It happened again. The simple conversation about the homework and the grades turned into a full on argument with my teen.
Why couldn’t this just be easier? Why must grades or chores or the time of day be so emotionally explosive?
You’d think after 3 teenagers I would know by now to always be ready for the inevitable. Because the inevitable is – after all – inevitable.
Today I forgot those skills. Let me remind myself – and maybe you – of some handy things to keep in mind when you are the “Teen Brain Whisperer!”
The Teen Brain Is “Off The Hook”
The teen brain is not fully developed until ages 23 to 25. During that developing time, the brain is actually completely able and designed to be emotionally reactive. It is not designed to be unemotional and logical.
Dr. Daniel Siegel teaches some wonderful discoveries in his book, “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.” I referred to this book in my previous post of 4 Reasons to Be Jealous of Your Teen. Siegel explains the base of the brain (the amygdala) is the emotional part of the brain. It is the first part of the brain to develop. The amygdala is part of the limbic system.
A baby has this part of his or her brain fully developed at birth. The baby is completely aware of heat, cold, comfort, pain, and hunger. The healthy baby is fully able to let parents know whether the baby is happy or not. -A lot like a healthy teenager!
The prefrontal cortex is the logical part of the brain. The logical part of the brain does not fully develop until a person is a young adult. This is why we like our fighter pilots young. Once your brain is fully developed, you are much less likely to take on careers and adventures where life and death are involved. Logic kicks in and says, “I might die flying this jet that low!”
Is There Something Wrong With My Teen?
Many parents expect teens to respond calmly and maintain their emotions in a respectful way. Parents often think their parenting is not going well or there is something desperately wrong with their teens if emotions rise.
You know the spontaneous eye rolling, long sighs, and “Whatever‘s” often experienced while parenting a teen? Well, those are all a result of a teen who is responding emotionally.
Siegel refers to this reaction of the teenager as the Emotional Spark of a teen’s brain. The Emotional Spark is wonderful if you can tap into what motivates your teen and join with them in the excitement they are currently experiencing. It’s fun and spontaneous and full of laughter and adventure.
However, there is a darker side to the Emotional Spark.
The Emotional Spark (ES) of the brain is also the reason a teen can get easily flooded with emotion and begin using words like, “Why do you always treat me like a baby?” or “This is just stupid!” or “Whatever! No one else’s parents are this lame!”
If your teen tends to be more of the silent, introverted type, this Emotional Spark can also be seen as them simply saying, “OK” and walking off. This type of flooding is even more concerning. The internal flooding of a teenager can lead to chronic depression and anxiety. This dynamic is sometimes harder to even know it’s going on and harder to reverse.
And let’s get real. How many of us parents grew up in homes where calm discussions regarding conflicts were the norm? I know in my home growing up, we were able to say what we felt or thought. However, we really did not learn how to resolve conflict. It was more like the loudest, or the most stubborn, won the arguments.
My parents did teach me to expect to be heard and my voice did matter. Even so, this type of “top dog wins” is not what my husband and I wanted for our family. To be frank, it is actually something hubs asked me to unlearn shortly after we were married.
But – Back to teens. If their brains are not fully developed, what do we do, then?
We Have To Engage With Our Teens
If we don’t want yelling matches, and we DO want our teens to be able to assert themselves in this world where asserting is going to be vital to survival, we are going to have to teach our teens to have conflict.
What does this mean for parents? It means we must develop our ability to maintain our cool while our teenager is literally “flipping their lid.” We have to have some skills we can grab onto in order to not react to the reactions of our teens.
Today I forgot to use some basic skills. When I am facing the dark side of the Emotional Spark, I use my “Teen Brain Whisperer” skills. Today I didn’t. Not at first.
Here are three tips we usually use to make it just a little easier:
Give Them Freedom to Make Mistakes
Allowing for a “Redo” or a “Let’s Try That Again, Shall We?” is really important. When the emotions start to rise for whatever reason, our teens’ voices sometimes sound snarky and disrespectful. Letting them know how they’re coming across to us is a great skill.
A simple, “Hey, that sounds a little rough, can you give that another go?” helps them to recognize what is happening for them. They might be tired or irritated. A lot like we get sometimes.
Redo’s are a skill taught in couple’s therapy through the Gottman Method. Using Redo’s with our teens has saved quite a few conversations from escalating. This is a good habit for both parents and teens to start doing.
Keep Your Sanity – Or “Don’t Flip Your Lid While Theirs is Off”
When our pulse races over 100 beats per minute, research says we cannot hear or understand each other clearly. This is when I usually breathe and say, “Let’s talk about this another time, shall we?”
But today I blew it. I got angry in return and said snarky comments.
Intervene With Love
When you blow it, or you see the conversation is heading into the “Limbic Lagoon” of conflict, take a break with love. It’s just that simple. Say, “I love you too much to argue with you” and call it a day.
We are the adults. We are the ones who are modeling the behavior we want our teens to carry into the world.
We are also the ones who can teach them what a true apology feels like.
“Teen Brain Whisperer” Training Takes Time
You will absolutely need to become a “Teen Brain Whisperer” when your child becomes 10 to 12 years of age. The goal of parenting is to help your child speak and think for themselves. This takes skills, especially while they are finding their own voice.
Learning how to be a “Teen Brain Whisperer” takes time. Be patient with yourself and your teen.
The above is not professional counseling. It really is just good parenting advice from a mom who is a professional Marriage Family Therapist. If you would like to learn more skills about parenting teens, feel free to contact me at 530-268-3558 or email me at kate@katepieperlmft. Teen Brain Whisperer Training is one of my ongoing specialties!