“Oh Mom, you’re so stupid!” “Oh my Gosh, Dad, don’t you know anything?” How often our teenagers declare our incompetence at the top of their lungs, in front of their friends, in shopping malls, in the car, and as they slam their bedroom door behind them. Let’s face it; they think adults are mentally retarded. Funny thing is, that sentiment generally goes both ways.
Many parents are convinced that their previously bright, sensible children have suffered some sort of brain damage as they became teenagers since they now engage in all manners of foolishness they would have been too intelligent to consider a few years ago. So, what is it that happens to kids that makes them seem crazy to us and makes us seem idiotic to them?
Although it frequently seems like a step in the wrong direction, what is actually happening is that the adolescent’s brain is developing and they are learning new cognitive skills. They are, for the first time, really being able to consider hypothetical situations, take another person’s point of view, imagine what outcomes two different approaches might yield, or think about themselves in the remote future.
Just like walking, using their new thinking methods is not a skill that comes to them in an instantly flawless manner. When a child learns to walk, he makes many false starts, he stumbles, he falls, and he gets up and he tries again. This happens over and over and over until he really gets the hang of it and begins walking smoothly. The same is true for a teenager trying to work his ‘new brain.’
Teenagers are bombarded with new ways of thinking they never had before and they aren’t entirely certain how it all works right off the bat. They try out different thoughts, they say and think new things, and not all of it makes a lot of sense, but that’s okay. They’re learning. Be patient as they stumble, fall, and get up again, learning to use abstract thinking, empathy, and to evaluation options that face them.
The key to helping a teen learn to use his new skills is the same as helping a toddler learn to walk – stand nearby, watch enthusiastically, don’t criticize the falls, help them up cheerfully, and make a huge production when they succeed. This is a process many parents find very difficult because a teen’s ‘falls’ seem so much more painful than the toddler’s.
When teens ‘fall,’ using their new thinking skills, they make bad decisions. They neglect to study for a test and then they fail. They pledge loyalty to a peer who is not really a good friend. They allow someone to talk them into doing something that has dire consequences. They skip a class to hang out with someone they think is outrageously cool. They leave chores and household responsibilities go until the very last minute and then find excuses for why they still can’t do them. The list goes on and on, but these are all just ‘falls’ as they learn to use their new thinking skills.
Parents need to stand nearby – be accessible if the teen wants to reach out for help, being present, but not hovering oppressively. The teen needs to know you are paying attention, that you are available, but not that you are fiendishly observing their every move.
Do watch enthusiastically, though. Show an interest in their ongoing dramas, their trials and tribulations, and understand that they believe they are uniquely inventing each of the dynamics they describe. Share their joys and their pains as they process all this new information.
When they mess up, let the consequences fall on them, discipline them as you must, but don’t go on and on with criticism. They don’t need it. It doesn’t help. They already know they screwed up. Once the deed is done, everyone knows how stupid it was, the teen doesn’t need to be reminded of it. Dish out the consequences calmly, then drop it.
When they get themselves into particularly bad situations, sometimes external consequences come into play. They may get arrested or get physically hurt, or they may end up stranded somewhere they weren’t supposed to go. When that’s the case, it’s okay to let those consequences fall on them, but to also gently support them as they figure their way out of the mess. You don’t have to just jump up and rescue them, but if you sit calmly with them long enough, they may realize that they need your help and then politely ask for it.
Be patient with your teens as they stumble around with their new thinking skills. They’ll be thinking smoothly in no time, but they sure will take a few falls between now and then.