Katja Rovers, M.Sc.
Clinic Manager, Psychologist

Parents of teenagers are certainly no strangers to wondering, “What in the world is my child thinking?” As puberty’s most visible external changes slow, development in the brain still has a long way to go. Even after children grow through adolescence and become young adults, cognitive and emotional development has not caught up. In fact, brain development is going from the back of the brain to the front and will continue in young adults well into their 20’s before leveling off in the way that body development does in the mid or late teen years.

The part of the brain which develops the latest is the prefrontal cortex. The connections between the prefrontal cortex, which activates inhibition, self-control and executive functioning and the amygdale, which emits chemicals correlating with emotional responses are not totally developed in the same way an adult’s. When this process is complete, the prefrontal cortex will help to make rational decisions in balance with emotions a person could have on that moment. It explains why teenagers can react like emotional time bombs. During adolescence teenagers can make short term decisions and don’t look or care about the long term consequences.  This can result in blown curfews, in binge drinking at weekends, but also in risk taking and impulsive behavior. For example most adults are not driving on one wheel on a scooter, but many teenagers will. Teenagers have a strong need to experiment.

Teenagers want to viewed as dependable and to meet expectations of their parents but on the other hand they want to establish their own identity and independence which often looks like rebellion  Teenagers often feel misunderstood and may even think that their parents must be conspiring to prevent them from having any fun or let them making their own choices.  Yet, they often crave approval from their parents.

A study (2008) conducted in the Netherlands underlines this tendency towards expectations on parents’ part. While only 13% of parents believed that adolescents were generally making rational decisions, fully 44% percent of parents surveyed believed their adolescent children could make rational choices. It really may be tempting for parents to think, “Teenagers are wild, for sure, but not my teen.”

During adolescence teenagers must learn to make rational decisions, but must also learn to create their own identities. They tend at this age to be sensitive to the influence of their peers and considerably less attuned to their parents’ opinions. Parental input is certainly still important, but the teenager wants to be independent and also to be part of a peer group.

Biology can go a long way towards explaining the behaviors that can drive parents crazy. Parents who are uninitiated in the push and pull occurring in the brains and minds of teenaged children could have more difficulties with understanding the behavior of their child and helping them through a challenging period in their lives.

Nonetheless, some scientists assert that parents can function as a kind of externalized prefrontal cortex for their teenagers because there is no reason to accept all your teenager’s behavior in the name of biology

Naturally, there are affirmative, constructive steps for parents to take in order to help their teens to better manage their impulses.

First, and most importantly, is to maintain an open dialogue. An emphatic and unexplained ‘NO,’ is far less likely to make a lasting impression than ‘No, because…,’ even though an adolescent may not be agreeable as he listens.  Parents who give consistent feedback and listen intently as their teenagers explain their own difficulties and choices they have to make tend to see better results for their teens’ behavioral self-management.  Talking to your teen in relatively relaxed moments can help adolescents to form a habit of monitoring their own attitudes and behaviors, since as a parent you are a role model.  Help them to make good decisions, let them think about what consequences their choice could have and let them make their own mistakes. Stimulating and encourage your child has a positive effect on behavior and helps the teenager build self-esteem and feel more independent.  Remember that positive feedback is more important than negative.

You want to trust your teenager and one way to do this is by offering increased freedoms gradually, and on an experimental basis.  For example, saying “You may go to the mall tomorrow to see your friends, as long as you can make it home by 9:00. If you can manage that, we can discuss doing a little more next time.” Consistently applied rewards for successful self-management can go a long way.

Keep in mind that your adolescent child doesn’t want to be lectured but they want to be listened to.  Allow teenagers to take a very active role in the discussion and ask what they think. You should also avoid discussions or arguing with a yelling or emotionally enraged teenager.  You can always say, “I love you too much to argue with you right now.  When we are both calmed down we can talk.”

Above all, remember that this is a normal part in the development of your child, just as every other part of childhood. Your child will not remain a touchy and confrontational 17-year-old forever, any more than she was going to be two years old or six years old. It will probably not be long before you and your adult children look back together on that time in your lives together and laugh about some of the incidents.  Of course, you hope they will look back and remember you as a fair, supportive and empathetic parent, who showed understanding but also set limits.  Hopefully, your children will see the fights as minor compared to how much valuable wisdom they learned from you and their experiences.