Saturday, January 16, 2016

It's All In The Mind

The question for the day is ... "What were you thinking?"

Getting inside your teenager's head is a difficult thing to do. The choices they make, the risks they take, the consequences they don't even consider. As parents, our reactions range from shaking our heads to yelling out loud.
"What were you thinking?"

More often than not, we seriously doubt they were thinking at all. 

Truth is, they are thinking, sometimes over-thinking, all the time. It's just that they aren't thinking the way we think.  And the reason for this isn't attitude or laziness or a heightened sense of the dramatic. Teen brains are wired differently than ours are. 

And they are changing every day.

According to neuroscientists, teen brain development is incredibly dramatic, second only to very early childhood. Maybe this should all feel more familiar then. When my now eighteen year old (when did that happen?) daughter was a toddler, I delighted in her progress. New words, new skills, it was like watching lightbulbs turn on in her head each day. Of course, there was also boundary-pushing and lots of testing. "If Mommy says 'No,' and I do it anyway, what will happen?") Having survived the "terrible twos," I think some of us are blindsided when we reach the "terrible teens."

When this happens, it's helpful to think of them as going through an adolescent awkward phase. We wouldn't blame our daughters and sons if they had acne or big, clumsy feet or needed braces, right? In many cases, what's going on in their cranium is just as out of their control.

If you're living with a teen, here are a few familiar phenomena you may have observed — along with the biology behind them.

1. Your teen has trouble figuring out what to do when. (AP Bio homework, anyone?)
In the years between 12 and 25, the brain reorganizes itself. During that time, it's kind of like a filing cabinet that isn't alphabetized. The grey area between things they "should do," "might do," "could do" and "have to do" is  ... well ... grey.

2. Your teen does things they know are wrong, even though you've asked them not to, like, a million times.
At this point their emotional development is greater than their decision-making ability. So, even though they know speeding is dangerous, even though you've told them not to, even though they shouldn't, the thrill wins over the practical.

3. Your teen is quick to turn a conversation into a conflict and a conflict into a full-blown fight.
Teen brains are swirling with cognitive, emotional and social stimuli. Without the abstract thought skills necessary to cope, they tend to erupt. And when that happens, parents are the safest target. No matter how often I threaten to go get an apartment in the city, my daughter knows I won't.

4. Your teen succumbs to peer pressure, or gets his or her feelings hurt.
Social anxiety is a painful byproduct of the analytical skills they're beginning to fine-tune. Teen emotions are much stronger than a teen's ability to have perspective. So, if they're feeling victimized, they're feeling really, really, REALLY victimized.

5. Your teen thinks he or she is the center of the universe.
It's easy to assume that teenagers are self-absorbed — they are — but it isn't because they have big egos. They're just not yet able to see things from any perspective other than their own. It's like they're starring in the movie of their own life and everything and everyone is playing a supporting role. 

This last, like the other things I've described, is grounded in brain development. But, it serves a purpose too. They are about to go out into the world. They need to know who they want to be.

Not just who we want them to be.

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.  

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