Teenagers are trouble. They stay out past curfew. They yell at you for no good reason and roll their eyes at you. They take scary, unnecessary risks, like driving way too fast. And there is so much drama. Any moment can turn into a major scene with a teen!
So what is driving these behaviors?
A lack of executive function skills in their rapidly developing brains (Flannery, 2015). A teenager’s brain is “like a Ferrari that’s all revved up… ‘But doesn’t have any brakes!'” (Flannery, 2015).
Because their executive functions are not yet developed, they have low impulse control. Teens make their decisions more on gut feelings and their emotions (Dawson & Guare, 2015). That, along with their desire to take risks (which increases around peers) and to exercise their independence, leads to these seemingly crazy behaviors. Kids that know the risks of unprotected sex do so anyway because the thought to use a condom simply never crossed their minds in the moment (Dawson & Guare, 2015).
In the moment, your straight-A student may drink and drive or race friends in another car on the highway. Why? Because your child has not developed the emotional control, response inhibition, and impulse control necessary to take a step back in the moment and think, “Is this really a good idea?” They have no brakes!
As parents, we need to help them develop some.
We help our children develop brakes by:
- Practicing using the brakes at low-stakes times. As Richard Guare suggests, “Try not to put them in a context that plays to the weakness of the executive skills when you are asking them to practice and improve it” (2015). Give them the opportunity to succeed by asking them to use the brakes when they are not also influenced by peers, stress, strong emotions, etc…
- For instance, talking about a breakdown in executive function skills right after a huge mistake is not a great time for learning. Your kid crashed the car. Yelling at her once you reach the scene only heightens her emotionally charged state instead of actually teaching her to think about what she is doing before she drives so dangerously again. To avoid such an incidence occurring again, adjust the situation so she is less inclined to drive dangerously by only letting her drive the car during the day and with no one else in the car.
- You want to avoid competing distractions. Therefore, do not ask your teen to do something in front of peers – they are much more likely to resist doing anything you ask of them in that situation. (My mom would always call me away from my friends and I would just know by her tone that I was in trouble, but I still walked away from my friends to her).
- Timing is everything. If your child is rushing out the door, that is not a good time to remind him about anything. He is going to forget it immediately or be annoyed at your last minute request because his mind is moving forward with his day. So, even if your child is forgetting his coat and you want to tell him not to, don’t. Let him forget it so next time he thinks about getting his coat before he leaves the house.
- Teens are under a lot of stress, which undermines their decision making abilities. Meditation and mindfulness can help. According to Dr. Frances Jensen, co-author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, “Mindfulness should be a big part of their education: being mindful of the effects of stress or social networking on their brains… They should know downtime is really important.” (Flannery, 2015).
- Treat conflicts with your teenagers as a negotiation. Yes, there are some non-negotiables – homework must get done to the best of your ability and you must be home by curfew. However, how and at what time of day homework gets done (as long as it is done on time) and what time curfew is are both negotiable. If your child shows she is capable of making good decisions, perhaps curfew can be pushed back half an hour. You do not have to come to the negotiation table with the solution for the compromise, just an open mind that your way may not be the right way and that you and your child will figure out a good solution to your conflict. (Sometimes you can’t, but it at least gives you the opportunity to discuss your rationale with your teen, which is hugely important).
- Give your child “Brain 101” (Flannery, 2015). Kids love to learn about their brains because they love learning about themselves. If you can teach your teen what is going on in his head, he will be empowered to make better decisions and practice honing his executive function skills.
Teenagers do crazy things because their brains are so amazing! “‘Teenagers are learning machines'” (Flannery, 2015). Even though it is tough, try to think of it as a wondrous adventure you and your teen are going on together. It is much easier than thinking of it as the battle or a time to “just get through” that is so often referred to.
Dawson, M. & R. Guare. (2015). Smart but scattered: Helping teens strengthen executive skills to reach their full potential. The Science of Character: Using Brain Science to Raise Student Self-Regulation, Resilience and Respect. Boston: Learning and the Brain.
Flannery, M. E. (2015). Surviving the teenage brain: What educators should know. neaToday.org