The teenage brain undergoes a major renovation, and it can be a messy, stressful and uneven process.
Although your teen’s brain is working toward a better and more beautiful psychology, this perfectly natural process can often be difficult for families to manage, said Lisa Damour, an Ohio-based clinical psychologist specializing in the development of teenage girls.
In those years between the cuddly attachment of childhood and the self-sufficiency of adulthood, teens can cause quite a headache for those who love them. They try their families’ patience by arguing more, analyzing risk less and seeming to take on a more selfish attitude. That often leads their families to clamp down harder on restrictions and monitoring, said John Duffy, a clinical psychologist who practices in Chicago.
But the stereotype that the teen years are the worst of them is unfair, and this period of trying new things, taking on new perspectives and striking out on their own, and faltering is key to adolescents successfully growing into adults, said Tina Bryson, a therapist in Pasadena, California.
Rules and respect still matter, but if family members can understand more clearly what’s going on in a teen’s head, they can lean into those changes and help their children navigate their way more effectively into adulthood.
“If we set high standards for them or speak to them as the best versions of themselves, we tend to get that back from them,” said Damour, who wrote “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls” and “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood.”
To learn a little more about teens, let’s engage in a classic game of two truths and a lie.
True or false? Teens are more argumentative
True, and thank goodness they are, Duffy said.
A hallmark of teen years is individuation, meaning they are growing out of being just a member of their family and learning who they are as an individual and member of the world. The process to do that often involves defining themselves first as not the same as those around them. That includes the adults in their lives.
“Part of the reason you get adolescent pushback is largely not because they dislike their parents, even though they may say they do, but because they’re trying to establish who they are, and they know that’s got to be something different than Mom and Dad,” Duffy said.
This pushback is important for the individual and the community, as opposing the status quo can mean more innovation, said Bryson, author of “The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired.”
Right, but that not fun for the adults in their lives. What can they do to get through it?
As hard as it may be, don’t take the pushback personally, and celebrate the time of exploration, Damour said.
They still need your support and love. “What we can do is always let them know that we as your family are on team you. You always fit with our family, no matter who you turn out to be,” said Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist and an associate professor of pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in Bronx, New York.
The good news is that this is just one step in their identity formation, and the end result usually involves “a beautiful blending together of who you are, where you end and where you started,” Talib said.
True or false? Teens take more risks
True. They may make those who care for them sigh in frustration or bite their nails in fear, but teens need to take risks, Duffy said.
It’s not just human teens, either. Adults in one population of sea otters off the California coast know to stay far away from the shark-infested waters, and the young otters know to stay with their parents, Bryson said.
But then there are the teen otters who often swim right into it.
You might say, “How foolish!” but it’s an important phase of adolescent otter development, where they learn to understand the risks of the predators around them as well as their own abilities and limitations, Bryson said.
The thought of letting your own otter pup swim toward the sharks may seem unthinkable, but teens need room to take risks with your support and guidance backing them up.
“They are testing their own levels of competence and resilience in the world,” Duffy said.
Letting your teens know you have got their back if they get in too deep and showing that you trust their decision-making are important ways to help prepare them to take on those risks.
“Instead of immediately giving advice or jumping to whatever the answer is, I’m going to instead see this as a great opportunity to give my kids some reps, like when we lift weights,” Bryson said. “I’m going to give my kids reps where I can say … ‘What do you think would be a good idea?”
True or false? Teens are selfish
Here is the lie – for the most part.
When your teen makes you late to work because they stayed in the bathroom for an extra 30 minutes or cried because you wouldn’t buy them the trendiest shoes, try to think of them not as selfish, but self-searching, Talib said.
The teen years are when we first start to have strong feelings of self-consciousness, noticing ourselves in comparison to those around us and worrying that we might not fit in, Duffy said.
Your job as a loving adult is not to criticize or crush your teen’s feelings that seem to put themselves at the center and the real problems of the world to the side. Instead, try to validate those feelings, Talib said.
From there, you can remind your teen of their strengths and all they have going for them, while acknowledging this is a difficult time in their life, Damour said.
Though it may be hard to grieve the loss of the child they once were and cope with the changes they are going through now, it’s important to treat teens like the kind, capable humans that they can be, hold them to those standards, and be compassionate when they falter, Damour said.