As many parents discover, building a good relationship with a teenager is not easy. Often teenagers are reluctant to be close to their parents, and at times they look to distance themselves as much as possible. If so, how can parents see beyond the daily power struggles of homework, keeping curfew, staying out of trouble, and succeeding in school?
The answer lies in a parent’s ability to create a supportive emotional environment that reduces tension, opens new lines of communication, and enhances a teen’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, parents often get bogged down in trying to win every battle and lose sight of a much greater picture. But have no fear. In a few years, adolescence will pass and parents will have the opportunity to share a life-long relationship with their teenager. In the meantime, the challenge is getting through these few years.
Jill Eikenberry, writing in Parade magazine, once beautifully encapsulated the dynamics that perhaps all parents raising a teenager experience: “You have a wonderful child. Then, when he’s thirteen, gremlins carry him away and leave in his place a stranger who gives you not a moment’s peace. You have to hang in there, because two or three years later, the gremlins will return your child, and he will be wonderful again.”
Indeed gremlins have taken the children away, but who or what are the gremlins? A groundbreaking study quoted by Dr. Michael J Bradley in his book Yes, Your Teen is Crazy – Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind, sheds light on the development of the adolescent brain and gave us a clue as to the source and identity of the gremlin.
In 1991, Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health took pictures of one hundred teenage brains over nine years at intervals ranging from two weeks to four years. What he found provided insight into the teenage mind. Previously it was believed the brain was completely developed by age five or six. Dr. Giedd discovered that throughout the teen years and into the twenties, substantial growth occurs in a brain structure called the corpus callosum, a set of nerves that connects all the parts of the brain that must work together to efficiently make decisions. This “wiring” is critical for intelligence, consciousness, and self-awareness.
The study also found that “the prefrontal cortex of the brain goes through a wild growth spurt that coincides with the onset of adolescence whereas the bulk of its maturations occur between the ages of twelve and twenty.” The prefrontal cortex is where the most sophisticated human abilities reside, including emotional control, restraint, and rational decision-making.
The good news is that parents still have time during adolescence to wire in good qualities like responsibility, learning, achievement, music, and sports. The bad news is that this is a time that may be filled with rage and alienation. Unpredictable thought pathways can outrace judgment capabilities just as they did in early childhood.
The remainder of this chapter describes some of the issues your teenager might be dealing with during this time of rapid change.
Physical and Psychological Changes
Sandy is fifteen years old and doesn’t like her body. Her acne drives her crazy. Her body is changing and she feels overweight. Sandy doesn’t know why she gets moody. Some days she feels happy and other days she feels down. Sometimes she feels great while other times she feels overwhelmed and unable to cope with the pressures of school and fitting in with her peers. To the outside world, her concerns may seem petty, but to Sandy they are very real and are constantly on her mind.
Relationships and Pre-Marital Sex
Jack, age seventeen, loves watching videos, especially the ones about male-female relationships. His parents and rabbis keep saying that he shouldn’t date girls, but the movies and magazines he sees all support dating and view sexual abstinence as something old fashioned. All of Jack’s friends say that dating a girl and engaging in physical contact is okay before marriage.
Conflicting Religious Values
Sam, age fourteen, is in conflict with his parents’ values. All his life, he and his parents have been active synagogue members and he always felt he knew the right thing to do. But now some of his friends are pressuring him to come along on Friday nights and party. He wants to be with his friends, but somehow he doesn’t feel right about breaking the Sabbath. The difficulty is that he’s not sure why. He knows he’s not able to be like his parents, but he also doesn’t feel good about what his friends do. The real problem is that he doesn’t know what he wants!
Fifteen-year-old Steve is in tenth grade and has trouble reading and comprehending books on a seventh grade level. Steve has a learning disability that makes his life more difficult than most other teenagers his age.