What were you thinking?: a peek inside the teenage brain

boy-shrugging-cropped-paidIf you’re raising a teenager, no doubt your mantra is “What were you thinking?” Teens aren’t known for making the best decisions. Or planning ahead. Or considering consequences. The list of patience-trying teen behaviors goes on and on … here’s the good news. They’ll get over it. Here’s the startling news. When they say, “But, Mom, it isn’t my fault!” they may be partially right.

It’s their brains.
In terms of human development, the brain undergoes two periods of enormous growth: from birth to about age four, and then again from about ages 10 to 14. Dr. Jay Giedd, of the National Institute of Mental Health, says of the adolescent and teen years, “In many ways, it’s the most tumultuous time of brain development since coming out of the womb.”
Whereas an infant’s and toddler’s brain is literally growing, a teenager’s brain is remodeling itself, mostly by making and pruning connections. Instead of having a screw loose, as the old saying goes about someone who makes lousy decisions, teens-metaphorically speaking-have wires loose.
Up to this point, adolescents and teens have mostly been acting from their emotions (think limbic system) and pleasure-and-reward systems (think amygdala), which explains a lot about their behavior. Now, as they approach and go through puberty, they are preparing to become adults, and their brains know it. It’s time for the brain to rewire itself, adding millions of new connections between those emotional-impulsive behavioral centers and the frontal lobes, especially the prefrontal cortex.
This is the “executive” center of the brain, the area that is active when we rationally assess situations, consider the consequences of our and others’ actions, set priorities-generally all those things we expect our teens to know how to do but that their brains are not yet fully wired to do. The prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to be developed, and the rewiring will go on well into their 20s.
At the same time that all these new connections are forming, your teen’s brain is strengthening already existing connections and pruning less used ones. Whatever your teen is focusing on-sports, study, friendships or, conversely, zoning out in front of the TV or endlessly playing video games-gets reinforced by the brain. Those connective pathways that are not continually activated get pared away.
What’s crucial about this rewiring is that it influences the skills teens take with them into adulthood. To some extent the old adage “use it or lose it” holds true.
To be fair, this spurt of brain remodeling is not an excuse for a teen’s sometimes exasperating behavior. But it does provide parents insight into why teens think something is a great idea when you don’t, why they can’t seem to plan or organize when you think doing so is a no-brainer, why they act without considering consequences that you think are incredibly obvious. Simply put, at this point in their development, teen brains have problems separating what’s important from what’s not so important.
So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage?
Experts suggest strategies that include being clear in your instructions and guiding your teen with advice, but doing so with a soft touch. Your teen needs to “practice” being an adult without being punished for not yet being one. Cultivate the patience to allow them to make mistakes with their growing independence. They are learning to curb their impulses and mediate their emotions. They are learning reasoning, logic and analysis. Whether they show it or not, they will look to the adults in their lives–meaning you–as examples.
This is a trying time for many parents, for while teens might seem to be pushing you away as they “practice” being independent, they also will be secretly watching and learning from you since you are the most important adult in their life.
              
Author’s content used under license, © Claire Communications
♥♥♥LOVE IN ACTION♥♥♥
When living with a teenager is testing your own sanity, remember Erma Bombeck’s quote: Kids need love the most when they’re acting most unlovable. 

For when the fireworks are too close for comfort!

fireworksFor some of us, fireworks don’t just happen at the park on the 4th of July. You parents of young children know what I’m talking about! I’m talking about the fireworks that happen when our children have their meltdowns, tantrums, upsets, you-name-it….especially in a public place! When it seems like the screaming and flailing about is just as loud and spectacular as any fireworks show you’ve seen.

These are the times that test our fortitude as parents and test our ability to dance in the gap of (1) our vision of how we want to parent and (2) how we actually do it during the daily grind. Hopefully, these 3 tips will help you bridge that gap in the midst of the familial pyrotechnics:

1. Stay calm
THE MOST HELPFUL thing you can do when your child is losing it is to stay calm yourself. If you lose it too and start yelling then all hope is lost. Your child needs you to guide her through the emotional storm. That’s hard to do if you’re lost in the storm yourself. So breathe and repeat a mantra to yourself that will help you stay calm…such as “I can do this in a calm loving way” or “This too shall pass.”
(You may have to come back to this mantra over and over again).

2. Get down close to your writhing child*
Yes, you read that correctly. Squat down, or even sit or lie down on the floor with your child (depending on where you are). Perhaps you just wouldn’t be comfortable lying in the grocery store aisle; but if you’re at home or the home of a friend, go for it!

Instead of isolating your child or letting the emotional tempest keep you at bay… go in, get close. As we say in the conflict resolution field: lean into the conflict. This will get easier the more you do it, and your calm close presence is likely to have a calming influence on your child when he starts to trust that you can be a safe container for his big emotions. With repetition, you may find this strategy alone lessens the intensity and decreases the time of a tantrum.

3. Offer understanding and empathy to your child
Your child is too young developmentally to be able to reason out of her intense emotions. That’s why all the perfect reasoning and logic in the world won’t help in those moments. Plus, we tend to use way too many words when our child is upset. (To be honest, when you are having intense emotions, do you want someone to give you reasons why you shouldn’t be feeling that way? Or do you want someone to hear you and to understand the pain you’re in?)

Instead, offer your child two precious gifts: understanding and empathy.

Here are some phrases to try:

  • I know it’s hard when you really really want that cookie right now.
  • It’s hard to want something really bad and not be able to have it.
  • I know…sometimes I want things too that I just can’t have.
  • It’s okay to cry. I know it hurts. I’m here with you.
  • You want to sit on my lap?
  • You want me to hold you while you cry?

Comments such as these give your child the message: “I know. I understand. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. I’m here to help you through it.

Understanding and empathy are not permissive parenting. You can set boundaries and limits and still be loving and supportive when they trigger intense emotions in your child. Just as you support your child with physical hurts, it’s just as important to support the emotional hurts.

Your capacity to stay loving and supportive during an upset helps your child to build resiliency and capacity to behave better in the future. Studies have shown that emotional responsiveness strengthens the integrative connections in the brain, helping to bring the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) back on-line quicker. As the brain integrates more and more over time, this allows your child to make better choices and to better control her body and emotions.

So there you have it. 3 tips to help you and your child get through the “other” kind of fireworks show. I invite you to start seeing every tantrum as an opportunity to instill this message in your child:

You are loved even when you’re at your worst.
(Don’t we all want that?!)
We’re a team and I’ve got your back!

*Special Note: Some children will not let you get near them when they are upset. (My son is this way; he really needs his space when he’s upset.) You can sit further away or in the doorway and keep letting him know you are there for him, at a distance, until he is ready to be comforted or to re-engage.