What were you thinking?

I often joke with parents in my classes about the expression my face has grown accustomed to wearing around my teens. It’s a neutral look, free of judgment and negative emotion. With amazing self-control, it manages to stay there even when I am hearing something that makes me want to scream. That look is there for a really good reason: teens are quick to see or hear a putdown, sense judgment or feel deeply hurt from a lack of trust.

Trust gets complicated during this stage of development and the word seems to take on new meaning. Being completely honest with your parent isn’t always easy for a teen. “Hey mom, dad, I just thought I’d let you know that I’ve siphoned out the vodka bottle a few inches and replaced it with water.” “You want to know my plans? Well, we’ve been planning on MSN for about a week. About 20 of us are meeting at the park and we’re going to get buzzed.” How do you trust a teen when they are lying to you? Especially when you know they are lying? What does trust really mean?

I have concluded that trust has to assume a more philosophical meaning through these years. “Please trust that I want to live, I am planning on keeping myself safe and I know I am loved by my family.” When I am connected to my kids, I can trust them in this way because our relationship is the linchpin between their need for autonomy and my need for reassurance. In order to do this, I need to remember that our relationship comes first. That doesn’t mean that I’m trying to be their best friend but that they know I care, I support them and I have enough self-confidence to set reasonable limits with them. A good relationship also allows room for guidance and discussion.

I am well aware of how fragile this linchpin is. Scary behaviours can appear suddenly with new friends or acquaintances, a drug experience or any number of factors. Often a parent’s initial response to these behaviours is to try to control more, falling back on time-honoured strategies such as long groundings or a complete loss of privileges. But this kind of approach is rarely effective; it serves mainly to force the teen’s behaviour underground and to damage the parent/child relationship.

“What were you thinking?” we might ask a teen who has just done something reckless. Perhaps it’s time we face some scientific facts: adolescent brains are undergoing a huge amount of growth just like the rest of their bodies. It may not surprise you to know that changes in the brain’s frontal lobes: “the part that governs the ability to reason, control impulses, measure risk and practice second thoughts” are the last to mature. While this development may vary from child to child, in general this part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until the late teens or early twenties. Until this takes place, adolescents have more activity around the amygdala, the more primitive “fight or flight” part of the brain and less in the frontal cortex, that rational, logical part. This explains a lot in terms of a teen’s impulsiveness and why parents may (legitimately) feel so much anxiety during this time.

The world seems to be more complicated today but the developmental needs of teens haven’t changed. They need parents who love them, education and information to help with real life choices. They need respect and encouragement from the adults around them, including teachers, coaches and relatives. Don’t be fooled by a tough looking exterior or rolling eyes. Teens feel deeply hurt by thoughtless comments that come from adults. They are very sensitive to assumptions, putdowns and intrusive comments. Before you speak to a teen, ask yourself “Would I speak to an adult this way?”

When negative emotions pile up inside teens’ heads, it is very difficult for them to be articulate and represent themselves effectively. Most of the teens I counsel need a lot of help with assertiveness. They often bring me their own special look: the one that tends to push people away rather than bring them closer. Most of them need to learn that their needs are valid and that they aren’t horrible people for having them. They also need to develop skills and strategies to build “trust” in the relationship they have with their parents. And they need to hear that it is reasonable for a parent to ask for information and be given reassurance.

Adults also have their work cut out for them. First, we need to express concern from a position of having a need for the teen’s well-being. “I understand there will be alcohol at the party and I feel very concerned about your safety.” We also need to give them limits that are do-able but clear. “I’ll be picking you up at 11:00 and I want to hear from you if your plans change.â” We can also ask teens to tell us how they plan to keep themselves safe and convince us that they are ready for this kind of freedom. “Prove to me that you are ready for this kind of responsibility.” Of course, we may never feel fully convinced that they are ready but shutting down their honesty only puts them in danger. If we are reasonable they will often satisfy their curiosity and find balance between peers and family.

It is much easier for teens to be accountable if they actually experience the rewards that go with it. Teens are often hurt that nobody seems to notice the good stuff they do; be sure to praise your teens for the great decisions they do make. They are making choices all the time but the ones that seem to get our attention are the ones that scare us half to death. While this makes sense, it also means we have to work harder at noticing all the good stuff.

Teach teens that responsibility equals freedom and vice versa. If they come to the plate with respectful negotiation and a track record of accountability, present freedom like a prize. Let them know that representing themselves as truly reliable can only bring more flexibility on your part. Again, tell them if you feel scared or concerned but make sure you express it from a place of love rather than as a criticism or judgment of who they are.

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