Teenagers are not aliens
Whilst it may seem like your teen is sometimes from another planet, adolescents are in not, in fact, an alien species. They are, more simply, a misunderstood one.
Your teen under 18 years of age is legally a child and, as such, you are responsible for him or her. As uncomfortable as it may make you, take the lead, take control and try to help them until their brains are ready to fully take over this job.
In order to understand teenagers properly you need to understand the development of the teenage brains. Until recently society thought of teens as ‘little adults’. This is not the case, as fully detailed in the book, The teenage brain, by Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt.
From a neurological perspective, the teen brain is seen as only 80 percent mature. The finer connections in the brain are yet to be firmly established, and the brain is a time when it is more open to learning and being excited. The neurons in the brain are well connected at the back of the brain, the centre of sex and excitability, but not well developed for the frontal lobes, the centre for rational thought, self-awareness, generating insight, assessment of risk and danger, abstract thought and planning. Jensen describes teenager’s brains like a sports car that is all revved up, with nowhere to go.
During this time teens are also expanding their knowledge base. It is a period of great flexibility, with windows for great development of learning. However, the open brain is more open to dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and drives us into a, “gotta have it” type of state. This can make teens more receptive to and more influenced by substances which alter dopamine levels – such as alcohol and drugs.
Put this all together and you have a teenager – highly excited, easy to learn, find it difficult to explain themselves, difficult to stop an activity, irrational under pressure, and not able to see another person’s view very well. Sound like anyone you know? I liken it to a second ‘terrible toddler’ stage. At one of our talk recently one the parents, an early childhood educator, reminded the room, “I suddenly realised that my teen daughter, who was behaving in a rude and obnoxious manner, wasn’t looking for a fight, but rather, like a toddler, looking for comfort. When I offered to hug her, she fell into my arms like she did when she was little.”
Given what we now know about the teen brain, here are some recommendations you might like to consider the next time you are faced with a teen you don’t understand.
Communicating with the teen brain.
Create a time to talk: Just because you are ready to talk to a teen does not mean that they are ready to participate. Set a time aside rather than launch into a discussion. When you do, give them time to be silent. As famous psychotherapist Irvin Yalom reminds us, “Silence is never silence”. Teens sometimes do not know how to respond. Ask your teen if this is the case.
Get Real: Teens need to have data and examples when you are talking about sensitive topics. Search for stories to share and discuss.
Sleep is essential: As parents, we understand that sleep is essential when our children were toddlers, it is also essential for teens.Teens need at least 8.5 hours of sleep a night to help their developing brains mature and de-stress from the day. So, if your teen needs to rise from bed at 7am, then they need to be asleep by 10:30pm, and probably in bed, without devices, by 10pm.
Look, Listen, Learn: As planning actions and the intent to remember is less pronounced in teens, when you ask them to do something, also get them to write it down. This repetition is good support to their evolving memory.
One thing at a time: Contrary to what they may think, teens are not good at multitasking and their highly excitable brains are easily distracted – therefore when they studying limit distractions such as messaging apps and videos. Also help you teen learn to do things without constantly checking their phone. In recent research from the US, it is suspected that in more than 80 percent of teen driving deaths, the teen had been distracted by something (possibly their phone).
Help to install the OFF switch: Teens find it harder to stop an activity given their sensitivity to dopamine. Help your teen learn to switch devices off. Help your teen set limits as they may not be good at this. As yourself and your teen what is a suitable amount of time a day to be on the internet?
A matter of perspective: As teen’s self-awareness is under development, so also, is their ability to process and understand the feelings of others. They may misinterpret your rational tone as aggressive or judgemental. Therefore, you may think you are being obvious in explaining yourself, but ask yourself, and your teen, how they perceive a situation.
Safety first: You may not want to acknowledge that teens may be exposed to drugs and alcohol, but it seems that many teenagers in Hong Kong have access to substances. In order to keep a teen safe, do not only preach and hope for abstinence, explain to them their brain sensitives and also work out a safety plan with them. For example, discuss, “If you were at a concert and you noticed that your friend had had too much to drink, what would you do?”. Remember that with their immature ability to be rational, it is more difficult for teens to make good decisions once they are already in hot water. Help them build the confidence to ask for assistance from a trusted adult in a challenging situation. Having a disaster plan on paper can help in a real crisis. I recently say a video which talked about the X-plan. Consider discussing the x-plan with your teen.
X-Plan: Giving your kids a way out (#xplan)
I could write even more about effective communication techniques with teens but I’ll save that for another blog. Parenting a teen can be challenging and even lonely, I noticed in our recent parenting-a-teen workshop the empathy and frustration that the parent-participants shared, and the laughter as well. Keep going in your search to understand and best support your alien-teenager, and remember, we are not alone.