The shape-shifting teen
By Mansi Poddar
Stuck between adulthood and childhood, the teenager is uncomfortable and confused as he struggles for an identity and independence. Mansi Poddar guides parents on how to deal with this most difficult of entities
In my psychotherapy practice, I am besieged by parents of teenagers.
Sweta, mother of a 15-year-old, claims, “She doesn’t love me anymore. The hardest part is the lack of love. She was unable to live without me. It was mama, mama, all day long, but now? I don’t even know if I matter.”
Sunaina and Rakesh, parents of 17-year-old twins, say, “We can’t control them. They don’t listen to us. They are indisciplined. It’s sucking the life out of us; we feel like failures. We are scared they will be like this forever.”
Hear Marian, mother of a 19-year-old, “My kid won’t make friends, she only wants to be with me; how will she live like this? One day I will be gone. I can’t stop worrying.”
These are common sentiments for parents of teens to express. Chances are, you are reading this article because you are either handing a teen, or preparing to do so. With advances in neuroscience, we now have insight into the teen brain. What makes them be rude to us? Why don’t they understand rules and limits? Why are teens so judgmental or idealistic? Will they always be like this?
Adolescence is the last stage of child development before adulthood (yes, it’s a stage!). During this stage the child faces various challenges and struggles. There are three major themes all teens face and parents struggle. These are:
“I can do it.” There is a conflict within the child regarding becoming independent. It is both thrilling and scary. During stress, they regress to their childhood patterns of relating and other times, withdrawing from the family. This leaves many parents feeling confused and out of control. Teens try to express their independence by wanting to be with friends, make their own decisions, and have a say in their lives.
Involving teens in money matters, health issues, or giving them charge of their younger siblings, will teach them the value of self-reliance and inter-dependence (we are responsible for each other).
“I am not you.” Teenagers are exploring what it means to outgrow childhood, yet not be an adult. They will violate parental boundaries and rules in their search for an identity. The most common way to explore and define identity, is to do the opposite of what parents do. Teens begin to develop the power of adult reasoning, and will often question statements such as, “You have to do it.” They now understand concepts of personality, social grouping, intellect, and career, and will explore various identities and friends. This leaves them confused and moody, often expressing their anger and frustration in a safe space – home. Helping teens express their identity in safe and healthy ways gives them a strong sense of self, a high self-esteem and more stability during their 20s.
“It’s my life.” Teen years are when children realise they can control their life, but to what extent is something which can give them and their parents grief. Parents often expect a teen to “grow up and take control,” without fully understanding and explaining what the term means. Other times, parents refuse to allow their teens control over their lives. This turns the home into a battleground. Often, teenagers ignore their parents in order to get a sense of control.
When teens are given clear boundaries and loving discipline, they learn to associate control with boundary setting, and not space violation. A challenge for parents is to help the teen develop self-control, as opposed to being externally controlled. Paradoxically, this is achieved by lessening parental control over the teen.
Apart from these key factors, there are other issues that beleaguer the hapless teen.
The onset of the monthly period, burgeoning sexual desires, growth of facial hair, and hormonal changes, all cause personality shifts. The child might withdraw from expressing physical affection to the opposite sex parent, or become excessively moody or irritable. It’s a natural process, and this too shall pass. Talk to your teen or give the teen a book about body changes, although these days most teens are well informed.
From a neuroscience perspective, teens are actually trapped between a very uncomfortable adult and child stage. Their physical, emotional and mental growth is not in sync. Think of the teen brain as a construction zone. Roads are shut down, new roads are being built, old ones are being changed and fixed. You can imagine the chaos.
During childhood, the brain develops many synapses and neural connections, but during teen years, it prunes them back to retain the strong connections, and eliminate the weaker ones. Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health, suggests that this pruning process leads to reduction in grey matter and new behaviors, making parents feel their child has “changed”. The most dramatic changes occur after 11 years of age, which is when this process starts. The prefrontal cortex that governs judgment and assessment of behavioral consequences is not developed. Hence, the lack of regard for rules, or consequences.
Deborah Yurgelun-Todd is the director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachussetts, USA. Her recent work suggests that teens’ brains work differently from that of adults, when processing emotional information from external stimuli.
