How to Train Your Dragon – Er, Teenager
You’re having a good day. You and your 17-year-old daughter have been to the mall, bought some clothes, had lunch along with a few laughs, and now you’re back home. With no warning, she emerges from her bedroom with fire coming out of her mouth and nose. She has “the crazy eyes.” She’s screaming and crying and claiming you just don’t understand. She’s right – you don’t understand what in the name of C.S. Lewis happened to the sweet little pixie you’d spent the day with to turn her into the brimstone-breathing dragon you see before you.
Whether you want to blame it on emotions, hormones or stress, one thing is certain: you’re not alone, my friend. This week, for instance, my son told me that he absolutely had to see his girlfriend or else he would “just lose it.” Lose what!? His mind? His ability to form intelligent conversation? Not sure. But he was very serious. His entire existence, for him, boiled down to that very moment. I just blinked at him, aghast and confused. After we talked for a bit, he more coherently explained himself – it just took awhile to get there.
Lori Holewczynski, MSW, from Keys Counseling in Elkhart, sheds some light on this in a way we are certain to understand: “A teen brain is similar to driving a car with your foot always on a gas pedal without knowing how or when to use the brakes.”
Often we, as parents, will assume that the teen should know better than to make certain mistakes, or to have a certain attitude in a given situation. But recent technology in brain scans has proven this to be untrue. Holewczynski says, “Parents can trigger a teen meltdown when they assume more than what the teen is capable of comprehending. The reality is that their frontal cortex is not yet fully developed, as once thought.”
As the frontal cortex is important in planning behavioral responses to both external and internal stimuli, you can see why this might trigger something you perceive as a bizarre emotional response in your teenager. Holewczynski points out, “When parents can understand and empathize with the fact that the teen human condition includes a few more conditions than adults face, this may help quell intense emotions teens can exhibit.”
Many different factors can come into play when we are trying to pinpoint how exactly our teen is being overwhelmed. Jami Presswood, LCSW, is the owner and a clinical therapist at Turning Point Counseling Services and is also a social worker at West Side Middle School. She tells us that, in addition to changing hormones, conflict at home or with peers can also be an issue: “When there seems to be unexplained meltdowns and mood swings, it is important to explore situations at school with teachers and peers, as well as family environment and relationships. Bullying can be a big cause of changes within teens.”
There are certain things that both Holewczynski and Presswood tell us to be on the lookout for when it comes to major changes in our kids. “When a teen is failing in one of three areas – home, school, or community – an intervention may be needed,” says Holewczynski. If you see a massive change for the worse in their classroom grades, or their “normal” behavior, likes and dislikes, you need to start asking some questions.
Presswood warns, “One of the biggest things with teens who are upset, depressed or overwhelmingly stressed is cutting or other self-harming behaviors. Be aware of kids switching to long sleeves to cover their arms.” She also says, “You might notice a loss of motivation in school or other interests, frequent behavior problems at home or school, sleeping a lot, or avoidance of family, friends or situations.” These are all signs that there might be more than meets the eye.
The good news? There is hope for all of us to get through this most trying of times with our teens. “Parents are the first teachers for a child,” says Holewcznski. “Pattern and repetition are the keys for parents to help a teen motivate through these rough years. A teen is going through many changes, and when stability is realized in the family environment, it can aid in the balance of teens being successful at home, in school and in the community.”
Here are some pointers from Presswood when you find yourself in the midst of a teen meltdown:
Don't react out of anger. Everyone needs to take a deep breath before addressing an issue.
Don't get into a power struggle. Listening to your child doesn't mean you are agreeing, but it can make a huge difference for them to feel validated and heard.
Don't put your child down. Even if you think they are acting like a 2-year-old, telling them this is only going to add more fuel to the fire.
Communicate. Learning and growing together will help with problem solving.
Learn to compromise and apologize. Parents make mistakes! When you take responsibility for these mistakes, you are modeling the same behavior for your teen.
Positive reinforcement is important. Hug your kids every day, tell them you are proud and you love them. Be involved – ask them about their day using open-ended questions.
With just a few small changes in our own behavior, we can make miles of difference in the behaviors of our teens. Though it’s frustrating, it takes what everything else in life takes: time and patience. Our kids are worth it – don’t you agree?