The Teen Brain: Is My Teenager Normal?
Trust me, I’ve started to ask myself this question, “Is my Teen normal?” or “Why is talking to my teen like talking to a toddler?” They remember the first part I say, but not the last. They’re growing like weeds and we’re buying shoes all the time. What in the world is going on?!
I asked Kathy to share her thoughts and notes from a seminar we recently attended called “The Teen Brain” with Neil McNerney. She describes the teen brain as cake batter, it’s still forming. Understanding the teen brain gives us a sprinkling of patience. Take it away Kathy…
Is my teenager normal?
Are you trying to understand your teenager? Do you think it’s “just hormones”? I recently heard Neil McNerney speak on the Teen Brain. He is an author and counselor, who is drawn to understanding how the mind works.
For me, the biggest blessing from hearing the teen brain talk is that I am way more patient when I witness what is so typical of a teenager. This might be the emotional roller coaster, it might be sudden changes in energy levels. Based on what I learned, I no longer dismiss these moment-by-moment fluctuations as “hormones,” but I embrace them as brain growth.
It’s not hormones!
The most profound topic for me, was that typical teenage behavior has nothing to do with hormones! It’s so easy for us to blame hormone surges for the mood swings and even disrespectful behaviors, when in fact, these outbursts have to do with the brain growing. Researches have tested the hormone levels of teens and there is nothing significantly different going on from a hormone level standpoint. I have caught myself numerous times getting ready to say something about hormones. When I think about the behavior that is causing me to blame the hormones, I remember that this is a short period of time in my daughter’s life, and she won’t always be like this. Yay us!
When does the brain grow?
The brain does much of it’s growing when a person is between seven and 20 years old. The scientific term is called synaptic refinement, but parents see it as sharp fluctuations in energy levels and mood swings. One day, my daughter will be talking so much (and fast) that I not only cannot understand a word, but I’m internally begging God to take me home right at that moment. (wink) The next day, I cannot seem to find my kid anywhere. She is usually in her room, with her noise canceling headphones on, the lights are off, and she’s staring intently at some mobile device. I don’t worry too much when I see these behavior changes because I realize that it’s perfectly normal.
The Marshmallow Experiment
“The Marshmallow Experiment” (click here), is an experiment where a preschool-aged child is offered one marshmallow, but they are told that they can have a second marshmallow if they choose to not eat the first one. They are left in the room for a short period of time, with hidden cameras filming them deal with the temptation of the marshmallow.
Fast forward, the children are now grown up and 15 years older. They were studied again. Those who had been able to wait for the second marshmallow were doing better at life than those who had not been able to wait.
Can we teach children who could not wait to delay gratification? A practical item that we learned about had to do with procrastination, which is basically poor planning for the future. Neil reminded us how our children work off of a daily agenda. They will focus on the items on this agenda. He suggested that we talk to our kids about big projects, break them into pieces and then add project pieces to the agenda as homework items. Instead of procrastinating, they can be successful.
Interpreting Moods and Verbal Cues
Did you know that teenagers lose the ability to interpret moods, and verbal cues? They can misinterpret lots of our expressions and emotions. Neil had the audience look at a screen where he flashed a woman’s face for a fraction of a second. He then asked us to think of the emotion we saw on the woman’s face. In most cases, the adults who see the picture get the emotion correct. Most teens, however get it wrong every time.
In situations when a teen clearly misinterprets the emotions of his parent, Neil suggested that we use physical touch to break the disconnection. For example, if your teen is certain that you are angry or disappointed with him, reach over and place a gentle hand on his arm. Look into his eyes and assure him of your true emotions.
We need to be teaching our children to be independent, yet we tend to treat them like children because it is more efficient to tell them what to do than to prod them along. Resist the temptation to shout out a list of things to do. Instead, try asking, “Do you think you have studied enough?” or “Have you thought of…” rather than telling him what he needs to do or what he has done wrong.
The Difference Between Expecting & Accepting Certain Behaviors
Since the teen brain is growing and changing so rapidly, we can expect a certain amount of behavior that will only happen during this stage of life. Neil told us to not call out disrespectful behaviors every time it occurs. If you had a delightful child prior to this stage, you will get him back, after this process. Consider being more tolerant of some behavior, like disrespect, difficulty with mood tracking, mood changes, small academic ups and downs, friendship changes. Do not tolerate: Alcohol, Drugs, Illegal behavior, and significant defiance.
There may be times in our parent walk that our child pushes the limit too far. There must be significant consequences when a child defies not only our rules and boundaries, but also laws. Thankfully, my husband and I have not yet had to navigate this territory, but it motivates me to have a discussion about expectations with our children. It also gives me an opportunity to check-in with my husband about how we will respond if our child comes home drunk, high or doesn’t come home at all.
When it comes to disciplining, Neil suggested that we not add an emotional element to punishment. The example he used was, “I cannot trust you.” Yes, there may be times when our trust is broken by a child’s words or actions, but to emotionally manipulate him while we are delivering his punishment is dangerous. Stay calm while doling out punishment. The moment a teenager sees that you have lost control of your emotions you have lost the battle. A tried and true strategy is to take away phone or technology privileges to accomplish goals like improving grades, and getting assignments completed. For other ideas on privileges and consequences, click here.
As a Christian, I really love when I get to learn something from a scientific standpoint, and then marvel at how God designed us so perfectly.
Kathy lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and their three children (ages 14, 10, and 6). She has been in children’s ministry since 2012, after leaving a 13 year career at Verizon. She loves crafts, reading, writing and napping.
Other Helpful Links for Parenting Teens:
Life Skills for ages 2-18