Friday, September 14, 2012

The Mush-Brained Adolescent

Today I was having a conversation with a fellow mother at Tai Kwon Do and was reminded of a little piece of information I ALWAYS gave parents at middle school back to school nights (her son is 12 and has just started junior high).  I'll put it to you here, very much the way I did to classes of parents rotating through their kid's schedules who were expecting a lecture about what their kids would do in my class that year.  They often told me later they were relieved to find that I chose to hand them the syllabus and "assign" it as reading for homework and used my presentation time with them to give a little biology lesson on the brain instead.
I would start off by listing a few common symptoms of adolescence.  I usually had them nodding in agreement and understanding within seconds.  "Your kid no longer remembers basic things like to hang up the jacket on the hook by the door rather than drop it on the floor underneath the hook.  You had this problem when your child was five or so but haven't had it again since until pretty recently and its driving you nuts.  He or she never turns the lights off when he or she leaves a room, you have to say the same thing 20 times and redirect one hundred different ways to get your child to finish something.  Your athletic, outgoing son suddenly seems to have forgotten the English language and communicates with you using only grunts and snorts.  Your once, cool, calm, collected and seemingly mature daughter is now a dramatic mess.  .  ." (you get the idea).  Then I'd hit them with it.  "The bad news is, if your child is in adolescence and his or her brain hasn't turned to mush already.  It will soon". 

I'd smile empathetically, and follow with the statement, "It isn't permanent, but for now, when he forgets to flush the toilet all of a sudden after years of reliably not forgetting it is not anything out of the ordinary, it is because his brain is now mush.  When she becomes flighty and obsesses over the weirdest little thing when just yesterday you were telling a friend how nice it was to have such a down to Earth daughter, it is not because aliens came and took away your child and replaced her with pod - drama - queen - alien - girl.  It is normal.  It is because her brain has recently turned to mush."

If he only had a brain
Really readers, people used to ask me to compare teaching middleschool and teaching preschool.  My answer?  It really is pretty much the same thing.  Adolescent kids regress in some ways and there will be times when you are pulling your hair out trying to figure out why your now 13 year old is having problems remembering things or obeying rules (and using common courtesy) that haven't been a problem since he or she was in Kindergarten.  Some day, when I am about to throw Alice through a window because of  _________ for the umpteenmillionth time, will some one please direct me to this article?  Thanks.  I know they are frustrating, but it really isn't about defiance.  Let me explain.

The thing that makes it easier for parent's to breathe a little and let go of the frustration and anger, is understanding that part of what happens during adolescence is a second huge growth spurt in the brain.  This time it is not new brain cells themselves that are rapidly growing, but connections between the cells that already exist.  This growth is especially apparent in the frontal cortex which is in charge of decision making, long term planning, moderation of emotions, strategy and many of the things that distinguish us as mature adults.  As I spoke to the parents about these things, I had slides and diagrams I could refer to I no longer have access to, but the visuals here, the video clip from The Doctors, and the Frontline Interactive Diagram will serve the same purpose.

All these additional connections are actually a wonderful thing in the long run, but in the short run they create a sort of traffic jam in the brain.  Imagine you are driving down the freeway and you find yourself driving into a city that is adding off and on ramps to the freeway.  Now, instead of having off and on ramps every few miles, there is a ramp for EVERY SINGLE STREET that crosses the freeway.  The cars have to slow way down because of the frequent merging and lane changing taking place AND since some of the ramps are pretty new, they don't all have signs yet so it is pretty easy to get lost.  That is what it is like inside the adolescent brain.  Mush full of traffic.  No wonder they keep losing their backpacks, water bottles, ipods, phones and minds.  Suddenly things like your kid wearing his pants inside out the other day and not noticing become a little more explainable.

The other major thing that happens is there are surges of different hormones and especially right now, the chemicals the brain is largely bathed in really irritate the amygdala (emotion central) and activate the areas in the brain that make kids obsess over fitting in and being socially acceptable.  Have you noticed changing hormones AREN'T the biggest thing in explaining even their moodiness?  This is HUGE.  Ever fluctuating hormone levels have a gigantic impact (think pregnancy, menopause. . .)  However, hormones are only one SMALL part of the equation when looking at what it is that causes all the moodiness in teens.  Even their desperate need to fit in and to find a mate is chemically written in to the equation.  Unfortunately, this makes them a lot more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors when around their peers than when they are alone, but we can get further with them when they feel understood.  Accepting their struggles as real-life challenges they are facing rather than defiance will go a long way in letting them know you are a part of their team as well as reduce your own emotional moments.

As was previously stated, it IS only temporary.  after a few years of this, the brain will stop adding new on and off ramps and even start demolishing the ones that aren't getting used.  It will also create a myelin sheath to cover many of these connections and really launch your kid into the ability to do some pretty complex and mature thinking, planning, oh and I can't forget, emotion moderating.(The myelin sheath is like adding an expressway that bypasses the city altogether and allows that frontal cortex to do its job quickly and efficiently).  This trimming and sheathing process will carry on well into your child's early twenties, but you will begin to notice improvements again throughout highschool (hopefully).  It is really a second version of childhood and just when they're getting it all figured out again (and NOT driving you completely batty), it'll be time for him or her to fly the coup and head out into the world.  So (Future self, DON'T Throw Alice through the window, it will get better). 

