They’re not done growing.
Several years ago, Frontline produced a documentary for PBS which presents how scientists are learning more about why teenagers act the way they do. According to research, the final part of brain development is not done until a person reaches the age of 25. This final phase is the formation of the prefrontal cortex, which orchestrates complex rational thought and decision-making. In other words, your teen may be six feet tall, but his brain isn’t done growing.
A recent article in the New York Times notes that it’s the amygdala that develops first—the part of the brain that activates fear. This explains why teens feel a lot more anxiety than adults, and even feel more fear than children. How do teens deal with this uptick in fear? Many times by medicating emotions through addictive substances and behavior.
Why teens do risky things.
When adults come to me for help in overcoming addiction, I always ask them when they first started their behavior. Almost always it’s when they were in their teens or early twenties. The thing that some teens may not realize is that life is meant to get easier emotionally as they get older. A lot of adolescents I’ve talked to believe that the stress of life will only increase the older they get. I inform them that while responsibilities increase, access to the emotional resources and maturity they’ll need will also increase. This can be comforting words for any teenager to hear, especially if they are stressed over the future.
"I have this theory that your body goes through puberty in its teens, and the mind goes through puberty in your twenties." --Zach Braff, actor and director
How to relate better with your teen.
So how can you help your teen when they are stressing out? Talk with them when they need it. Listen. Give them space. Sound like three contradictory approaches? I’ll explain.
I use a humorous but helpful analogy when explaining teenage behavior to parents. Teens are not like dogs (eager to please you and following every directive). Teens are more like cats—and not just because they sleep all the time! Cats, like teens, are highly individual creatures. Give them too much attention and they’ll desperately try to get away. Leave them alone and they’ll come around. In fact, they may plop right on your keyboard while you’re trying to work. So back to the three approaches. How to help your teen:
1. Talk with them.
Citing the research above, remember that teens have a harder time dealing with anxiety and fear. They also can’t reason as well as adults. When dealing with difficult problems, teens need help catching their emotions up with the rationale behind events in their lives. This is where the next step comes in.
Validate feelings but remain firm. When talking things through with your teen, give them the opportunity to express their viewpoint, even if you know it’s irrational. Many times, they just want to feel heard. You don’t have to give in, but let them express what’s on their mind (insofar as it is appropriate).
Parents are quick to remember the Apostle Paul's words: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother''" (Ephesians 6:1-2) But Paul also adds this caveat: "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). Kids don't respond well when they feel frustrated. Seek to listen, but still guide. Be firm, but seek to understand.
3. Give them space.
Sometimes teens won’t open up. Let them have alone time, and if something is on their mind, make it known that you are willing to talk if they need you. Asking how their day went as soon as they walk in usually won’t elicit a response. Not asking at all and letting them come to you later may actually cause them to open up more. Also, encourage their individuality but don’t shield them from failure. If they lose a basketball game, don’t pull them out of the program. Let them feel the natural consequences of failure so they can learn how to really succeed.
Note: This article is meant to only give some brief perspective on relating better with your teen. It’s much too short to cover all the bases, especially if you have a teen that is struggling significantly either personally or with others. Here are some books that go more in detail:
- Screamfree Parenting by Hal Edward Runkel
- For Parents Only: Getting Inside the Head of Your Kid by Shanti Feldhahn
- Have a New Teenager by Friday by Kevin Leman
Finally, just remember that adolescents are trying to figure out how to be adults but can still be needy. Many actually do want to open up more and even please their parents—though they may never admit it. Don’t be afraid to let them grow up. Let these years be the foundation of a friendship that will last for years when they finally become adults.
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Tres Adames, MDiv, BCPC provides Christian counseling in Peoria, Arizona for adults, teens, couples, and families. He specializes in helping those struggling with depression, anxiety, self-esteem, anger, addiction, codependency, and relationship issues. If you would like to contact Tres or set up an appointment, visit his contact page.