When Anna was a little girl, she once asked me if she had to hate me when she became a teenager. “Of course not,” I told her. I wanted her to love me unconditionally. I wanted her to love me forever.
But unconditional love for a parent is not that helpful for transitioning into adulthood. The better answer is, “Yes, you’re supposed to hate me once in a while. It’s part of a healthy teen’s developmental separation from her parents.” But bear in mind parent teen relationships are not black and white. There are many shades of gray between love and hate.
A recent study out of the University of Virginia found that allowing a child to argue with a parent calmly is important preparation for her to cope with peer pressure down the line. Specifically, the study found that 13- and 14-year olds who backed down from an argument with a parent were more prone to succumb to bad influences when it came to alcohol and drug us at 15 or 16.
Helping teens to argue fairly and effectively is often a two-step forward, one-step back process. I know for the sake of my children I must have the last word on a sensitive topic such as drinking at parties or teaching them about sexually transmitted diseases. This is tough stuff so a dialogue – albeit one that is managed by a parent – is essential for allowing kids to talk through these difficult subjects.
When I’ve stepped back and listened, I often like what I hear from my kids. They’ll tell me that they have sound judgment and hang out with a group of like-minded friends. They’re right, but I’ll necessarily counter that there are strict under-age drinking laws in this state. Or that one careless physical encounter can saddle them with a chronic, or even fatal, illness.
Then there are the complicated mechanisms of the teenage brain. Over the past decade, researchers have found that a teenager’s wild mood swings and penchant for risky behavior are not just about raging hormones. The adolescent brain – particularly the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for rational thinking – is developing at lightning speed during the teenage years, causing dramatic changes in behavior. Complementary research on the adolescent brain has also found that teenagers don’t necessarily underestimate risk. Rather, they overestimate the reward that comes with dangerous activities.
Throw into the mix that many of us have prolonged our kid’s childhoods by giving them a free pass on making adult decisions. National Public Radio recently reported that a number of parents negotiate job salaries and apartment leases for their recent college graduates. This kind of interference short-circuits the evolutionary hardware that allows young adults to accumulate the hands-on experience to make thoughtful decisions. On the other end of the spectrum, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that with puberty starting earlier and adulthood starting later for our children, emotional and physical maturity might not be in harmony until the late 20s.
“If you think of the teenage brain as a car,” wrote Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, “today’s adolescents acquire an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.”
This temporary brain disconnect brings about a couple of 21st century parenting conundrums. How do you deal with a 10-year old going through puberty when adulthood is so far off? How do you cope with a child approaching 30 who has postponed life in favor of shelter and dependence?
With the first stirrings of puberty, it’s important to avoid what Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist and author of “Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens + Teens,” calls “co-flooding” –adding to the high emotions with which your teen has already “flooded” a conversation. Simply put, don’t spar with your child. Have a full-fledged conversation and listen to each other. Even when parents offer praise with constructive criticism, a teen just hears that as blah, blah, blah. Sometimes it’s simply better to set the rules. When you tell your child that he can’t attend a party where trouble is likely to brew, make sure that he knows that it doesn’t reflect your level of trust in him. Your daughter should know that even though not every piece of clothing is going to flatter her, in no way does that detract from her beauty.
And then there’s a parent’s default argument – the one with a snappy catch-phrase that stops a discussion from veering further off course. Mine is: “Save it for the Supreme Court.” Even if my kids make more sense than I do, I’m still in charge. And I’m in charge because their brains are still developing and syncing, making them the most misunderstood of all people: teenagers.