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
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. 

I feel I can finally exhale

(Original post: 8/14/13)
Earlier this week I watched as my two boys got in the car (my older one driving) and headed to their first day of high school together. This year my older son is a junior (hard to believe!) and my younger son is a freshman. The first day of school is still a reflective time for me. I stood on the porch waving and wondering that old cliché, “where did the time go?” My heart was full of pride for the awesome young men they are becoming.  I also got in touch with the gratitude and pride I feel for myself that I’ve done the work (and it was damn hard at times!) to nurture and grow relationships with them built on mutual respect and trust.

When you have an especially challenging child (like my older son), it can take an incredibly long time to see the results. Often, parents lose faith that anything is working. There have been so many times I wanted to throw in the towel because I lost my confidence that I was doing the right thing. There have been times over the years when it was just a hopeless mess. Yet, I was committed to grow my consciousness and skills in order to lovingly parent my challenging child.  I knew in my heart I wanted to parent in a way that honored and accepted him just the way he is.

He is almost 17 now and I feel I can finally exhale. The relationship is intact. We’re talking. He’s sharing. He’s even listening sometimes. We often enjoy each other. Everything is going to be okay. (Deep breath)  I feel confident I did the right thing by shifting the way I was parenting him, even though it felt like swimming upstream the whole way (because our culture isn’t very good at supporting conscious parenting). I am starting to see the fruits of my labor and I am so glad I didn’t shrink back and didn’t throw in the towel.

Can You Relate?
If you have a challenging child you’re raising, hang in there! When you’re in the midst of the day in and day out struggles, it may seem that there is no end in sight. You may tell yourself many times a day, “Parenting shouldn’t be this hard!”

But know, please know, that you are doing holy work.

You are supporting and nurturing a child who needs that extra love and acceptance. Who will stretch you so far outside your growing edges that you can never shrink back to your earlier dimensions. Stay committed to practice being a calm loving presence for your child and one day, I promise you, you’ll find you’re on the other side. You’ve made it through. Everything is going to be okay. Bring a bushel and start picking the sweet fruits of your labor.


The way we interact and communicate with our children often determines whether or not the door to communication stays open.  Begin to notice those moments when you sense your child has “shut the door” on communication and try to remember what you said or did immediately prior to that.  Often our tone of voice or our choice of words comes across as criticizing, judging, or blaming. These are sure-fire ways to bring up defensiveness and cause the door to shut.  If we want to keep the door to communication open, it’s up to us as parents to communicate in ways that invite openness, nonjudgment, acceptance, and collaboration.