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BE A PARENT, NOT A PUSHOVERA GUIDE TO RAISING HAPPY, EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY TEENS
By MARYANN ROSENTHAL DALE FETHERLING
Nelson BooksCopyright © 2007 MARYANN ROSENTHAL WITH DALE FETHERLING
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHY DOES MY TEEN ACT LIKE THAT?
Wasn't it only yesterday that Cindy, your fifteen-year-old, would volunteer to do the laundry? Not only that, but she would then neatly fold the clothes from the dryer and put them away, singing softly to herself some gentle Beatles tune before asking if she could help with supper. She would prepare some avocado dip, warmly greet your adult dinner guests, then retire to her room to do her homework. You remember swelling with pride as your guests commented on what a polite, charming girl she was. "She's wonderful," you recall saying, "and I'm so lucky."
Well, maybe that wasn't literally yesterday, but it wasn't very long ago. But look at her now! Like some poster girl for grunge, she's wearing ratty clothes, spiky hair, and too much makeup. She's gotten her ears, nose, and tongue pierced. She listens only to the angry, indecipherable verse of some felon turned rap singer whose guttural utterances are played so loudly that they rattle your internal organs. She sleeps a lot, and when awake, she closes her door and spends what seems like entire days in her room, watching TV or talking in muted, conspiratorial tones to friends on the phone. Her grades have fallen. She's almost impossible to get up for school, and she refuses to do her chores. Her eyes look odd, and you worry that she might be smoking dope or drinking. Almost every day brings another unpleasant surprise in her speech or behavior.
You ask yourself: This is my child? What caused her to change like that? What did I do wrong? And how can we ever get back to where we were?
Most American kids navigate the critical transition years from twelve to twenty with relative success. Though they may be difficult at times, they don't grow up to be dope addicts or bank robbers or prostitutes. If there are decent schools, supportive families, and caring institutions, the kids evolve into reasonably well-adjusted participants in a technically advanced, democratic society. Even under less-than-optimal conditions, most become responsible, ethical adults.
But that doesn't mean those years are easy. And "most" teens does not equal "all" teens. At least one-quarter of all adolescents are at risk for engaging in dangerous behaviors that threaten their health and longevity.
Such problem behaviors among teens can have lots of causes. But behaviorists cite one of the most common: lack of sustained guidance from caring adults. I would amend that to: lack of sustained guidance from informed, caring adults. The question for parents isn't just Do I care? ... but How can I craft practical strategies for helping my teen maneuver along the path to successful adulthood?
In this chapter we're going to look at some of a teen's needs, explore what could be some physical reasons for bad behavior, and try to distill some general, preliminary advice for beleaguered parents.
THE BIG PICTURE
On the whole, teenagers' relationships with their parents are far less stormy than has been generally thought. Only a minority engage in open conflict or rebellion, though most teens seek in their own ways to establish their identities and autonomy. Through it all, most parents remain a positive influence on their teens.
Still, too many kids grow up without having their needs met. They then yield to social pressures to use drugs, have sex, and engage in antisocial activities. Too many are alienated from school and may even drop out. Examples abound, among rich and poor, of self-destructive, even violent, behavior.
But what kids are looking for is simple:
A sense of belonging to a valued group
Useful skills, including social ones
But while the needs are simple, achieving them is not. And when teens fail to find respect, belonging, and useful skills, they often behave badly. Worse, ours is a complicated society, with lots of people and institutions-all of them flawed-influencing our teens. Those with the greatest influence in shaping kids are families, schools, youth-service organizations, and the media.
THE TOUGHEST JOB And you-the parent-are potentially the biggest influence and have what's arguably the toughest job: both giving love and setting limits. That's a theme we'll come back to many times in this book.
Your actions and example will send powerful messages about what you expect from your children, but that may not be enough to shape them exactly as you would like. Peer pressure is another big influence (especially when parents are emotionally distant or neglectful), and teens have an intense need to respond to their peer audience.
Despite your best efforts, your teen will probably be one way with you and another with his or her peers. For instance, some teenagers likely drink and even break the law on occasion. But that doesn't mean they're not wonderful kids and won't be responsible adults. My point is, cut them and yourself some slack: they don't need to be perfect-or just like you-to become terrific adults or for you to be a successful parent.
