Understanding Adolescent Behavior
Have you experienced problems, conflicts, challenges or frustrations in parenting your adolescent? Is your teenager ever moody, sarcastic or negative? Does their behavior ever hurt your feelings, "push your buttons" or leave a residue of anger and resentment? Have you ever been the target of the legendary teenage "glare," which can devastate your confidence and spirit? Has your child displayed defensive or defiant body language like folded arms, rolled eyes, tightened jaws or clenched fists? Have you seen other behaviors, maybe less dramatic, that are nevertheless deeply disturbing?
Most parents of teens have experienced bad attitudes and disrespectful interchanges. It's not fun, but it is normal. Most teens are rude and disrespectful some of the time. This seems to be one of the ways they react to their internal turmoil. Rebellious behavior can also be a way for them to feel some degree of power in a family and a world where they often feel totally powerless, regardless of the reality.
You have a very tough job: redefining or renegotiating your authority with your teen. Just when you were starting to feel reasonably comfortable and competent in your parental role, you may now be experiencing what seem to be endless and exhausting tugs of war over who sets the rules, where are the boundaries and what are the limits. Your teen may move tantalizingly closer, then suddenly pull away – cuddling one minute and cursing the next – in a way that leaves you confused and disoriented.
Separating from You
Adolescence also hands your child a challenging new job description. Their primary developmental task is to form their own identity separate from you.
In earlier stages, your child found their identity within your family. Now, their friends seem to be more important than you. Your teen may be spending more time outside your family than inside it. Being accepted as a member of their peer group has become their paramount emotional need, their badge of belonging, and this permits them to start severing their emotional ties and reducing their dependence upon you.
This is a necessary and positive phase. What's most important is that you remember this: It's not personal; it's developmental. It's difficult but vital to remember that when your teen is acting out their adolescence, it's all about their developmental process and it's not at all about what you said, did or deserve.
Certainly some parents are abusive to their children, some parents don't care and some parents never learned how to love or nurture a child. These parents may need professional help. Certainly parents can and do make mistakes and can act hurtfully, impulsively or inappropriately. But in most cases, parents do a pretty good job, and their heart is in the right place. Then they start to doubt themselves and their parenting skills when the going gets rough during adolescence. Has this happened to you?
Science is unraveling the biological reasons that teens act like teens. New research provides some explanations for previously puzzling aspects of adolescent behaviors.
For example, it turns out that teens' brains are still growing and developing and that they really are different from adult brains. These differences may account for (not excuse) some of the mood swings, impulsiveness, risk-taking, defiance, aggression and alcohol/drug and sexual experimentation that may characterize adolescence.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," a classic teenage excuse for bad choices, may be more a product of their unfinished brain wiring than any deliberate recklessness. Apparently, adolescent behavior is much more complicated than simply "raging hormones."
Teenagers seem to have less wiring in the part of their brain that organizes and moderates behavior. Their brains are wired in a way that floods them with emotional responses to external events. Have you ever noticed this happening?
Say What You Mean
Another biological difference in a teenager's brain makes them more likely to misread facial expressions. This could explain and potentially cause problems in interpersonal relationships, especially between parents and their teens. If you don't explicitly tell them what you're feeling and wanting, they will most likely guess wrong.
Because their brain's wiring is still in process, adolescents may have special problems setting goals, establishing priorities, planning, organizing and controlling impulses. They may have serious difficulties seeing the long-term consequences of their short-term behaviors or evaluating risks they're taking. Can you see how this plays out in the behaviors, reactions and choices of your adolescent?
Also, have you ever wondered why your child loves to sleep in and why they can be so grumpy when they leave for school? It's because most teenagers suffer from sleep deprivation. The average teenager needs nine hours and 15 minutes of sleep each night to be optimally efficient, but only gets seven and a half hours.
Each day compounds the cumulative sleep deprivation deficit. Consequently, if your teen is not "filling up their tank" at night, they may be starting each day "running on empty." This affects their mood, ability to think and ability to make healthy choices. The best predictor of a teen's academic performance may not be their score on the SAT or other standardized test or their IQ, but whether they're getting enough REM sleep!
Understanding more about your teenager's still developing brain may help you release some of your hurt, resentment and confusion. It may also encourage you to give your child some extra grace, patience and compassion as they complete their passage from dependent child to independent adult.