I was at a seminar by Dr. Daniel Siegel not that long ago and he said, “Teenagers are like waterfalls. You can’t stop them, but you can help to direct their energy.” Or, it was something to that effect.
If you think back to your own teen years, you’ll probably remember your parents telling you to do things and not to do other things. You might remember that you listened and obeyed sometimes, and others you likely thought your parents just “didn’t get it” and you did it anyway. Those memories are so long ago, and when the event or thought happened it was so inconsequential that we don’t easily pull it up as adults.
But do you remember the other adults in your life? Youth group leaders, sports coaches, favorite teachers, after school job employers… do you remember how you responded when they requested you to start or stop a task? It was with a little more grace and a bit more respect, even if you didn’t want to do it. What was the difference?
Can we use this memory today when working with our own teens? YES!
Usually, the reason teens have more “attitude” at home than they do in public is two-fold:
1) You have provided a safe space for them to speak their mind. I know, good parenting sometimes feels like the old cliche “No good deed goes unpunished”. But your teen needs to learn how to respectfully decline and put up boundaries. They don’t always have the confidence to tell other people no without ruining relationships – so they comply (but really, is compliance with outside influences always a good idea? More on that another day). At home, they know they will continue to be loved and valued even if they disagree.
To you, reader, parent, caregiver, I want to say KUDOS! Great job for providing a home where someone can feel so loved and valued that they also feel free to have an “attitude.” It means you’ve worked really hard for many years, and now your efforts are evident.
2) Brains. Dr. Siegel also gives a wonderful analogy likening the adolescent brain to a house that’s being remodeled. In the child’s brain you had your starter home, but as time changes and your family changes that home is just not going to fit anymore. You remodel. There is dust everywhere, holes where walls used to be, you’re turning a few rooms into closets and pushing other walls out to expand your favorite, most used rooms.
The fancy, science terms for this is called Pruning and Myelination. The adolescent brain is Pruning away, cutting back nerves, clusters of nerves, and just generally cleaning out what it won’t need when it’s finishing the remodel – Spring cleaning lasting a decade! Myelination is when the brain is creating connections and cementing down memories (this can be both good and bad memories, behaviors, attitudes, etc.).
When your teen is forgetful and you know they know how to do something, they’re not putting you on – their brains pruned it, it’s gone. They need to re-learn that task, and then they need to do it enough times that it myelinates. When I think of Myelin, I think of the little piece of plastic at the end of a shoelace. The first time you learn something it’s just the shoelace by itself, but each time you learn it you get another piece of plastic coating cementing the memory and making it easier and easier for your brain to slide right to it again.
So what now? Patience. Grace. And a LOT of teaching, role modeling and role playing. Your job isn’t done, now you get to use that safe space you worked so hard to create to help guide their waterfall energy so they know the appropriate ways to decline something not good for them and how to determine the times to comply. Sometimes just knowing it isn’t about your teen not liking you anymore, and knowing that they don’t actually know about their remodel (can you imagine remodeling your home and not having any idea it’s happening or what the house will look like when it’s finished – pretty scary!) is enough information to give you to take a deep breath, find your patience, and show them again how to do their task properly or to remind and role model how to speak to you respectfully.
Reader, you’ve gotten this far, YOU CAN DO IT!
Written by Jessica Wilkerson, M.A.
You can find this, and other articles by Jessica Wilkerson at www.jessicawilkerson.com/blog
If you would like to schedule an appointment with Jessica, you can contact her via email at email@example.com or by calling (530) 921-5122.
Jessica works for Chico Creek Counseling as a Marriage & Family Therapist Registered Intern #IMF69783 under the supervision of Joe R. Taylor, LMFT #MFT46406.