What are the first thoughts that come to mind when you think of the word teenager? Crazy? Hormonal? Troubled? Hopeless? Risk-takers? Lost? Disrespectful?
It’s common to paint adolescents in these broad, unflattering terms. But a little knowledge about the developing adolescent brain helps explain why teenagers get such a bad rap.
The teenage brain is far different than the developed adult brain. Its emotionality or irrationality can seem mysterious at times, and leave you wondering what were they thinking? Here is a short video that explains why and how the teenage brain is so drastically different from the fully developed adult brain:
Adolescents are neurologically wired to fulfill some of the negative stereotypes we expect from them. As the brain develops and hormones increase, teens are compelled to seek emotionally charged experiences and step outside the safety of the family unit. The area of the brain responsible for risk assessment and advanced planning is under-developed. Emotional responses, both positive and negative, become more intense. So when it comes to feelings of social isolation, teens urgently seek to gain acceptance among their peers in order to feel worthy.
All of this makes teens very susceptible to peer pressure and pleasure seeking. Which makes it more surprising and impressive to learn that most teens are not using alcohol and other drugs. In fact, most are extraordinary and making exceptional healthy choices on a daily basis. However, those teens who do experiment with getting drunk or high put themselves at great risk of rapidly developing a problem . Because the same developing brain circuits that help adolescents learn Spanish or algebra, have the unfortunate tendency to also make them quick studies in how to grow dependent on drugs or alcohol.
Adolescents are not mini-adults or aliens; they fall somewhere in between. They are individuals, each one with unique stories and circumstances. Stereotyping and putting all teenagers in one box with the same label is not just unfair, it interferes with connection and communication.
So what now? Love them unconditionally, but give them clear boundaries. Be their training wheels and pick them up when they fall. Don’t drive the bike for them or give them the bike and just let them ride away. At the first sign of unsteadiness, don’t “freak out,” but don’t ignore it. Talk early and often. Have a conversation and, if it’s a sensitive issue, assume they know more than what you think they know, but probably less than what they think they know.
The car is a great place to have these talks. Because somebody’s got to drive the vehicle, you and your teen can avoid eye-contact and that, in and of itself, takes some of the intensity and anxiety out of whatever subject is being addressed.
If the matter is related to alcohol or other drugs and you don’t think you’re getting through to your teenager, NCADA offers a Transitional Counseling Program, available at no cost to families, which can provide direction and assistance. It’s a little counseling, a little education, and a great way to find common ground.
Understanding the developing adolescent brain makes it easier to explain the behavior you’re seeing. Sure, your teen will test you as they find their place in the world, but no one said parenting was easy. So why not give our teens a chance? Most of the time, they will surprise and amaze you. And most of the time, they’re going to be just fine.
Chris Allen is a Counselor at NCADA.