Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Advice for Interacting with Adolescents

Of late, my wife and I have been trying to understand and be better prepared to deal with our adolescent children’s behavior, especially our 15-year-old son’s changing and often-inexplicable behavior. Fortunately for us, we came across the work of Daniel Siegel, M.D. After watching some of his YouTube presentations and reading his book Brainstorm, it was like someone had just turned on the lights for my wife and me. The way Dr. Siegel explains the metamorphosis our children’s brains experience during adolescence provides a window into a whole new world. We now understand that there are some very specific reasons our children behave the way they do during these rapid mental and physical alterations.

After fully absorbing these concepts, we are able to more fully understand our child’s journey through the changes occurring in his brain. We are infinitely more patient and supportive. We understand how his brain is going through a process of cleaning house and becoming much more specialized in the areas which most pertain to his life thus far. We are certain we have helped our children put down firm roots, and thanks to our recent research, we now feel better prepared to help them grow wings.

We think all your readers, especially those with adolescent children and grandchildren, will benefit from knowing about Dr. Siegel’s work.

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Ah, synchronicity – the experience of two or more events, which are causally unrelated, occurring together in a meaningful manner. To wit: Your e-mail arrived as I was reading an article in New York Magazine, “The Collateral Damage of a Teenager: What adolescence does to adolescents is nowhere near as brutal as what it does to their parents,” by Jennifer Senior. (A link and some discussion on this article below.)

At your suggestion, I watched Dr. Siegel’s YouTube presentation, “The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain”. (Click here for a list of ten of his presentations). I, too, was enlightened by the many points he makes, including:

  • Adolescence is not a period of immaturity and raging hormones. Rather, it is neurological, developmental preparation for leaving the nest.
  • Children/young adults between the ages of 12 to 24 are genetically programmed to push back on their parents because of changes in the brain.
  • Adolescence is a time of great passion and creativity, a time of experimenting, often resulting in reckless and dangerous behavior because emotions are harder to control, and because the youths are focused on the pros of the exciting and enticing behaviors, typically minimizing and/or excluding the cons. It’s not that they don’t know about the dangers of what they’re doing; they don’t care at the moment.
  • While pushing away from parents, adolescents seek anchoring replacements and a sense of belonging: hence, the importance of peer groups.

With these points in mind, I was most interested in what the implications are for interacting with adolescents, especially when they are being snippy, rude, taking exasperated breaths or communicating in other ways that make clear they think their parents are dumb as dirt. For the adult in these types of interactions, there is a tendency to focus on the lack of respect being shown by the adolescent, e.g., “Don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady.” Dr. Seigel and other experts point out that the emotion behind whatever is causing the adolescent’s frustration, insecurity, or fear abates in about 90 seconds, so the best thing offended parents can do is to cut the kid some slack and let it go, at least right then.

In short, in my own words and using my own examples, here is what I took away from Dr. Seigel’s presentation. Instead of focusing on the perceived disrespect being shown as with the eye rolling, etcetera, it is advised the adult shift from a confrontational mind-set and try to respond from a place of empathy: e.g., “You seem out of sorts. What can I do to help?” This is hard to do when a child or young adult is being rude or discourteous, maybe even verbally abusive, but it is worth the effort to try.

The inappropriate behavior can always be addressed at a later time, once the child’s immediate crisis has passed. The adult can later say, “I know you were upset this morning. Now that you seem to be calmer and less upset, I need for you to know that you hurt my feelings when you told me I was the lousiest parent on the planet. I want to be helpful and supportive when you’re having a hard time, but this does not mean you get to dump on me.”

The child may or may not apologize or respond in any way. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the situation has been changed from one of confrontation and possible escalation of anger to one where emotional space is provided for both the child and adult to move around more calmly and rationally. With consistent use of this approach, the time required from eruption to calmness and civility can probably be reduced.

I found Ms. Senior’s article in New York Magazine to be a good companion piece to Dr. Siegel’s presentation. It presents research that can help parents be introspective and better understand their reactions to their adolescent kids: “ . . . adolescents, usually [more than toddlers], stir up our most self-critical feelings. It’s adolescents who make us wonder who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us. It’s adolescents who reflect back at us, in proto-adult form, the sum total of our parenting decisions and make us wonder whether we’ve done things right.” A different perspective, definitely a worthwhile read.

Between Ms. Senior’s article and Dr. Siegel’s presentations, I think all parents and grandparents will feel better prepared to interact with the adolescents in their lives in ways that are less confrontational and are more compassionate and helpful. Also, both Ms. Senior and Dr. Seigel are advocates for parents including their adolescent children in discussions about the neurological and emotional realities of adolescence and how to work together in addressing them.

I close by thanking the reader who initiated this column.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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