica closed her laptop and headed over to the couch.
She sat down next to Jane and said, “Did I ever tell you about the time when your dad did the same thing when we were in high school?”
Cue the eye roll.
Because what is the likelihood that Jane was happy that her mother jumped in on this private moment? Not likely, right? Do you remember moments like this with your parents? Those OMG! Help me! My parents are embarrassing me, moments. I was one of the few who would’ve probably invited my mom to join in on the conversation, but it would have depended on the day, the hour, the minute (if you ask her, my mom will agree).
Conflict is a natural part of parenting teens. How you deal with that conflict will determine the type of relationship you end up having with your teen. It is natural for teenagers to begin pulling away from their parents. They are trying to figure out their role in the confusing world of not quite being a child, but not yet an adult either. I will keep repeating this concept over and over again throughout this book because understanding their confusion is very important as you try to grapple with what is happening in the mind of your teenager.
In essence, they want to have their cake and eat it too. They want you to instinctively know when they want you to treat them like an adult and when they want you to treat
them like a child. I even had a student say that as adults we just know when to do this. I actually laughed out loud when I read this. Partly because of the honesty of the answer and partly because this proves one of the points I want to make in this book; communication is severely lacking between teens and adults. They expect us to be able to read their minds.
As you read below how the teenage brain works and the psychology and strategies mentioned throughout this book, I want you to think about this statement my student made. Instinctually, parents and other adults who work with teen- agers can decide when to treat them like children and when to treat them like adults, but it will only be through effective communication that this will produce meaningful results.
In the past, people believed that the brain stopped develop- ing prior to adolescence; however, over the past fifteen to twenty years, researchers have found that the teenage brain is much more complex than they ever imagined and continues to develop throughout adolescence not stopping until the mid-twenties.
Did you know that the same things that you might be complaining about your teenagers now Socrates and Aristotle were complaining about young people as early as 469-399 BC? Shakespeare was writing about in his works in the seventeenth century, and Rousseau was differentiating teenagers from children using these characteristics in the eighteenth century. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore in her book Inventing Ourselves takes time to remind us of these things, in order to promote the idea that your teenagers are not so different and to point out the importance of remembering your own wayward teenage years and the way you interacted with your own parents. I bet if you ask your own parents, they will say you acted in much the same way. Did your parent ever say to you when you were younger “I hope you have a child just like you?” That can be both good and bad. I saw a meme recently that said, “my kid is turning out just like me, well played Karma, well-played.”
Characteristics such as bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for adults, things you see as excuses the teens in your life are coming up with, or teens just being overly dramatic, actually have a biological explanation. Teens just cannot help being the way they are.
This does not mean we just let them run around willy-nilly acting like fools and throw in the proverbial towel but know- ing how the teenage brain works will give you insight, understanding, patience, and hopefully a little compassion for all that is going on inside the heads of these adolescents. You might just learn not to take the things your teenagers say and do quite so personally as well. Immaturity hurts, but remember their brains are still growing; they are not as mature as they think they are.
One of the most common questions that parents ask about their teenagers is “what happened to my sweet lov- able child?” One day they were this sweet child and now they have become this emotional teenager who I don’t recognize. What do I do now?
Let’s take a look at why it happens in the first place.
The teenage brain develops from the back to the front. Anatomically, what this means is that the emotional centers of the brain, which are located in the limbic system, develop fully before the pre-frontal cortex—the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functions such as judgment and perspective-maintaining. Emotions are in overdrive while judgment, impulse control, and empathy have not yet fully caught up. This doesn’t fully happen for many teens until their mid-twenties. A huge restructuring is happening during this period of adolescence. Think of it like a massive upgrade to the brain’s network and wiring. When it is finished it will be a well-oiled machine, but the process is time-consuming and while the process is in progress, it feels a bit clunky.
What does this mean? Different parts of the brain develop at different rates. What this tells us is there is a disconnect between the way teenagers react in certain situations.