As much as all the drama and forgetfulness are irritating, the thing causing it, is actually also a part of what makes adolescents so much fun.  Adolescents are starting to make connections not previously possible for them.  They can see a much broader expanse of possibilities and see a lot more of the gray area in the world.  They begin to do more "reading between the lines" and start asking many more questions that DON'T have a yes or no answer.  When participating in debates, they aren't just parroting points they've heard made by adults around them anymore, but put together their own arguments.  They just generally start getting more sophisticated and therefore much more interesting to converse with.

As I told the parents at those back to school nights, "this information is by no means meant to offer up excuses and to be used as a reason to just let them get away with certain things.  They still must learn there are consequences for decisions for the good and the bad.  From everything to making sure to turn lights off to getting homework completed AND turned in, to continuing to avoid risky behaviors, they still have to make the right decisions.  I tell you this as a warning and to help you stress out over the day to day annoyances of it all a little less.  I hope it helps you just take in the moment with them and know you are doing your job and there is nothing permanently wrong with your kid".  I'd then tell the parents about the policies and procedures I had in place in my classroom to help their "mush brains" succeed in my classroom - things like homework planners, weekly checks, rubrics for assignments, learning team check-ups (otherwise known as parent - teacher conferences that include the students), and a system we had online where parents could check on their kid's grades and performance. 

Dealing with it In the Meantime:

Having good systems in place that can just become habit (or were habit and will need to become habit again) are really helpful in alleviating the day to day problems that come with the forgetfulness of adolescence. 

Proper diet and enough sleep can help with moods and focus.  With all the growth and changes, they actually need almost as much sleep as a kindergartner.  Teenagers rarely get enough sleep in this society.  Some of this is impossible to avoid, but some of it can be helped with less TV and systems to help with homework.  I also told parents of the kids I taught.  Choose sleep over homework - they'll never actually learn it if they're too tired to learn it. 

Stay connected with your adolescent and teen.  Listen, watch, pay attention and let them know you are paying attention.  Compliment them on good decisions and when a poor decision gets made, be there for them.  Make sure they know poor decisions are just that, decisions that have consequences.  Don't attack the person your kid is, just the decision that got made.

It is also helpful to share this "brain lesson" with your adolescent.  If you have a sense of humor about it and a language to use in discussing what is going on, the emotionality of it all can be eased.  Once I'd given the parents and kids this brief biology lesson, we had a language for it.  I could say to a kid, "hmm. mush-brain moment?  Want to talk about it?"  Or I could call a parent and say, "Jenny seems to be stuck in a traffic jam at the moment and I'd like to see if we can work together to get her out of it.  Here were the things she and I talked about today" and everyone knew what I was talking about without it getting personal. 

The kids really liked the "mush brain" thing and would frequently tell me, "Ms. Mollusk, I had a mush brain morning.  I did my homework, but it isn't in my backpack".  They also knew exactly what the consequence of this was, "guess I'll see you at lunch so I can get it in before three?"    This brings me to my next point.  Make sure your consequences are adhered to, consistent and predictable so your kids know exactly what to expect.   

Try to avoid being emotional about whatever it is yourself.  They are reacting, you might think it is over-reacting, but at least in the moment, they don't.  LISTEN FIRST.  Paraphrase.  Be understanding, even if it is you they are reacting emotionally to.  If you remain calm, it is less likely that whatever it is will escalate further and result in insults to your kid that mean YOU are probably breaking your own rules and acting in a disrespectful manner.  In order for them to act respectfully toward you, you need to model and expect respectful behavior from yourself too.  Kids need you to be the rock. 

Which brings me to the NEXT suggestion which is closely related.  If you can calmly make it clear when discipline is occurring that you are not administering punishment but are also a slave to the consequences of the adolescent's decision, you give them the control they seek (and the consequences that accompany that power).  You can almost have the attitude of, "I understand. This sucks. I wish I could go back in time with you and help a different decision get made, but now my hands are tied, consequences are consequences and I just can't do much about it". Just make sure you don't sound sarcastic in the delivery.  

If your mush brain had a mush brain day and didn't get his/her homework done and now doesn't get to attend the party, say, "I'm so bummed for you.  That party sounded like so much fun I almost wanted to go.  Unfortunately, when you don't get first things first taken care of, the consequence is the availability of the fun stuff", or if your child is being emotional and yelling, "when you act respectfully, I'll be ready to listen respectfully.  Until then, I'll be in the other room doing my own thing".  Then walk away and if your adolescent follows, put on headphones or something.  Whatever it is that is most appropriate for the situation it will often sound a lot like, "empathy, empathy, empathy, paraphrase, It is just such a bummer when you ________ .  When you _________ instead that will allow (me or you) to _______".  As long as the consequence genuinely fits with the mistaken decision that was or is being made and your statement makes the point that it was their decision or choice that has resulted in this consequence you are giving discipline they can't sensibly argue against  ( has advice about this in respect to the home school environment, but the original philosophy mostly stems from the philosophy behind "Parenting with Love and Logic")

If we use code-words and phrases as reminders to slow down and problem solve, listen more than we speak, and maintain an unruffled but loving and supportive attitude, we can shake our parental selves out of the frustration and our kids out of their "mushiness" and get a lot further in helping them to make more responsible decisions.  Having a code of sorts and a plan for dealing with poor decisions, won't get rid of every conflict, but it can make all the difference between yelling, stress and tears as the majority of your experience with your adolescent and an experience that looks a lot more like a parent (or group of people) supporting a kid in figuring out how to interact with the world responsibly in a relatively peaceful manner.

A few related resources:

Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain - This video will give you a LOT more information including more on the chemistry behind the high emotions of the teenager and their Desperate NEED to fit in.
National Geographic article.
11 common parenting mistakes when there is a teen in the house

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