But you do need to show both love and leadership. Honor your children by encouraging them to grow toward independence. Make it a point to enlist their opinions while still providing a structure in which those opinions will operate. Permit them to try to establish their own standards, and try to avoid making them the object of your neuroses, or worse.
Above all, you must avoid childhood trauma-such as abuse and shame-that causes your children to walk around in a permanent state of fear. Such things will contribute to making them defensive and hostile for their entire lives. That's the way violent, remorseless children are created; and they, in turn, will create their own violent, remorseless offspring.
Males especially need to know they can talk to you in safety. Boys, as Bill Pollack writes in Real Boys, may exhibit bravado, but they find it more difficult to express their real selves even in private or with family and friends. We joke about how adult males won't ask for directions. But it's not so funny when many teenage males are reluctant to ask for directions of a larger kind, the moral kind, when they are lost.
Because the modern family doesn't allow enough time or energy for emotional nurturing to be given by mothers, Pollack says, boys are likely to imitate the worst characteristics of their fathers. Thus, they may deal with emotional needs through silence and withdrawal, through competitiveness, or through alcohol and anger. Boys raised like that may see partying as a way to hide their deepest feelings and to present a bold front to their peers.
But both girls and boys need to know there's one safe refuge-home; and there's one safe outlet for their feelings-talking to you.
THE CURSE OF WIMPY PARENTS
That doesn't mean that a child's every need or want must be fulfilled, that the home must be like Burger King, where "we do it your way." It doesn't mean bad behavior goes unnoted and unpunished. It doesn't mean teens ought to be exempted from work or responsibility. In fact, I think too many parents worry that their children will not like them, so they're constantly trying to curry favor. That's not the way a family, or any healthy relationship, ought to work.
In truth, as Judith Harris writes in The Nurture Assumption, parents are meant to be in charge. But too often they are reluctant to use that authority because of the advice given to them by so-called experts: "Be careful not to damage the child's self-esteem." And that's good advice as far as it goes, but the experience of previous generations shows that it is possible to raise well-adjusted children without having them believe the planets revolve around them alone.
In short, though this may sound harsh, you should be a parent, not a pal. You're not on earth just to fill their every waking hour with joy. You are not a cruise ship social director. The idea that parents should have to entertain their children would have been laughable to our ancestors.
You need to have an equal measure of steel and sympathy. We'll come back to the steel part later, but, in the meantime, let's look at one big factor that may encourage you to be a bit more sympathetic, or at least understanding, of how your teen functions.
INSIDE THE TEENAGE BRAIN
The Columbine shootings in Colorado in 1999, followed by a spate of further school violence across the country, focused the nation's attention on aberrant teen behavior. Most teens, as I said, never come close to committing such violent acts. But that isn't to say that their behavior-ranging from high-risk acts with cars and drugs to annoying mood swings-doesn't drive parents crazy. The bumper sticker "Insanity Is Hereditary-We Get It From Our Kids" sets many adult heads nodding in agreement. But the point is, there may be a physical basis for some of this adult-teen disconnect. Studies suggest that remarkable changes-much more than previously believed-occur in the brain during the teen years.
There's a lot that's not known about the brain, whether adult or teen. But more is being pieced together all the time. Until just a few years ago, for example, scientists believed that the brain was fully developed by the time a child reached the teen years. The implication was that a teenager could think like an adult if only he wanted to. But the 100 billion neurons (nerves) inside an adult skull, it turns out, aren't fully wired in most people until their early twenties.
To complicate matters further, the different regions of the teenage brain develop on different schedules. For instance-and this probably won't surprise any parent-the emotional centers of the teenage brain are up and running well before those that help the teen make sound decisions and keep emotions in check. This may go far toward explaining why an otherwise sane seventeen-year-old may go a little nuts when faced with a mosh pit at an all-night dance, or why he can be praising you one moment and saying he hates you the next.