Don’t mistake this explanation for me saying that teenagers should not be held responsible for their actions. I am not saying this at all nor am I saying that the adults in their lives should not continue to teach them right from wrong. The point here is to give you an understanding of why your seemingly normal child, and their dear friends, seem to have lost their ever-loving minds. The teenage wiring is off balance. So, your teenager is more immature in an area that can heighten his or her sense of anxiety, depression, and other emotions that make your teen seem unstable.
Do you see the problem? There is a disconnect between the overactive emotional centered limbic system and the underdeveloped rational problem-solving, decision-making frontal lobe. The best example I can give is that this is like having a Ferrari engine with golf cart brakes. The brakes won’t hold. The emotions will win out again and again.
The plasticity of their brains will allow your teen to recover from a lot of this. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections, pathways, and change how its circuits are wired. The child and the teenage brain
have the capacity to change more than at any time in life. In The Teenage Brain, Frances Jensen lets us know which processes are affected. “Thinking, planning, learning, acting— all influence the brain’s physical structure and functional organization, according to the theory of neuroplasticity.” She also says that the following attributes are seen during this time period:
1. Memories are easier to make and last longer during the teen years than the adult years
2. Time to identify strengths and focus on emerging talents
3. Get the best results from remediation and special help for learning and emotional issues.
So, there is hope. Your teen will bounce back, but your support is needed in the meantime.
In 2011, David Dobbs published an article in National Geographic entitled “Beautiful Brains,” in which he tells a story about his son who had phoned him to tell him he had gotten in trouble for driving a “little fast” on the highway. Think of a number you believe this teenager would think of as a “little fast.” Eighty? Eighty-five? Ninety? How about 113? Yep. His son had been driving 113 miles per hour on the highway.
Now his son was actually “somber and contrite” as Dobbs describes it. He did not object to his punishments, and he did not argue when Dobbs explained that “if anything happens at that speed—a dog in the road, a blown tire, a sneeze—he dies.” Dobbs explains that his son was in fact “irritatingly reasonable” about all of this. His son even admitted that the cop was right to pull him over. But his son had one objection to the whole thing; one of the citations he received was for “reckless driving.” What was your reaction to this objection just then? Did you roll your eyes? Did you think “that fig- ures”? Does it surprise you or the opposite, not surprise you in the least?
Actually, your reaction is not the point at all. The point is to pay attention to Dobbs’s son’s perception of the word reck- less and his response when Dobbs asks him “What would you call it?”
Here is his son’s response, and while you are reading it, I want you to think about why this response is so important in the discussion of the teenage brain.
His son responded very calmly that reckless was not accurate. “Reckless sounds like you’re not paying attention. But I was. I made a deliberate point of doing this on an empty stretch of dry interstate, in broad daylight, with good sight lines and no traffic. I mean, I wasn’t just gunning the thing. I was driving.”
David Dobbs describes this same scenario in a more positive light his interview on NPR with B. J. Casey and Dr. Jay Giedd. He says it was not as simple as his just being an idiot. In fact, “it was a more positive agenda. He was going after something instead of just lacking something.”
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg discusses this risk phenomenon in a different way in his interview with Kristen and Liz on their Spawned Parenting podcast. He believes teenagers are super
learners rather than inherent risk takers. “Teenagers are not risk takers. They are natural experimenters, they’re going to always test their limits, they are going to always expand their horizons, they’re always going to go to the edge of existing knowledge.” It becomes important to create “golden opportunities at those edges, really enriching opportunities where they can have thrills in school, on the sports field, in communication, in theater,” so these teenagers feel fulfilled. Ginsburg also states, “when it becomes a risk is when they don’t have the clear, stop measures.”
This means your teens need boundaries. They, in fact, crave them. But Ginsburg makes it clear that these bound- aries should keep your teen safe, “but what you’re never going to do, and what you would never want to do is to shut down experimentation, not if you want a smart thirty-five-year-old, not if you want a smart fifty-year-old, because now is the time they’re cramming that knowledge in. We want them to have every experience they can.”
Because of the disconnect during this period in their lives, teens place much more emphasis on reward, because of that overactive limbic system, which is why peer acceptance is so important to them. They have become more self-aware as well, meaning that they are coming into their own. They see themselves as an individual and rely less on their family to make decisions for and with them. They have a great need to make their own choices.
