Signpost #1: Teens are not Mini Adults

My older daughter is thirteen, so I’ve only recently moved into this new terrain of adolescent parenting, and whether it’s an enchanted forest, a primieval jungle or a nightmarish Dali-esque moonscape is still hard to see from here. Mostly, there are a whole bunch of trees and an inexact path made by those who have stumbled through before me. There’s one sign I can make out, though, scrawled onto wooden board by some helpful predecessor. It says: Teens Are Not Mini Adults!

Like I said, I’m new at this, but I think I have a sense of what the sign means because I’ve been reading The Teenage Brain, By Frances Jensen. She’s a neuroscientist—and a parent—who explains the physiology behind the baffling behavior we all hear about: kids who crash their cars then leave the scene of the accident, others who see their friends lose consciousness from drinking yet don’t seek help because they don’t want to get in trouble. Whenever I’m stunned by certain teenage behavior, I try to remind myself about the dumb shit I used to do or the intense moods I used to inflict on the entire household. But the problem is that such behavior is impossible to understand if we think of teens as being simply younger versions of adults. Because teens are profoundly different in the way their brains are working at this stage. Brains develop from the back—at the brain stem—to the front. According to Jensen, “the connectivity to and from the frontal lobes is the most complex and is the last to fully mature. . . when we think of ourselves as civilized, intelligent adults, we really have the frontal and prefontal parts of the cortext to thank.”

Yet the overriding message today is that teens are just like adults. The trend in books, films and TV shows—from The Hunger Games, to iCarly, and Pretty Little Liars, is to portray kids who have to take care of themselves. Whether the parents are absent or impaired by drugs or depression, the fate of the family, and often the world, rests on the teen. The kid fending for herself motif has been around forever, but add to it the media’s highly sexualized and slick marketing of products to teens that has become the norm and the result is the notion of teens as decision makers on par with adults—dressing like them, spending money like them, taking on the fate of the human race.

I love The Hunger Games; I’m working on a young adult novel myself, and my protagonist is an orphan, no less. But it’s important to be aware of the trends so we make conscious choices. Right now the message being broadcast from all directions is that teens have a lot of power. Though I certainly don’t want to go back to the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ philosophy many of us grew up with, I also think the pendulum has swung a bit too far the opposite way. Now children are not only heard—but their opinions are sometimes sacred. We take our kids so seriously that we give them too much power. And power is scary.

Kids often have amazing things to say, and ‘being heard’ is vital to healthy emotional development. I know it’s difficult to strike a balance between acknowledging and indulging. Society as a whole is more permissive, and there’s a great deal of good that comes of shedding the oppressive rules and structures of the past. But we have to be mindful of the environment we’re in. With the spread of information and the staggering speed of social change that the internet provides, we need some guidance. A signpost or two is helpful.

Understanding the physiological differences of the teen brain is giving me a little direction on the path. Just as importantly, it helps me explain my reasons for certain rules to my kids. One of the toughest things to do as a parent is to know your child’s limitations, but also treat them with respect. Though they might sometimes act like toddlers, it never seems to help when I point that out. Describing the mechanisms of the brain and the fact that “the teen brain is only 80 per cent to maturity,” according to Jensen, can help everyone make sense of the contradictions in a kid who seems at one moment to be so smart and another so dumb. “Even though their brains are learning at peak efficiency,” Jensen says, “much else is inefficient, including attention, self-discipline, task completion and emotions.”

I also find that understanding how teen brains are different helps me be more consistent with discipline. For instance, I know that teens have fewer areas of the brain that process negative information, so they literally can’t retain the concept of a bad decision with dangerous results. I can, hopefully, use this information to educate my daughters and gain their cooperation. When they were younger it was enough to say my way or the highway, but that doesn’t work for teens. At least it didn’t work on me. I know from my own adolescence that if you’re too rigid in the way you manage and discipline, a teen will always find a ‘workaround’. It’s as if the flow of a teen’s desire for independence is water that will relentlessly obey the laws of gravity down the mountainside. We can route the water into certain paths, perhaps, but we can’t stop it, for the water will find it’s way through the cracks between rocks and maybe even create a landslide.

It’s a difficult balance, to say the least. Like water, a teen is a force of nature. Beautiful, and more than a little scary. We are wise to guide and harness it as best we can, not let if flow recklessly nor dam it up. What makes it even more difficult is that teens are rapidly changing as their brains grow and their hormones surge. The the water’s flow fluctuates depending on things as random as the weather—if it rains we may find ourselves bailing madly with our buckets. At other times there’s nothing but a gentle brook that we admire as we watch it glisten in the sun, congratulating ourselves on what a great job we’ve done.

But as we enter the mysterious landscape ahead, whatever we encounter, we must always remember to respect nature, not underestimate it. And it doesn’t hurt to heed a signpost or two.