Adolescence is a time of venturing out, discovering more about oneself, and potentially leaving a mark on the surrounding world. It’s about building self-confidence and trying new things - in short, it’s about independence.
Yet, while adolescents are in search of freedom and passionately embracing a desire to explore, their parents may be wishing they’d choose safer paths with fewer risks. In this season when we celebrate independence, let’s look at the adolescent brain and phase of development to better understand the drive to break away, and consider how parents can intentionally respond to it while supporting their individuality.
In his book “Brainstorm,” Dr. Dan Siegel describes the period of adolescence as one characterized by brain remodeling. Where the younger years were all about building new synaptic connections within the brain, adolescence is about pruning some of those synaptic connections away, increasing the brain’s processing speed and coordination, and integrating different areas of the brain to work together.
What does this mean? We can’t blame hormones, immaturity, or impulsivity alone for why teens experience such large feelings, or why they are so focused on doing things their own way.
It’s their developing brain.
Much to parents, chagrin, this brain development is geared around preparing the teen for adulthood and leaving the parental home. With this growth comes the drive for adolescents to engage in novel and risk-taking experiences. The circuitry of the brain adapts so that new experiences are more rewarding, and decision-making becomes weighted in favor of excitement. While this is all well and good for encouraging a teen to step out of their comfort zone, it does also make them prone to unsafe decision-making.
Their brains do not process consequences in the same way adult brains do. And that is a good thing, or they wouldn’t learn where their boundaries are and where their passions could take them.
So what’s a parent to do with this adolescent brain?
Or, maybe how do you survive it?
Armed with the understanding that their teen is not purposefully trying to make their hair gray from worry, parents can engage their own brains to respond with empathy and compassion. It’s also crucial to remember that this time of development is necessary and beneficial.
Taking risks, being curious, and wanting independence lead to experiences that foster better critical thinking and decision-making further ahead in life. Consider your own adolescence and where you might have grown from a risky decision that was allowed to go forward, or even ones that were halted.
When did you wish someone would have stopped it? Or maybe stayed out of the way?
It is a parent’s job to keep their teen safe and at times that means holding difficult limits or boundaries. However, that does not have to come at the expense of empathy or your relationship. When it seems like the end of the world to a teen when a parent vetos risky plans, that isn’t just dramatics at work. The adolescent brain is driven to connect with peers, prioritize the new, and downplay the potential consequences. While an adult brain has the ability to weigh risks and benefits more clearly, an adolescent brain can experience greater passions and lows than they’ve known before. To them, it can feel like the end of the world.
Communicate your understanding of the emotions involved and give space for their reactions or feelings free of judgment or consequence.
This is about them NOT you.
Recognize that your feelings about the situation do not have to rise to the same level as your teen’s, and you can be a calming influence when they are ready to reconnect. This focus on connection can be helpful if your teen later is in an unsafe situation and needs guidance. If you are an empathetic person, your teen is more likely to believe you will be understanding of when they could use that more developed brain of yours.
Being nearby, while annoying on the outside, is security for the teen internally. They do ultimately care if you see them and understand them. They still NEED you.
The most difficult part of this phase for parents is knowing when it is okay to allow for these new experiences, and when they should be curtailed. While you know your child better than most, it’s essential to acknowledge that in this phase your child is changing. What may have been inappropriate for them before, might now be more suitable.
The feelings and desires they have now are also more complex than they were as children, and potentially more difficult for them to communicate. There may be aspects of your growing child that you are less aware of than you were before. This is normal but can be confusing for your family.
Figure out opportunities for your adolescent to take the risks that are needed to continue with their growth and development, and use them as an opportunity to keep communication between you open. Build with your teen safety plans in advance, such as texts they can send that can clue you in without making them feel isolated or embarrassed in front of peers, it can help to make them angry statements so they can save face in front of peers and still reach out for help.
Designate with them a trusted, safe adult they can talk with confidentially in the case they cannot discuss things with you. This doesn't have to be a counselor maybe a family friend. Work with them and give them the chance to appropriately show you what challenges they are capable of meeting.
Respectfully parenting teens is a job for the brave, there’s no doubt. It is normal to feel overwhelmed and unsure at times. However, if you can understand your teen’s changing brain, stay empathetic, strive for connection, and allow them some safe exploration, you can lay the foundation for them to become empowered and independent adults.
Stay curious about your teen during this developmental time.
By Morgan Teachworth-White & Cary M. Hamilton