They are less reasoned in their decision-making. The con- sequences of their behavior affect teens differently; they are less sensitive to negative consequences and more sensitive to rewards. Because they have a harder time engaging their frontal lobe, they have a harder time resisting temptation. Frances Jensen explains in The Teenage Brain, “it is not the perception
of the risk, but the anticipation of the reward despite the risk.”
Here’s a great example of this: one day the school nurse came running across the hall to my classroom asking for my help. This was not unusual, as I am an athletic trainer, so she often came to have me look at injured students; however, the student we were looking at that day had done something very unusual. On a five-dollar dare, he had snorted ghost pepper sauce! Some of you might have gasped. If you did not, that means you are unaware of what a ghost pepper is. A ghost pepper is one of the hottest peppers in the world. So, for five dollars this kid had put ghost pepper sauce in his sinus cavity! Needless to say, his face was swollen, and he was in a lot of pain. The nurse had no idea what to do. I had a student go get milk from the cafeteria, and we flushed his sinuses with the milk and then flushed them several times with saline water to remove the milk. It worked. When the student was out of pain, we asked the million-dollar question, “why on earth would you do something like that?” His teenage brain responded “I would do anything for money.” That reward center sensitivity at its finest. The five dollars was worth more to him than the pain in his sinus cavity.
Teenagers are also not as efficient or quick in making decisions. Hence the last-minute trips to Michael’s for that trifold board that every student seems to need for their science project they knew about three weeks ago but is due the next day. This is where parents need to be proactive and communicate with their teens by possibly asking on Sun- day night, “what does your week and weekend look like this week? Any tests, projects due, etc.” So, they know when they have to Uber their kids around ahead of time and can put cash aside for the added expenses. They may still not remember about the project because it is not a high priority, but you can mitigate some of the fallout by the attempt.
Teenagers have heightened emotions on all levels with- out the developed ability for impulse control, judgment, and empathy. This goes a long way to explain the teenage outbursts and the end-of-the-world feeling about everything happening in their life. They also do not have the life experience to balance their feelings.
This is not an excuse for their behavior; however, it grants an explanation for why it occurs. As adults, this information should then assist us in becoming empathetic and understanding, rather than standing in judgment or becoming frustrated with the teens in our circle.
Some researchers believe that there is an evolutionary reason behind why teenagers act the way that they do, and it puts their actions in a more positive light using natural selection
as its foundation. David Dobbs in the National Geographic article “Beautiful Brains” sums it up in the following. “Selection is hell on dysfunctional traits. If adolescence is essentially a collection of them—angst, idiocy, and haste impulsiveness, selfishness, and reckless bumbling—then how did those traits survive selection? They couldn’t—not if they were the period’s most fundamental or consequential features.”
There are four broad categories at the heart of this theory: excitement, novelty, risk and the company of peers. While teenagers find much trouble in these areas, they can also lead to positive interactions that actually help them as they become adults.
For example, Dobbs says that “the urge to meet more people… can create a wider circle of friends, which generally makes us happier, safer, and more successful.”
In terms of risk, the age group comprised of four- teen-to-seventeen-year-olds is the biggest group of risk-takers, but it is not because they do not think about the risk. My stu- dent who snorted the ghost pepper sauce is a prime example. Or how about this one, one day I was teaching and all of a sudden one of my seniors screams “Ow!” I look over and he is holding one of my staplers open, you know, like when you would hang something on the wall, and also holding his leg.
Me: What happened?
Student: The staple went into my leg. Me: (giving him my teacher look)
Student: What? I didn’t think it would go through flesh. Whole class: (laughter)
Me: (shaking my head)
You know I can’t make this stuff up.
In fact, studies have shown that teens overestimate the risk; however, they value the reward more than adults. David Dobbs also discusses in “Beautiful Brains” the views of researchers Lawrence Steinberg and B. J. Casey, whose work shows this risk versus reward has been part of our evolutionary selection process because it gives us an “adaptive edge” in the ability to learn the skills necessary to “get out of the house and into new turf” and to leave the safety of home and move out into the scary real world.
