You are all the proud parents of either pre-teens or teenagers and as you will all be aware this is a time of tremendous developmental change. As a psychologist I’m fascinated by this period of change and am curious about the reasons for these behaviours. As a parent I was probably as bewildered and confused as anyone about what was with my teenagers.
Understanding what’s underlying and driving some of these confusing behaviours can be helpful in developing useful parenting strategies.
Developmentally adolescents are on the next stage in their journey towards becoming independent adults. Moving from being totally dependent on their parents as babies and toddlers towards developing the skills that will allow them to live independently. Teenagers are renowned for pursuing excitement, novelty, taking risks and preferring the company of their peers to parents and other mature adults. These traits can make them challenging to parent and war stories of difficult teenagers abound.
Neuroscience has been able to tell us that adolescent brains have already reached 90% of their full size, so it’s not that teenagers are lacking in brain cells. However, during adolescence the brain does a tremendous amount of re organising which slowly progresses over the teen years and into the early 20s. The advantage of this re organisation is that brain processes become much speedier and more reliable, but this comes at a cost of some flexibility, we lose the ability to so easily add to our behavioural repertoire. If we consider language acquisition, we know that babies are born with the ability to learn any language they are consistently exposed to. As we grow and develop our understanding of our primary language/s it becomes more difficult to learn an additional language. We do become much speedier and more efficient at understanding our primary language, but it comes at the cost of flexibility to add new languages.
These behaviours of seeking excitement, novelty and risk and preferring the company of peers are all symptoms/evidence of a much more flexible brain that serves the purpose of allowing teenagers to move into new and challenging situations in a way that many of us adults would hesitate to do. Hopefully with some more insight into why teenagers do what they do we can better choose parenting strategies that can support this transition into adulthood smoothly and with a little less conflict. Parental involvement that allows independence while providing the reassurance of connection is likely to be the most successful approach.
Next post I’ll be talking more about specific parenting approaches that work well.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.