A Teen Sense of Time

When I meet a new client and the intake paperwork says the teenager has engaged in self-mutilation and I see the healed scratches on the top of her forearm, I ask, “It says here that sometimes you have cut yourself, is that true?” The teen rolls her eyes, mortified that her mother would put such ‘ancient history’ on her intake form. Her indignant response, “I used to,” provokes a look of disbelief from the mother who replies, “That’s news to me.” To clarify, I ask the teen when the last time was that she cut herself. She may answer something to the effect of, “Oh my Gaw-d, I haven’t done that in, like, two weeks!” Mother’s response is generally that of trying to convince the teen that a ‘recovery’ of two weeks’ time isn’t exactly enough time for the mother to feel safe and secure that this behavior is really over. That’s because teens and adults have a totally different sense of time.

Imagine you are going for a job interview. It is a job for which you are well qualified. Now imagine, during the interview, they asked the following questions: Have you ever wet your bed? Have you ever lied and said you were sick and stayed home from school when you weren’t really sick? Have you ever blamed something that you did on your younger sibling? I’m pretty sure that all of us have done at least one of those things, probably all three, but it was a really, really long time ago, certainly long enough ago that it shouldn’t have anything to do with our current employment, right? You would be outraged if they would not offer you the job because of your behavior at age 2, 5, or 8. Likewise, your teen is utterly offended when you continue to talk about their behavior that was one, two, or six weeks ago. To a young teen, weeks are an eternity and months are eons ago. Anything that happened last year isn’t even a part of their life anymore.

Teens not only have a different sense of the past, they have a different sense of the future than we do as adults. If you ground a young teen for a week, they will act as if you are killing them. Older teens who are grounded for a month or more may try to run away from home. It’s not always that they’re not willing to take responsibility for their behavior, it can be that your idea of how long the punishment should last exceeds their comprehension of time.

To explain, imagine yourself getting pulled over for speeding. Let’s say you were going 12 miles over the speed limit and the officer said, “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to give you a ticket.” When you got your ticket, it said you were going to have your drivers license suspended for 4 years. WHAT?!?! You can’t be without your drivers license for 4 years. That’s an eternity! That’s just how your teen feels when you tell him he’s grounded for two weeks. He cannot comprehend how his life will go on if he is grounded for two weeks, just like you are not going to be able to comprehend how you would live 4 years without a drivers’ license.

The time differential becomes even more difficult to understand when we are dealing with trying to get a teenager to do something in a timely manner. You may have noticed that when you tell your teen son to take the garbage out and he replies, “just a minute.” The garbage will, in all likelihood, sit there for the greater part of a week, with him repeatedly promising to take it out in “just a minute.” It is very possible for the garbage to stay there indefinitely, with you always telling him to take it out and him always saying, “in just a minute.” The thing is, this discussion isn’t about time at all. You think it is and you get really angry that he doesn’t keep to his word and do it “in a minute.” The discussion is actually about him not wanting to do it at all and about your rude interruption of his busy, important, social life and recreational time. He just can’t actually say that to you because he has enough sense to know that that sort of response would result in immediate grounding. So, instead of saying, “No, mom, you take out the garbage, I’m doing something important,” they say, “in a minute.”

To understand and communicate with teens, you must understand their time frames. A 12-year-old child cannot comprehend how far into the future ‘next year’ is, but a 15-year-old generally can. A 14-year-old will tell you that 3 days ago was “a long time ago,” but an 18-year-old usually means a couple of weeks ago if they say it was ‘a long time ago.’ A 16-year-old will find it ridiculous to have to wait two years for anything, but a 20-year-old can work towards a two-year goal.

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