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Understanding Adolescent Behavior
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” —Socrates
The music is different, the clothing has changed, the food choices are varied, but time has not changed the adult perception of youth. This reflection from Socrates seems to match views today on teen behavior; adults tend to size-up teens (adolescents) as near-delinquent and shake their heads as they walk away.
As parents we perceive our adolescent children as people in need of our guidance and we spend most of this growing period attempting to shape and mold them into stellar examples of our parenting efforts. Not delinquent societal misfits.
The teen viewpoint of this time frame is to separate from the family to establish autonomy. Since the two standpoints differ, family relationships undergo mild to moderate conflict over seemingly mundane matters to questions of moral codes. During these interchanges, teen behavior may outwardly portray rebellion, result in poor decision making, or display character inconsistent with their normal beliefs.
Those Were The Days . . .
Helpful Parent Resource
Changes In Adolescent Conduct
Never mind, you just don't understand. You don't care about me and what I think! I hate you!
Did you ever hear these statements after asking your child why they made such a bad decision or why they refuse to follow your instruction? Hearing these types of phrases shakes our confidence as a parent. After all, you raised this child from birth and taught her everything she knows. Wasn't it just yesterday she was hugging you and telling you she wanted to be just like you when she grew up?
There are times when your adolescent may struggle assessing social relationships, fail to complete school assignments, react to certain situations with outbursts of anger, or take risks you never thought they would entertain. You simply do not know this child anymore.
The following chart presents typical adolescent behavior (approximate ages from 10 to 19) parents may see demonstrated during this stage of development.
What Is Happening?
Difficulty holding their emotions
Preference for physical activity
Preference for high excitement and low effort activities (gaming, sex, drugs)
Poor planning and judgement (do not consider consequences)
More risky, impulsive behavior such as drug experimentation
Act on impluse
Misread or misinterpret social cues/emotions
May participate in physical fights
The Intense Color of the Brain
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What is the best way to handle parent-teen conflicts?
The Brain and Adolescent Behavior
Recent studies completed at UCLA School of Medicine using MRI imaging have discovered brain development in humans (ages 5 to 20) reflect the rate of growth of gray matter during adolesence. Gray matter begins to diminish over this time period leading to increased cognitive ability. The resulting loss of gray matter leads to improved neural organization in the brain. Other changes that occur are increased correlation between brain cells and refinement of pathways. Myelin, an insulating layer in the brain, assists cells to communicate. Together, these changes lead to maturity in the adolescent resulting in better decision making and behavior.
Physicians and scientists know the human brain develops from back to front. What does this mean for your child? Simply that your youngster may not fully comprehend the circumstances presented due to the lack of development in the prefrontal cortex region, which exists in the front of the brain.
A youth's brain functions differently than an adults because it is guided by an area in the back part of the brain. This is referred to as the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for our emotional and motivational reasoning. The back part of the brain also controls our impulses, reasoning, and physical coordination. It isn't until a person reaches 25 (more or less) that the prefrontal cortex develops fully to act as the "control center" for planning, organization and mood modulation of the brain.
In other words, your teen's behavior may demonstrate unpredictable actions and thoughts, which may be out of character when confronted with difficult situations or good decision making, due to underdevelopment of his brain. The graphs below depict the general flow of brain development and the responsibilities of each part connected to behavior. Notice how much responsibility the "judgement" area associated with the prefrontal cortex has over our thought processes. Can you see why a young mind is unable to react as quickly and maturely as an adult?
The Process of Brain Development
Hey Mom Look At Me Now!
What Can A Parent Do?
Just because an adolescent brain is in development, it does not mean they are incapable of making good choices or not know what is morally acceptable. Neither should they be allowed to forego positive discipline in regards to their actions. Pointing out the development of the brain aids parents in providing guidance with understanding of behavior.
During this growing stage, parents can help youth by providing consistent guidelines along with developmentally appropriate expectations. Remaining calm during discussions, remaining open-minded and offering a listening ear before making a statement gives a child respect and allows him or her to see a parent as caring and warm.
If the behavior warrants discipline, it may benefit both parent and child to jointly decide the type of discipline necessary for correcting a bad decision. Understandably, this goes a long way in establishing positive autonomy during adolescence.
A young person may look to his peers as role models, but parents who are involved and demonstrate caring love and guidance are much more influential than they know as their child reaches maturity. How many of us have looked back in our early twenties to discover that mom and dad were not as dumb as we originally thought?
Here are additional suggestions for parents and adolescents that may help:
- A child needs adequate sleep (9 - 10 hours on average)
- Establish good food choices and habits
- Provide experiences to help them develop decision making: sports, clubs, hobbies, church youth groups, music, art, etc.
- View conflicts as a form of self-expression; they are trying to understand the decision process
- Remain calm during conflicts
- Parents must role model good behavior, decision-making and social interactions
© 2013 Dianna Mendez