Pushing boundaries is part of growing up. Once the toddler years are over many parents breathe a sigh of relief that the tantrums have wound down and they feel like they are finally getting a grasp on communicating with their kid.
Then the teenage years kick in. Being a teenager is difficult, as early as 9 years of age some kids start to push back on being treated like a child. Hormones start raging and the prefrontal cortex undergoes some major changes that result in agitation, mood swings, heightened emotions, and an all-round difficult attitude.
Understanding the way brain development works in adolescence may provide some valuable insight into the reasons your teenager is out of control.
The prefrontal cortex is at the front of your brain, just behind the forehead. This part of our brains is responsibly for rational judgement and decision making, understanding consequences and outcomes, and impulsivity and emotional response. This part of the human body does not finish development until sometime into our mid-20s. It is the physiological reason that the teenage years are hard, and is why your teenager keeps making bad choices and always seems impulsive and moody.
Although the prefrontal cortex is taking its time in development, the nucleus accumbens is well developed by this time. The nucleus accumbens controls reward and pleasure responses. As a consequence, many teenagers engage in risk-taking behaviors with little-to-no concern for the consequences.
The flood of hormones teenagers experience during and after puberty makes for a potent mix of challenges, especially when combined with their developing brain. Throughout middle school and high school, teenagers strive to establish their individuality and break away from their childhood identities.
Teenagers today have to contend with social media as well, providing ample opportunity for rebellious behavior. Online bullying, harassment, and sexting are common and can be difficult for parents to monitor. Parents can feel completely out of their depth when they learn their teen has been acting inappropriately or engaging in potentially dangerous behavior online.
What Can Parents Do
Despite the feeling that their teens are beyond help at times, there are steps parents can take to minimize undesirable behavior and help their teenager get back on track. The teenage years may always be challenging for some, but there are ways to manage those challenges and improve on relationships during this difficult time.
Ensure your teenagers behavior is not a response to a specific problem or incident. If there is an emotional need that genuinely needs to be addressed then finding a way to meet that need will be the easiest and quickest way to improve the situation. Problems may include challenges within their friendships or changes or hardship within the family. Find the source before punishing the symptoms.
Make sure there isn’t a problem in your relationship with your child for some other reason. They say: rules without relationship = rebellion. Don’t be quick to punish or draw boundaries without putting in the work to strengthen the relationship with your kid. The teenage years are difficult regardless, but if there is a disconnect in your relationship with your kid, things will be even harder.
One important way to strengthen your relationship with your teenager is to let them know you trust them. It can be difficult to let go of control over your teenager, but this can be an important step toward healing and growth for them. In order for teenage brains to grow confidently, they need to feel independent, so be less controlling, but still emotionally involved.
You send the message that you don't think your teen is capable of solving problems on their own if you jump in and tell them what to do. It is best not to give your opinion to a person that does not ask for it. Unsolicited advice is usually interpreted as criticism. Instead, tell them that "I'm here for you" and emphasize the importance of making mistakes, and learning and growing through those difficult times.