April 12, 2005
So now we know the answer to one of life’s greatest mysteries. Teenagers can’t help driving their parents nuts with their moody behavior, scientific research now tells us.
They do what they do — or, conversely, don’t do what they’re supposed to do — because of changes taking place not just in their hormones, but in their brains. Talk about a double-whammy. Puberty triggers a spurt of brain-cell growth, a process of overproduction and pruning back that, by the late teens, ideally produces an adult with a well-wired brain. But there’s no gain without pain.
Dave Walsh, author of "Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen" (Free Press, $23), puts it this way:
"If I were to compare the teenage brain to an automobile, it’s as if the gas pedal is to the floor and there are no brakes. That combination explains the impulsivity, the quickness to anger, the risk-taking. Kids will feel very strong emotions and impulses at the very time their ability to think ahead and consider consequences is under construction."
Walsh — father of three grown children, former high school counselor and teacher, and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family — combines insight from the latest brain research with practical advice in his book. It appears to be a winning combination.
He has been traveling the country speaking with parents, educators, counselors, social workers and others who deal with adolescents. He attracted 900 parents at a December workshop in Minnesota.
Here’s a look what he has to say about teens and their behavior.
Q: It sounds like between hormones and brain development, there’s not much parents can do but wait things out. But we can’t do that, right?
A: The experiences that we have during the growth spurt in the brain have a greater impact on the wiring of the brain than at any other time during our development. So it’s not just a matter of waiting it out.
We now know, for example, in the brain development of young children, one of the things being wired in the early years is the ability to distinguish between different sounds. That’s the building block for language development. We don’t just let that happen; we create an environment to give them as much language experience as we can.
During the teen years, what we want to help them develop are the skills for impulse control, planning ahead, making considered decisions, the ability to reflect.
Q: How do you do that when they don’t even want you around?
A: Kids need connection, guidance and love during those years. Connection is a challenge because kids are appropriately asking for a divorce when they are teens.
But we make a big mistake when we grant them the divorce.
We have to find ways to stay connected, and by connected I mean knowing what they are doing, knowing where they are going, knowing who their teachers are, knowing who their friends are and who the parents of their friends are.
We have to maintain ways to remain a family. Those are the things teens are fighting. They don’t want to go on vacation with their parents anymore. They don’t want to even be seen with their parents. But they need our guidance. Guidance comes in the form of limits, consequences and accountability. Holding kids accountable for curfew and responsible for their language and all of those things — how that gets delivered is the third ingredient. And that’s with love.
When you understand that the teenage brain is built for power struggles, it is unwise to engage in those power struggles. However, that doesn’t mean that we become a doormat or that we relax all of the limits and consequences. What it means is we enforce those limits calmly, consistently and with firmness.
Q: And we shouldn’t take personally all that stuff that makes you want to send them to live with your sister for the next five years?
A: Exactly. It’s all about perspective — that it’s not personal. It’s what’s going on in their brains. That perspective can give us a lot of understanding and patience and empathy for what they are going through.
Q: How do you help teens learn to control their behavior when they can’t help misinterpreting the comments or behavior of other people, like when they think you are yelling at them and you’re not?
A: We should teach kids that they are likely to misinterpret nonverbal cues — facial expressions, body language — because of what’s going on in their brains. Their mistakes are not random. They are consistently in the area of aggression.
Name your feelings so they don’t misinterpret you. So when your daughter says, "Why are you so furious at me?" tell her you’re not furious, you’re frustrated.
The danger is if we start to respond like our teenagers. We get on what I call the anger escalator with them. Then we can make some big mistakes: Name-calling and threats. What that does is tear apart the fabric of connection, and connection is key to getting through this.
Q: What’s the most common mistake parents make in dealing with their teenager’s unpredictable mood swings?
A: One of the biggest mistakes that we make is escalating with them emotionally. Another is granting them the divorce they’re asking for, giving them too much freedom too soon.
The other big mistake is that we’re not investing enough time in our teenagers. Parenting teenagers is difficult work. It’s a lot easier to say yes, even if you’re uncomfortable with saying yes; it’s easier than holding the line and saying no. Because no is messier.
So if my 14-year-old son wants to buy the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," and I say no, I know my son is going to go to battle with me for the next few weeks: "Everybody has it. Why can’t I have it?"
I know that all over the nation there are parents struggling with saying no.