In an interview with PBS, Dr Todd says, “One of the things that teenagers seem to do is to respond more strongly with gut response than with evaluating the consequences of what they’re doing.”
According to her study, teens aren’t able to correctly read all the feelings in the adult face.Says Dr. Todd, “That would suggest that when they’re relating to their parents or to their friends’ parents or to their teachers, they may be misperceiving or misunderstanding some of the feelings that we have as adults; that is, they see anger when there isn’t anger, or sadness when there isn’t sadness. And if that’s the case, then clearly their own behavior is not going to match that of the adult. So you’ll see miscommunication, both in terms of what they think the adult is feeling, but also what the response should then be to that.”
Given this research on teen brains, what can we do as parents to manage our teens?
• Firstly, not all teens are difficult to handle. It is important to recognize the difference between behavioral problems and a natural rhythm of change.
• Do not assume your child has heard or understood the instruction given, especially if there are distractions around. Remember to ask them, “Did you hear and understand what I just said?”
• Do the work of the prefrontal cortex for the child. State consequences clearly. Tell them: “If you are not ready in an hour, we will have to leave you and we will not return to pick you up for a trip to the mall.”
• Tell them clearly what you are feeling; do not expect them to mind read or understand your emotions.
• Recognise they are going through changes; let them know you are there if they need to talk.
• Keep your eye on the prize – do not be drawn into arguments and long discussions about rules.
• State rules clearly and calmly: “I know you don’t like rules, none of us do, but then again you have to find a way to follow them.”
• Pick your battles. You don’t have to take it personally when your child yells or tell you that they hate you; you can turn around and leave.
• If you set consequences, follow through. Do not confuse your child and let them manipulate you.
• Remember teens are developing the brain skills to process information like adults; therefore, include them in family decisions, problems and treat their suggestions as important and useful.
What they say!
In my interview with teens, I asked them, “What would you like to tell parents about handling teenagers?” Here are some of the responses:
Nidhi, 15, “Please back off; stop prying into my life, if I want to have sex, I will. Your lecturing me is not a deterrent, but an irritant.”
Anya, 18, “Please stop babying your teenager; we want to be treated like grownups!”
Aditi, 19, “Understand that we have our own individuality, and our generation is different from yours. We do not believe in what you believe in. Can you accept us the way we are?”
Falit, 20, “I don’t care about aunties and uncles, please stop telling me about what people will say.”
Meghna, 15, “Not all teens are troublesome. Don’t treat us like freaks.”
Souradeep, 18, “Stop telling teens that their problem is not serious. A girl laughing at us is life-shattering.”
Papiya, 12, “I am more scared for my parents. Now that I am going to be a teenager, they seem terrified! I wonder how to handle them?”
Parenting is a spiritual path. One of the most important lessons we learn is that each child comes with their own soul signature. We cannot control the adult they become. As parents we try and impose our agenda on them, completely disregarding their needs and individuality. Shefali Tsabury, author of the book, Conscious Parents, expresses it beautifully; “Instead of meeting the individual needs or our children, we tend to project our own ideas and expectations onto them.”
Some questions to ask ourselves as parents:
• Do I know where my values, beliefs and ideas come from before I impose them on my kids?
• What sort of relationship do I desire with my child?
• What is my parenting philosophy?
• How do I manifest this in my daily interaction with my child?
• Am I willing to change my way of interacting with my child if it isn’t working?
• Am I approaching my child from an ego-based place, or taking my child’s unique spirit into consideration, when providing boundaries and discipline?
• Am I bringing my own parenting traumas and ideas into this relationship?
• Do I have unresolved childhood issues or current life difficulties that impact my parent-child relationship?
Remember, parenting is a highly intuitive process. Use your intuition to feel what your child feels, and respond according to your gut. As parents you have an inner compass which is surprisingly accurate. Follow your compass, it will lead you towards what your child needs to grow and thrive. Surrender judgments and ‘should-bes’.
In her book, The Ecstasy of Surrender, Dr Judith Orloff talks about how surrender can help your health and relationships. “Be the mountain, Let things come to you. You’ll learn to discern the correct balance between trying to make things happen, and letting go. And, at the right moment, even surrendering the outcome itself can optimise the chance of achieving the goal, and the merciful knowing that even if that goal is not achieved, all is well.”