1. Inside the teen mind
They are dramatic, irrational and scream for seemingly no reason. They do stupid things. And they have a deep need for both greater independence and tender loving care. You could say this about teens or toddlers. And here’s why: After infancy, the brain’s most dramatic growth spurt occurs in adolescence, and that growth means things get a little muddled in a teen mind. Teen brains are also wired to seek reward, act out, and otherwise exhibit immaturity that will change when they become adults. Meantime . . .
Consider the following list a survival guide of sorts to raising your teens, or at least to understanding them a little better.
2. Teen tantrums
Adolescents are in the midst of acquiring incredible new skills sets, especially when it comes to social behavior and abstract thought. But they are not good at using them yet, so they must experiment — and sometimes they use their parents as guinea pigs. Many kids this age view conflict as a type of self-expression and may have trouble focusing on an abstract idea or understanding another’s point of view.
Just as when dealing with the tantrums of toddlerhood, parents need to remember their teen’s behavior is “not a personal affront,” Johnson said.
They are dealing with a huge amount of social, emotional and cognitive flux and have underdeveloped abilities to cope. They need their parents — those people with the more stable adult brain — to help them by staying calm, listening and being good role models, Feinstein told LiveScience.
And be advised: The more you yell at a teen, the worse they’ll likely behave, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Child Development.
3. Intense emotions
“Puberty is the beginning of major changes in the limbic system,” Johnson said, referring to the part of the brain that not only helps regulate heart rate and blood sugar levels, but also is critical to the formation of memories and emotions.
Part of the limbic system, the amygdala is thought to connect sensory information to emotional responses. Its development, along with hormonal changes, may give rise to newly intense experiences of rage, fear, aggression (including towards oneself), excitement and sexual attraction.
Over the course of adolescence, the limbic system comes under greater control of the prefrontal cortex, the area just behind the forehead, which is associated with planning, impulse control and higher order thought.
As additional areas of the brain start to help process emotion, older teens gain some equilibrium and have an easier time interpreting others. But until then, they often misread teachers and parents, Feinstein said.
“You can be as careful as possible and you still will have tears or anger at times because they will have misunderstood what you have said,” she said.
4. Peer pleasure
As teens become better at thinking abstractly, their social anxiety increases, according to research in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published in 2004.
Abstract reasoning makes it possible to consider yourself from the eyes of another. Teens may use this new skill to ruminate about what others are thinking of them. In particular, peer approval has been shown to be highly rewarding to the teen brain, Johnson said, which may be why teens are more likely to take risks when other teens are around.
“Kids are really concerned with looking cool — but you don’t need brain research to tell you that,” she said.
Friends also provide teens with opportunities to learn skills such as negotiating, compromise and group planning. “They are practicing adult social skills in a safe setting and they are really not good at it at first,” Feinstein said. So even if all they do is sit around with their friends, teens are hard at work acquiring important life skills.
5. Parents are still important
According to Feinstein, a survey of teenagers revealed that 84 percent think highly of their mothers and 89 percent think highly of their fathers. And more than three-quarters of teenagers enjoy spending time with their parents; 79 percent enjoy hanging out with Mom and 76 percent like chilling with Dad.
One of the tasks of adolescence is separating from the family and establishing some autonomy, Feinstein said, but that does not mean a teen no longer needs parents — even if they say otherwise.
“They still need some structure and are looking to their parents to provide that structure,” she said. “The parent that decides to treat a 16 or 17 year old as an adult is behaving unfairly and setting them up for failure.”
One of the most influential ways to parent your teen, in addition to being a good listener, is to be a good role model, especially when dealing with stress and other life difficulties, as teens are actively trying to figure out their own coping strategies.
“Your adolescent is watching you,” Feinstein said.
6. Critical period of development
Loosely defined as the years between 11 and 19, adolescence is considered a critical time of development – and not just in outward appearances.
“The brain continues to change throughout life, but there are huge leaps in development during adolescence,” said Sara Johnson, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who reviewed the neuroscience in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development (Johns Hopkins University, 2009) by Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard.
And just as a teen may go through an awkward growth spurt, new cognitive skills and competencies may come in leaps and stutters, said Sheryl Feinstein, author of Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.)
Parents should understand that no matter how tall their son has sprouted or how grown-up their daughter dresses, “they are still in a developmental period that will affect the rest of their life,” Johnson told LiveScience.
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