B. J. Casey further discusses this idea in the same inter- view on NPR with David Dobbs and Jay Giedd. She agrees with the idea that the prefrontal cortex, our logic center, doesn’t function the same way in adolescents as it does in adults. She states that
“deep structures in the brain that are involved in desire and our emotions, those systems seem to be really pulling and maturing at a time in adolescence that really allow the
individual to leave the home. If our children weren’t experimenting, if they weren’t telling us about their bad behavior and the sort, we may be more inclined to want to keep them in
Casey gets a laugh at this point in the interview because every parent knows how it feels when their teen has done something to make them wonder how much longer they are going to be living under their roof. This bad behavior, however, not only allows the parents to let go of the reins but it also allows for learning to occur on the part of the teen. Casey leads to the question of “why the brain would be made this way to put teenagers in harm’s way?” Ultimately, the point Casey is making is that the teenage brain is helping prepare the teenager for independent living as an adult.
Teens prefer the company of their peers more than the company of adults, but this is for more positive reasons. According to this more naturally selective theory discussed by Casey, Dobbs, and Giedd, this can be for novelty and “to invest in the future rather than the past.” As we grow up, we spend the first part of our lives with our parents, but we spend the biggest part of our lives, adulthood, “and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers. Knowing, understanding, and building relationships with them bears critically on success.” However, this also explains why peer exclusion is such a dramatic thing for teenagers. In “Beautiful Brains,” Dobbs discusses that some brain scans show, “our brains react to peer exclusion much as they respond to threats to physical health or food supply.” Add that to the emotionally reactive teenage brain, and it becomes much easier to comprehend why a thirteen-year-old gets hysterical when deceived by a friend, or a fifteen-year-old becomes depressed at not being invited to a party. Daniel Siegel, author of Brainstorm, rightly states, “if adults try to block the flow of adolescence, it is likely that communication, so important to relationships, will be tainted with tension and disrespect.”
Teenagers are also influenced by their peers through what is deemed the imaginary audience. The imaginary audience is based around the perceived audience reacting to you at any given time. According to David Elkind, it is at the point of adolescence, at around age eleven or twelve, that a child can truly discern the thoughts of others. This new ability poses a problem because while the adolescent becomes aware of the thoughts of others he is “unable to differentiate between what others are thinking about and his own mental preoccupations, he assumes that other people are as obsessed with his behavior and appearance as he is himself.” Drew Cingel is moving Elkind’s research into the social media age. Cingel finds that the obsession that teenagers have with this imaginary audience is directly linked to their social media use. Cingel tells Maiken Scott on his podcast The Pulse, “the more kids used social media the more they thought about their imaginary audience.” In this same podcast, a senior, Amanda, is used as an example. Amanda imagines her friends, family members, strangers—they are all looking at her pictures and judging her. “How many likes I get on this picture would determine if I’m pretty or not, and like ‘whoa, I’m popular because I have 200 likes.’” This is the reality for so many teens. They post pictures to boost their self-esteem. To validate their beauty.
Teenagers focus on the present. Everything about their lives is immediate. They are not thinking about what happens in the future like you might be. For example, asking some teenagers “what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” might actually cause them to panic. They may have some glimmer of an idea, but for some of them this is too far in the future and some smaller goal would be more motivational.
The one thing a teenager does not want to hear is that their feelings at the moment are insignificant. For example, the age-old saying that I’m sure you heard when we were growing up in some form just like I did, “don’t worry there are plenty of other fish in the sea.” I know I didn’t want to hear it when I was that age, did you? It definitely does not matter to them that the overwhelming feelings they are experiencing at the moment will go away. It only matters that these feelings are happening right at the moment. The instant you devalue or make light of their feelings you lose them, especially if anyone else is around.
The same is true for trying to solve the problem if they don’t want your help. As you will see later in this book through many examples from teenagers I have interacted with, what they really want is for you to listen and be honest with them. They want you to pay attention and communicate with them in a way that shows that you are truly engaging and that you are trying to understand the problem from their perspective.
Celebrate the differences in their brain wiring. Understand where they are coming from. It will make your job as a parent much easier.