Back in 2005, when the first mainstream information came out regarding new understandings of adolescent brain development, I became very interested and conducted as much second-source research as I could. At that point in my career, I had worked mostly with adolescents, and I knew a thing or two about their behavior. I was fascinated by this scientific research that clarified what was going on inside their brains, and that directly supported much of my experience.
But this was back when my own children were still young. My interactions with adolescents were not those of parent-to-child, but of educator/therapist-to-child. Even though it was some years away, I knew that when my own children hit the pre-teen/teen stage, I would be in for my own challenges. Boy was I right.
Over the past year or so, it has not been uncommon for my son to interrupt a conversation with “Mom, you are SO annoying” and stomp off to his bedroom. This scene has been almost comical at times, but irritating and obnoxious nonetheless. I was unprepared for the surge of anger I feel when he looks me straight in the eye and says flatly “No” to a request I have made. And I knew he would be disorganized, but didn’t clearly work out how this would impact my life…until I was leaving the house late at night to purchase forgotten supplies or when I was talking to teacher (again) about forgotten homework.
Then this past weekend, I read some new articles and had a few experiences that reminded me that this adolescent time of life (which many of us parents, if we’re being honest, are grateful to have survived ourselves) is not all bad. In fact, it’s extremely important to understand and embrace the complexities and nuances that set it apart from all the other stages of our lives.
The first article I came across was a National Geographic article, simply and aptly entitled “Teenage Brains.” This beautifully photographed piece explores how many of the behaviors we tend to view as problematic and worrisome in adolescents (impulsiveness, risk-taking, thrill-seeking, etc), may actually be outward signs of the brain’s adaptive restructuring as children move from “the safety of home into the complicated world outside.” The author, David Dobbs, recounts and summarizes an extensive NIH brain-scan study of adolescent development in accessible terms: “Our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years. The brain doesn't actually grow very much…but as we move through adolescence, the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.”
This strikes me as an important insight, as it helps us parents place within a more scientific and rational context some of the seemingly erratic, impulsive, and even thoughtless behaviors that can drive us so crazy. The article suggests we consider these changes taking place in our adolescents’ brains as a kind of “neural gawkiness—an equivalent to the physical awkwardness teens sometimes display while mastering their growing bodies.”
A few days later, I read a piece on the Parenting website called “The 6 Best Things about Tweens” that highlighted some of the more wonderful aspects of having an early adolescent in the family. These include a maturing sense of humor, more help around the house, and increasingly interesting and complex conversations. The author also offers a nice combination of helpful advice and commonsense reminders on how to maximize these positive situations.