He’s lost his mind

Published 7:55 pm Friday, October 29, 2010

Either he’s lost his mind or he hasn’t found it yet.

How can she be so smart—straight A’s, accomplished, talented, successful, popular—and still make some of these choices?

He can find the time and ability to do what he wants to do, but he seems clueless and incapable with simple tasks that a 10-year-old can do. Sometimes when raising teens we, as parents, struggle to understand some of the choices our children make.

Email newsletter signup

Maybe we’re not supposed to understand it. We’re trying to find rational reasons for the very irrational things they do. And, for some reason, it seems to get worse the older they get, not better, as they work their way through the teen years.

Some parents have no clue what I’m talking about. You’ve been successful at raising emotionally healthy, responsible young men and women who can be trusted with the most important tasks. But, most parents can relate. You’ve got a teen or a preteen that, for whatever reason, just does not seem to consistently make the right decisions.

Studies show that the brain continues to develop well into the 20s. The part of the brain that is still developing is the frontal lobe, the part of the brain used for rational thinking. This means that as our kids get older we expect them to make more rational and responsible choices, but the part of the brain to help them do that may not be operating at the level we expect.

This does not mean that we let our kids off the hook and not hold them accountable for their actions or for not making good choices. It does mean we have to have consistent, clear consequences for those poor choices.

We want our children to develop strong cause-and-effect thinking. For example, “When I don’t come home on time my parents will be mad and I will lose some privileges.” Later on we want them to understand that when they don’t pay their electric bill the power company really will cut off their power. Currently, from their perspectives, they attribute this kind of thinking to mom and dad over-reacting, being unfair or not trusting them.

Most teens and preteens do a lot of emotional reasoning. If it feels good do it. If it feels right it must be. If I feel like doing this, who are you to tell me I can’t. The frontal lobe isn’t fully developed but the amygdala has already kicked in. This is the part of the brain that handles emotional responses like fight or flight, eating, sex and feelings. Does that sound like a teenage brain?

Consistent, clear consequences may not be well received but will help to reinforce, “When I do this, then that will happen.”

This works in positive and negative ways.

“When I study for a test then I make good grades,” or “When I don’t put gas in the car then I can’t use the car for a week.” As parents, if we don’t follow through with consistent, clear consequences we may be teaching our kids to play the odds: “Most of the time when I do this I don’t get caught, so I will not get caught this time.”

Some of the other qualities we want our children to develop like personal responsibility, delaying immediate gratification, and genuinely giving to others are not always emotional decisions. We want our kids to give to others not just because they feel like it, but because it is the right thing to do. Taking personal responsibility for actions is a rational choice to live a balanced, mature life, not just a momentary feeling.

Being able to pay the rent instead of buying that new iPod can be a hard decision while they are still locked into emotional reasoning: It will make them feel good. It’s on sale right now, what a great deal. They’ve got to have it. Everyone else will think they’re cool.

We know that teens and preteens are very capable of learning and they are able to grasp concepts. They demonstrate a great deal of learning skills and ability in school. What we are talking about here is not whether our kids have a brain, it’s a question of what part of their brain are they using. Part of parenting is providing external structure and motivation to help them make right choices while they are still developing their internal structure and motivation.

If you are struggling with understanding your teen or preteen and looking for helpful parenting skills, contact a trained mental health professional.