What's going on inside your teenager's brain?
And how can you get them to stop texting long enough to listen to all the great advice you're dying to give?
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Despite actions to the contrary, teens really want and need their parents' guidance, experts say. And you have more potential than you think to break through their sullen sighs and silences.
In fact, a young person's need for guidance continues longer than you may realize – at least through age 21 or 22. That's because research shows the brain's decision-making capacity is still developing until then.
“We can't expect them to make perfect decisions all the time without our assistance,” says Dr. Kristin Rager, director of adolescent medicine at Levine Children's Hospital and medical director of Teen Health Connection.
Rager has no teens of her own but talks to them often in her work.
She says that even though they may act like they want to do the opposite of what parents say, there's evidence teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors if parents clearly communicate their expectations and values.
With that in mind, here's some advice from Rager to help parents understand and communicate better with their teenagers and young adults:
What you might not know about the teen brain:
Until recently, the brain was thought to be fully developed by the end of childhood.
Scientists now know that the part of the brain responsible for making judgments, setting priorities and controlling impulses – the prefrontal cortex – is one of the last areas to mature. It continues to develop until the 20s.
Adolescents are believed to take more risks because their prefrontal cortex is immature. They have a hard time seeing the consequences of their actions.
How to improve communications
with your teenager:
Talk while you're doing something – like driving in the car – instead of sitting down for a “serious” lecture.
Talk openly and listen calmly, even if you don't like what your teen is saying. Don't be instantly judgmental.
Acknowledge their point of view and recognize their positive qualities.
Tell your teen your expectations and values – everything from smoking to drinking and driving to using drugs or having sex.
Don't try to be your teen's friend. He or she needs an authority figure. If you're doing your job, you won't always be liked.
Set consequences that aren't excessively harsh. Make them about teaching instead of retaliation.
Renegotiate rules as your child matures.
Tell your teen they can call you in any situation that feels unsafe, even if they're somewhere they shouldn't be. Be willing to put off talking about it until the next day.
College students need your guidance, too, but don't micro-manage. They need to experience the consequences of their decisions.
Realize that even when teens act like they aren't listening, they probably are.
“Parenting With Love and Logic” and “Parenting Teens With Love and Logic,” by Foster W. Cline and Jim Fay (Navpress, $24.99 each).
Teen Health Connection provides mental and physical health care and health education for ages 11-22. Staffers teach parenting classes. 704-381-8336; www.teenhealthconnection.org.
University, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools program offering classes for parents. www.cms.k12.nc.us, click “Parent University” on left.
Children's Rights offers “First Fridays for Kids” speakers' series on a range of parenting topics. 704-372-796; www.cfcrights.org.