Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Teenagers... a work in progress

Recent press coverage has once again focused attention on teenagers, and the news that their brains might not mature as quickly as once thought will come as no surprise to those parents who have already lived through this turbulent transition.

And transition it is. One that we have all been through, although most adults have amazingly short memories of their own experience when considering their adolescent children!

Where once your child was happy, equable, outgoing and biddable, overnight he or she seems to have morphed into a monosyllabic, lethargic, resentful individual whose only interest is Facebook, incomprehensible music lyrics and conspiracy theories. And just when they need to focus on schoolwork they seem incapable of concentrating on anything at all, indulging instead in what looks to us like thoughtless, demotivated and risk-taking activity.


Primarily it's to do with a lot of necessary reorganisation of the brain's structure that needs to occur. Now, instead of a continuing proliferation of brain cells, there is an increase of mylenation, the fatty tissue surrounding brain cells that allows for better connectivity and transmission, especially in the frontal cortex which is responsible for executive planning - our capacity to direct our attention, plan future tasks, process more than one thing at a time and control impulsive behaviour. But this is happening at the same time as a vigorous pruning of less useful grey matter, ensuring that the frontal cortex is strengthened. There is a temporary state of flux, and it takes time to settle down.

What's the effect of all this internal activity? One of the temporary side-effects of this remodeling of the frontal cortex is a reduced ability to recognise other people's emotions. What parents experience is an increase in the sort of self-conscious, self-absorbed and apparently selfish behaviour that drives them nuts! Wet towels left on the bathroom floor? Hopeless time-keeping? Constant snacking? The sort of forgetfulness usually associated with Alzheimer's? Inability to get up in the morning? They almost can't help it....

Throw in a sudden and unsettling surge in sexual hormones, is it any wonder that your teenager is all over the place for a while?

What can you do to help them through this transition? A few pointers...

  • Remember, it's temporary and it's not personal, whatever it feels like to you - it will pass and you will eventually recognise them again.
  • Never discuss anything important if they are hungry or thirsty or overtired - remember how they couldn't cope when they were 3 years old? It's similar scenario now.
  • Keep rules essential and minimal. Just because they don't answer, doesn't necessarily mean they haven't heard you.
  • Keep in mind that their instinct for survival is usually greater than their inclination toward self-destruction.
  • Try not to dismiss their mad ideas as stupid - they are often just trying them on for size. Offer feedback, not dismissal.
  • They often have to learn the hard way - just as we did - about the consequences of their behaviour. It's not always easy to watch and you may have to pick up the pieces: that's a parent's job.
  • Whatever energy you've put into the parenting pot over the years will pay off - trust it.
  • Your almost grown-up child needs to know that in a pretty scary world, come what may you are basically on their side and their number one port of call in an emergency

Good luck!  And remember, the proud parent moments generally outweigh it all. In the end.