“Adolescence represents an inner emotional upheaval, a struggle between the eternal human wish to cling to the past and the equally powerful wish to get on with the future.”
Louise J. Kaplan
I am often asked, ‘Why does my daughter…… act irrationally, speak to me this way, make poor choices, drive me up the wall, etc?’ by fraught parents who are experiencing the teenage years with their daughter. Often this is their first encounter of the teenage years since their own teenage experience. More often than not, they have conveniently forgotten the antics that they themselves got up to, or the behaviours that they presented at that stage of their life. Or they remember only the good times, looking back at them as ‘The Glory Days!’.
I am not a parent myself, but from what I have seen, it looks terrifying! I have every respect for parents at any stage, but the teenage years particularly. So, whilst I cannot share my own parenting tips, I can perhaps offer a few possible reasons for some behaviours and draw on the last 10 years of my career to offer some insight and reassurance to any of you battling sullen moods, slamming doors or a general refusal to communicate.
First and foremost, you are not the only parent to experience this. Almost all teenagers experience a change in personality to some degree during their development. It is also important to mention here that this change is not limited to just teenagers. It can start in children as young as 9 years old, and some psychologists now believe that brain development in young adults is not fully complete until the late 20s or even early 30s.
The Teenage Brain
This change that adolescents go through, is also not really their fault. It is all to do with chemical changes that occur within the brain during the later stages of brain development. The brain develops from the back and bottom, and works its way forward towards the front. One of the first parts of the brain to develop is the amygdala, which houses the emotional centre of our brain. This is the bit that reacts to events that cause a strong emotional response. This might be a positive response like laughter at something funny, or it might be a negative response like fight or flight when faced with threat.
One of the last parts of the brain to develop is the Prefrontal Cortex. This is the part of our brain that deals with rational thought and reasoning, and essentially helps regulate responses from the amygdala so that we are not running around like headless chickens all our lives. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is not well established until after the age of 20 and so many adolescents struggle to regulate their emotions.
The pattern of brain development is also responsible for some of the less desirable teenage behaviours that we are likely to see in children. For parents, one of the most problematic is risk taking and risky behaviours. During brain development in teenagers, a process of self-pruning takes place in the grey matter, whereby the brain starts to get rid of things it uses infrequently or are not essential and in turn, this allows other parts of the brain to strengthen and become more dominant. Sadly, this process takes time and is not fully complete until a person is in their mid-20s.
In early puberty, this process is slightly erratic and the grey matter in the brain is firing millions of electrical signals to other parts of the brain as it tries to make sense of its surroundings. The dense grey matter is extra sensitive to reward and drives adolescents to make choices based on appeasing the pleasure centre of the brain. This often feeds off adrenalin and so behaviours often display as risky (i.e. behaviours that might be dangerous or harmful if they go wrong). For example, experimentation with alcohol or drugs, staying out late, sexual experimentation, pursuing high risk sports and pushing boundaries at home. At the same time, the parts of the brain that deal with fear are becoming less sensitive and so punishments start to have less impact. Withholding pudding at dinner time, for example, might be devastating to your 5 year old, but not so effective with your 15 year old. In fact, with your 15 year old, in their attempt to push boundaries, you may end up wearing the pudding instead.
The importance of a little freedom
It will be little comfort to know that this ‘boundary pushing, risk taking phase’, is actually really important. We learn from experience and so it is essential that teenagers have the chance to dip their toe into the scalding waters of the real world to test it out and discover where their own limits lie, before being thrown in at the deep end. Children of all ages can be challenging, especially when in the company of their parents. There is a really good reason for this. You haven’t done a terrible job in raising them, and they don’t hate you as much as they may make out. Quite simply, you are their safety net. They know, deep down (sometimes seemingly very deep down), that the unconditional love of a parent means they can be horrible sometimes and you will still be there to scoop them up at the end of the day.
A teenager’s lifeline
Friendships are one of the most important things in a teenager’s life. Particularly for girls. Problems in the adolescent years often stem from friendship turbulence. Again, this is very normal but can be extremely painful for those involved. Often perceived as ‘bullying’, by children and parents, ‘Friendship Turbulence’ is very common, and a fairly normal part of social development, as individuals work out where they feel comfortable amongst their peers. It can be very upsetting and can also involve some ‘not nice’ behaviours or unkind words or actions. However, it is rarely persistent or targeted and therefore it is usually handled best, when adolescents are empowered to deal with it themselves, rather than adults wading in and making the situation worse.
