What Teens Need From Us

A common misconception is that teens need us to drop the reins. But neurodevelopmentally, they are as tender as infants, so teens need us still, very much. One of the most important books I’ve encountered about parenting during early adolescence is poignantly and aptly titled Our Last Best Shot. Author Laura Sessions Stepp spent two years finding out what teens need for future psychosocial wellbeing and success. She admits in the book that she “wanted to minimize the significance of parents and emphasize the importance of other adults.”

While she discovered the important role other adults do indeed play in the healthiest outcomes for adolescents, Stepp’s conclusion was clear about what teens need: “The kids themselves kept leading me back to their families.”

We remain — ideally but not automatically — their central polestars and their templates. Given that fact, what do teens need from us during this time when our window of potent influence is so soon to close?

What Our Teens Need | Marcy Axness PhDOur optimism, for them and for the world – As in all of nature and certainly in human development, we see in the adolescent an echo of an earlier stage: the negativism of the third year returns in the thirteenth. He is disappointed by the realities of his world, the foibles of the formerly invincible adults around him, and his shaken surety about himself and his place in the order of things. This has the optimal potential to be followed by the resounding Yes of the sixteen-year-old’s embrace of the world (just as it was at age five) — if the dejected early adolescent finds the models around him that he needs to support this new intelligence of idealism to engage and open fully. Adults around him who model integrity, passion, courage, engagement, and their own dedication to an ideal and to possibilities for the world — this is what the child at this age so dearly needs.

Instead, as our child begins to look and act so grownup, and can carry on sophisticated conversations, we tend to lay on her our wearied, disheartened outlook on the world, our pessimism, our complaints. I heard educator Jack Petrash tell the story of going camping with his teenaged son, who could finally no longer abide his father’s doomsday litany. His son told him that he needed him to not complain about the state of the world, its questionable leaders, the environment, etc.; he needed to feel his dad’s hope for the world he is about to inherit. It was a game-changing moment for Petrash, who suggests that parents “strive to be lighthearted and buoyant on a regular basis.”

The more we can demonstrate optimism about life, and be unflagging, sunny champions for our adolescents in the face of their inner tumult, the better we serve them and our broader intention toward peace. A recent study of 20,000 teens found that many adolescents believe they’re going to die before their thirty-fifth birthday; moreover, teens who carry this hopeless sense of fatalism are more likely to engage in dangerous behavior, including drugs and alcohol, violence, unprotected sex, and suicide.

The sureness of our own center – The adolescent is an exuberant, passionate, pinball bouncing off the newly expanding borders of his life. The sheer intensity of his emotions, his explorations, his confusions, his delights can be unsettling to a parent who may no longer feel he or she has access to those rich veins of life energy. The teen is driven by the big questions — Who am I? Is life worth living? Is there a meaningful future for me? One of the biggest challenges to us in staying closely connected is hearing bittersweet echoes of our own adolescence. We are confronted with self-assessment: how far have we come in our own development around these basic existential questions? (Being open to this inquiry will actually help draw our adolescents to us; they no longer seek for us to be wellsprings of authoritative answers but rather partners in exploring questions.)

If you aren’t beset by at least the passing contemplation that you’re not up to the task of parenting an adolescent, then you’re not paying attention! Life is about to turn high-octane. The contact highs and lows of staying connected to your adolescent can be intense indeed, and it’s the lows that get the most press. Apart from the disillusionment that comes with ever expanding powers of cognition and perception of reality, the basis for some of the adolescent’s negativity is their growing self-consciousness.

We can see their perception that everyone is watching and noticing and caring what they do (what David Elkind calls “the imaginary audience”) as a recapitulation of the intense (and normal) self-orientation of the three-year-old. We didn’t berate or try to talk them out of it then, nor should we ridicule or scoff at it now, but rather, have compassionate understanding for their tenderly emerging newness. One primary focus of their volatile self-consciousness is related to their changing bodies (or, in the case of late bloomers, bodies that aren’t changing as quickly as they would like).

If parents understand adolescent negativity as a normal hallmark of the stage, they can hopefully feel less shut out and insulted by their child’s supposedly diminishing interest in them, and occasional outright rejection. You have been preparing for this since before your child was born. All of the presence practices, the cultivation of self-mastery, the enrichment of your inner life have been like an extended rehearsal and now hopefully you can say, “I’m ready for my close-up,” because your close-up is ready for you!