That leads us to the issue of teenage moodiness and all-around irritability. According to the accepted wisdom, teens rebel against their parents and all authority figures as they seek to define who they are and to stake out their independence. Many a movie (starting with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause) has revolved around the young iconoclast, a character type who has become as familiar to us as the cowboy loner or the slightly unscrupulous private eye. Another rationale for teen irascibility has been the all-purpose one of "hormones." Along with sexual stirrings and pimples, bad behavior was said to be caused by some chemical floodgate being lifted, allowing the dreaded hormones to wash away reason and decorum.
But more recent research suggests it's at least partly the brain that makes teens act weirdly. Scientists for some time have been studying the brain's structure. But now neuroscientists using "functional" MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) are able to measure how the brain performs tasks.
A Work in Progress
What they have found is that while 95 percent of the human brain has developed by the age of six, the greatest spurts of growth after infancy occur just around adolescence. So teen brains are still a work in progress. Thus, when you don't see eye-to-eye with your teen, you might want to take a moment to reflect on the possibility that part of the problem may be physical, not just attitudinal. But consider also how this three-pound mass of still-changing matter holds a universe of potential too.
For instance, Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health looked at the brains of 145 normal children by scanning them at two-year intervals. This allowed Giedd and his team to chart for the first time normal brain development from childhood through adolescence. What they were surprised to find was that an area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex appeared to be growing again just before puberty. Although it was known that the brain of a baby grew by overproducing synapses (connections between brain cells) and then consolidating by pruning them back, it wasn't known that there was this second period of overproduction.
Another part of the brain that seems to change well into adolescence is the cerebellum. In fact, it may not finish growing until a person is well into his or her early twenties. Once thought to just be involved in muscle coordination, the cerebellum now is believed to help coordinate our thinking processes too.
Giedd believes that the brain's second spurt of growth and pruning is particularly important. What teens do or do not do during this period could affect them for the rest of their lives. In effect, they may be hardwiring their brains to do sports, music, mathematics, or video games. He calls this "the use it or lose it" principle and suggests that how teens spend their time could become crucial to what skills and interests they'll eventually have. Of course, there's a lot that isn't known about how these capacities may be influenced by other factors, such as teachers, society, nutrition, genes, or even bacterial or viral infections.
Let's take a simplified look at some other brain research and what light it may shed on teen behavior. Then we'll try to distill what this could mean for parents.
Flawed judgment and risk taking. This is a common parental complaint, but blame it on the part of the brain that processes emotions and makes decisions. As I mentioned, the teen's prefrontal cortex, where judgments are formed, is slow to develop, while his or her limbic system, where anger and other raw emotions are born, goes full speed ahead. The limbic system, deep in the middle of the brain, is associated with gut reactions, sparking instant waves of fear, say, at the sight of a snarling tiger, or unbridled joy at a last-minute, winning shot in basketball.
Adults have such emotions too, of course. But the adult's prefrontal cortex, which keeps tabs on the other parts of the brain, is more developed and keeps the limbic system in check. Indeed, the brain works almost like a team, with the prefrontal cortex akin to a coach who oversees the carrying out of the team's various tasks. But in the case of teens, the "coach" (prefrontal cortex) is not yet on the field, and the "players" (limbic system) are running amok.
Other research has shown that levels of serotonin, a chemical that helps transit electrical signals between neurons, appear to decline temporarily in many adolescents. This also could encourage impulsive behavior.
Thus, the teen, lacking the "hardware" and perhaps the chemistry, too, for making good judgments, may tend to leap before looking. This tendency comes at a time in life when it's natural to seek out new experiences, including some risky ones. The two tendencies-a willingness to try almost anything and not to think clearly about the consequences-are a scary combination.
Getting a tattoo, driving too fast, smoking, drinking, shoplifting, and other relatively low-level but potentially dangerous thrills may be signs of this risk-taking bent. Be aware, though, that some research suggests that about 60 percent of a teenager's tendency to act impulsively and misjudge potential danger is genetic.
Are you a risk taker too?
Excerpted from BE A PARENT, NOT A PUSHOVER by MARYANN ROSENTHAL DALE FETHERLING Copyright © 2007 by MARYANN ROSENTHAL WITH DALE FETHERLING. Excerpted by permission.
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