At the High School, we use a system called Girls On Board, which does just that. It empowers girls to ensure that their peers are well-cared for by everyone in their community. It teaches them empathy and encourages them to see things from the point of view of their classmates. This is not to say that bullying never occurs, but real cases of bullying are actually very rare. Individuals who are displaying bully behaviours often have a very specific set of their own issues that they need support and care to work through.
The friendships of the average teenage girl are very complex, and I will explore these in a future blog. However, it is worth remembering that your daughter’s circle of friends are her confidants. Whilst she might not be comfortable talking to you about what is going on in her life, she will be talking to her friends. This is not because she doesn’t trust you, but because she thinks you don’t understand. Actually, she is probably correct in her assumption. You may have been through the trauma of the teenage years yourself, but her experience is different. She is dealing with modern technology, modern education, national and international media storms on race, climate change and politics and trying to navigate the trials of social media. Her friends are experiencing this with her and so are a more natural port of call when things go wrong in her life, and she needs to offload.
What can you do?
- Manage their expectations – social media paints a stunning picture of endless happiness, flawless features and good hair days. The reality is anything but. Adolescents are fed a stream of unhelpful messages through the media that every day should be joyous and exciting. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being awful and 10 being the best day ever, most of us pootle along at a ‘5’ on most days. Normalising this is helpful in helping children to manage their own expectations of how they should be feeling. There will be days or moments that are a 10, but there may also be days and moments that are a 1 and it is important for them to recognise that this is how life works.
- Remain consistent – this can be hard as a parent, just as it can be hard as a teacher. On one hand, each child and each situation is different and therefore needs an individually tailored response. However, an element of consistency is important. Make sure they know what the expectations of their behaviour are and ensure that this message remains clear and unchanging.
- Set boundaries – similarly to above, ensure that boundaries are clear. It might feel like you are playing the cruel and evil parent, but children who grow up in an environment with boundaries, are significantly happier than those who don’t. They need to know what is ‘too far’ in terms of what is allowed at home. Ideally, these boundaries should be similar to the boundaries we set in school. There will be differences, of course, but we will not tolerate poor behaviour, and neither should you. It sends mixed messages and they are likely to try to play you off their teachers and visa versa.
- Follow through with consequences – empty threats are a waste of time and will end up making the situation worse. Ask any teacher who has threatened a detention for missed homework and then not followed through. The next 6 pieces of homework will also be missed because they don’t believe that there will be any consequences for their actions. This is likely to escalate and links back to the ideas of consistency and set boundaries.
- Don’t try to be their best friend – as tempting as it might be to try to be best friends with your daughter, it is not a good idea. Not least of all because she probably has a best friend at school. It also muddies the waters when trying to enforce discipline at home or at school. They see you as their mate, not their parent. Your relationship with them will change as they grow up and you may well find that friendship is a natural occurrence when they reach adulthood.
- Talk less, listen more – children often tell you things, not because you particularly need to know the information, but because they need to tell you, to get it off their chest, to offload. In these moments, a sympathetic ear is far more effective, and welcome, than a list of actions they can take to fix the problem.
- Keep lines of communication open – ensure your daughter knows they can talk to you. Sometimes they forget that you are there for them. Equally, don’t forget the people who are there for you. Talk to other parents to get a fresh perspective on a situation, or talk to the school, even if it is just to offload yourselves.
When to worry
Essentially a huge amount of what teenagers go through is perfectly normal. There will be times when they are emotional or moody. There will be times when they are downright rude. There will be times when they don’t want to speak to you or will only communicate in grunts. Doors will be slammed and eyes will roll.
This is not to say, of course, that there will never be times when you should worry. Extreme behaviours are rare but should be taken seriously. Serious aggression or sudden and dramatic changes in demeanour over the course of a few days may indicate something more serious and should be looked into. Similarly, dangerous behaviour like experimenting with drugs, or excessive alcohol is not a normal part of adolescent development. Sudden weight loss or weight gain may also be an indication that things are not quite right. In these cases, please seek help if you need it. The school is here to support you as well as your daughter, and, although we might not always have the answers, we will more often than not, be able to point you in the direction of someone who does.
“Even as kids reach adolescence, they need more than ever for us to watch over them. Adolescence is not about letting go. It’s about hanging on during a very bumpy ride.”
Assistant Head Pastoral