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By Ron Huxley, LMFT
Recently, I was doing some research on the latest trends in neuroscience in preparation for a training for social workers and mental health professionals on how to work with children that have been traumatized. A particular area of interest for me is the teenage brain. It is one of the most rapidy changing period of brain development. This is no surprise to parents who are trying to understand the rapidly changing personality of the teenager.
Perhaps the most dramatic area of development is the area called the prefrontal orbital brain. It is called this because it sits directly behind our eyeballs and it is responsible for abstract thought, moral reasoning, self-control, planning, judgement and so many other areas commonly associated with adults. This area is in constant flux, causing radical shifts in mood and attitude. This formation and reformation of the brain continues into young adulthood (mid 20′s). I often joke with parents that while their child has the hardware upgrade, the software has not yet been installed. This is why the teen is capable of getting pregnant, driving a car or doing alegebra but they doesn’t mean that they are completely ready for the adult world of intense responsibilty or raising a family.
This poses significant challenges to parents who want to navigate the raging waters of adolescence, therefore, I am going to list four basic reminders to help parents stay sane when their child actions appear insane. I am using the acronym WORK to guide parents:
W = Remember that your child is still “wondering” about how the world works. He or she might try to convince you that they already know how it does but they don’t. They haven’t had enough experience yet for this to be possible. They need you to help them by asking “what if” questions that will explain some cause and effect relationship and assist them in planning out their day and making better judgements. Because their brain is still developing they use their “will” to fight you and cover up their inexperience. Don’t shame them. Train the “will” to find positive rewards in daily interactions. “Wait” for them to get it. It will take them longer than you as they haven’t traveled some of this morally sticky situations in life yet. Allow them a little more time to “wake” up to a new world of responsibilities and schedules.
O = Be “open” to “opportunities” with your teenage child to share some wisdom about the world and how to survive in it. Don’t preach at them as this will shut them down completely. “Occupy” the same space and look for openings when you are both in a good mood. The relational approach will be more effective and allow more “objective” conversation between you. Remember that “obedieance” at this age is really about natural consequences or trial and error for the teenager. The will learn more about doing then lecturing. Being a good role model will help them understand how to use the “operators” manual called their brain more than lots of words at this time of life.
R = “Relationship” is one of the toughest things to have with the teen but one of the most important tasks a parent can do for their child. You may only have a split-second when the door is open wide enough to have that former intimacy but use it when you can. It will pay huge ‘rewards” for both of you later in life. “Recognize” that the teen is in process. They are still not fully cooked and need more time in the oven of life before they can be expected to make better decisions. They will “reflect” their peers and “respond” more from other unexperienced teenagers over their own, more experience parents. This is not a true sign of dis”respect” or “rejection.” The teen is just trying to find their own way. Don’t take this personal. “Rebelliousness” is the other side of the “readiness” coin of maturity.
K = Be “kind” to your teen as they develop mentally, socially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Turn the proverbial other cheek and smile when they growl. Reach out again when they slap away your hand. The “key” to relating to the teenager is long term vision. This isn’t just about today. It is about the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years of your life together. The cold response you get from the teen child today will “kindle” into a stronger fire of connection later in life. Work with that end in mind. Keep in mind this is your “kin.” They may be more like you than you care to admit. They share your nature and your nurture and need your “kudo’s” for every positive effort and end result you can give.