Regardless of how intelligent, how academically inclined, or how mature your teenager may appear, it is important to understand that this doesn’t necessarily correlate to being fully equipped to make rational and healthy decisions.
As adults, we make decisions using our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for assisting in decision making, moderating social behavior and personality expression. It harmonizes our thoughts and behaviors with our own internal goals by weighing potential outcomes and comparing each with a more concrete understanding of rules and expectations. So when situations arise, adults have the ability to take a moment, rationally think about the rewards and consequences of each possible outcome and how it would ultimately impact our end goal or intention.
For teenagers however, their mind works a bit differently. Since their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed, and won’t be until about age 25, they are ill-equipped to tackle the harder, more complex decisions they may ultimately be faced with throughout their teenage years. Instead, they tend to make decisions through the utilization of the amygdala, which is responsible for triggering fear, aggression, happiness and sexuality.
With all that is occurring in a teenager’s life, their mind is on overload, intensely triggering the amygdala and causing their emotional responses to seem chaotic, unorganized and overwhelming to not only themselves but those around them. There is truth to the fact that teenagers are placed in many life altering situations. Being introduced to more independence, they now are expected to decide between right and wrong in regards to sex, drugs, complying with rules and expectations; the list is endless.
As a parent, it’s essential to remember that as our children enter into the teenage years, they are being introduced to complex adult-like situations, expected to make the healthiest choice, but are only equipped with very simple and primitive cognitive abilities.
For those children who do appear to be capable of making the right decision, we have to also factor in the reality that their minds and bodies are constantly undergoing change and are on overload as they endure nonstop thoughts, feelings and experiences. So even if historically he or she has made good decisions in isolated situations, at this moment in their life, they are not able to process each thought with the same amount of time, consideration and respect that it deserves.
It is the role of the parent to assist in making well thought out and rational decisions for our children. That when they ask permission to do something, you take the time to think about the potential rewards and repercussions of your decision. There will be times when it is a harmless request, and saying yes will be easy.
However, there will be times when it’s obvious to you that allowing him or her to engage in a specific activity may be putting them in a vulnerable and unsafe situation. So your answer will need to be no. Although that may appear relatively easy on the surface, the reality is that your teenager is so emotionally driven that when you tell them “no,” they may not simply accept your response and move on with life. The more likely outcome is that the response will be intense, volatile and perhaps aggressive, as they try to process the reality that they are not being allowed to do something that their mind is fully consumed with wanting and needing. Your child may not let this go – but rather, will continue to ask, and push, and beg; hoping that you at some point give in to the request.
No matter how well you have raised them or how polite and mature you know your child can be, during these moments they may exhibit a tremendous about of instability and impulsivity. Regardless of the behavior, what is most important is your response, which should enforce the expectations of the household and provide your teenager with the stability he or she requires.
Many times, we give in to them simply because we don’t want to deal with the arguing and non-stop badgering that they have mastered throughout life. However, it is essential that as parents, you remember the reasons why you said no. Your initial response was based on experience, knowledge and genuine understanding of consequences. If you were to grant permission now, your response would be no better than theirs, and would also be derived from impulsivity and emotion.
In a time where your teenager’s mind is chaotic and disorganized, subconsciously, they are yearning for you to be their stability – to remain calm, rational and clear headed for them when they are otherwise unable to do so for themselves.
HOW TO HANDLE THE REACTIONS:
If your child becomes irate, it is important to allow them the time to process their emotions without responding with the same intensity. Your response should be that you are willing to discuss the situation in more detail, but that they need to take some time to calm down privately, and when they feel capable of having a discussion with you, you would gladly sit and speak further about the situation. Not only does this help to avoid further conflict, but it forces them to learn how to self regulate – to be conscious of how they are feeling and work to de-escalate the anxiety, frustration and sadness that they are experiencing within.
When your child does calm down, make sure that you take the time to validate their feelings – letting them know just how much you empathize with them. When you validate your child’s feelings, they in turn will feel heard and respected, even if you don’t necessarily change your mind and agree with what it is they are looking to do.
Only after your child feels this validation can you then try to explain your decision making process; what potential outcomes you envisioned as well as what concerns and fears you had for their safety and well being. Although they may not necessarily see it now, the hope is that as you mirror for them what a rational thought process looks like, they will learn to become better equipped to make harder decisions on their own.
Ultimately, what your teenager will learn through your consistency and rational mindset, is that you love them, you always will have their best interest at heart, and that their safety and overall well-being will forever be your top priority. This solidifies an incredible sense of security and peace within your child as they continue to battle the constant chaos of their own mind.
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Nikki P. Woods, MSW, LCSW
Nikki Woods is a highly-sought after licensed clinical psychotherapist and founder of the Navesink Wellness Center in Rumson, New Jersey. After earning her Masters Degree at New York University, Nikki dedicated her career to studying the intricacies of the developing female mind. In her practice (both locally and globally), she empowers mothers to better support their daughters’ development, and assists young women in channeling their own voice – one built on self awareness, acceptance and love.
Her intuitive and insightful approach helps clients gain a greater sense of self worth, pursue life goals, improve relationship dysfunction, establish a more defined identity, and celebrate their own unique assets and capabilities. Her work has been featured in top publications such as Forbes and Inc. She works with patients both locally in Rumson, New Jersey as well as globally via her remote psychotherapy offerings.