Indeed, paradoxical to her seeming disinterest in all things parental, you will be subjected to the most unsparing scrutiny by your child, your child who no longer looks up to you, literally, but rather, stands eye to eye with you. She so recently saw you as perfection personified but is now trained on you like a heat-seeking scope, watching for you to contradict your ideals, your word, your integrity, and hoping more than anything that you don’t. One of the supreme tests in parenting adolescents lies in their need for the adults around them to be steady, strong and sure in who they are and what they stand for, and for their actions to line up with their words.

But there’s one small restriction — the embarrassment factor. It’s one of the greatest examples of Nature’s sense of humor, this cosmic, Catch-22 gotcha: just when parents of pubescent and adolescent kids are reaching the stage in their own development (forties, fifties) of finally feeling at home in their own skins and secure enough to be themselves without inhibition or apology, their children have reached an age when they are mortified by any behavior of ours that is the least bit “weird” or in any way even noticeable. Ah, the hilarity that ensues…

Our availability as their off-board brain The famously mercurial nature of the young teen’s emotionality, and the questionable judgment that marks their sometimes infeasible plans and outrageous behaviors, can now be largely explained by our current understanding of the brain at this age. While teens are capable of extraordinary intellectual and creative achievement, areas of the brain that moderate emotion and mediate measured, critical thought…planning and strategies…assessing possible consequences…go “offline” for a time as children enter adolescence, a time of massive neurological growth and reorganization. As your teen literally comes undone at the neurological level — as evidenced by fMRI scans — your service is required to augment his curtailed brainpower.

Here again we revisit the time in infancy and toddlerhood when your neural structures of state regulation served to regulate his fluctuating states. And again, a reprise of function projected into the periphery until the structure is built inside. While the brain structures that govern what one researcher calls the “sober second thought” are under major construction and remodeling, he again needs you to be a locus of calm, reasoned, loving stability until his newer, more mature structure is built inside him.

It’s at about age fourteen, when the child’s powers of thinking have begun their next big leap and they’re forming these inner resources to manage choices in the wider world, when Kim John Payne’s discipline watchword changes from consultation to collaboration. With our teen we discuss plans, alternate plans, fallback plans; boundaries and restrictions; and agree in advance on consequences for violations. Despite all evidence to the contrary (“Mom, puh-leeze!”…“Dad, really, I got it…”), he needs you to do the most intricate tightrope walk imaginable: to be available, yet inconspicuous; nonjudgmental, yet strong in your convictions; interested in his life, yet respectful of his autonomy. And always at the ready with a sober second thought.

What Teens Need from Us | Marcy Axness PhDIt is at this moment right here, as the teen years unspool, that even the most well-meaning parents often veer off course. A common and dangerous misconception is that the teenager — so capable, so independent, so grown up! — no longer needs close tending by parents and other adults. The fact that the adult-looking adolescent is as developmentally tender as the infant is ignored, trammeled by the ubiquitous media portrait of the sexually sophisticated, mentally adept, socially adroit teen. A treacherous mistake for raising Generation Peace, made in our culture in epidemic proportions, is to “drop” our teens and leave them to their own devices.

The largest ever crosscultural investigation into the root causes of violence found two overarching factors: lack of nurturing during infancy, and parental disapproval or rejection during adolescence. As much as they seem to push us away, the insecurity they experience if we let them do so results in a protection-not-growth posture and undermines the remarkable potential brain growth Nature intends at this stage. Writes Joseph Chilton Pearce in The Biology of Transcendence, “Because the secondary stage of prefrontal growth is the highest evolutionary movement within us, it is the most fragile….This means that the emotional nurturing received at that mid-teenaged period serves as a major determinant in the success or failure of this latest opening of intelligence.”

Teens need us as they never have, to shepherd their spirited explorations into the world, to provide a solid home base from which they may draw guidance as their passion and longing lead them, ideally, to formulate myriad fundamental questions emanating from the most fundamental one of this stage, Who am I and how do I fit in the world?

Next, in Part 2: Addiction prevention for our teens

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