Monday, July 13, 2015

Parenting Adolescents

     For many parents the adolescent years are a roller coaster fueled by hormones, a white knuckle ride best survived with their eyes closed.  However, recent brain science shows it to be a period of great potential if parents can hang in there with their teenagers.  This is especially true in the areas of cognitive functioning, relationships, and identity development. It is a time of tremendous brain growth, as important as the toddler years, when thinking becomes faster and more streamlined.  Two processes make this happen, pruning and myelinization.  Pruning is when the brain discards cells and connections it no longer needs.  Myelinization is when the nerve cells are insulated in a way that aides in quicker, smoother transfer of data.  These result in more advanced cognitive competence.

     Sometimes.  What most parents know is that this faster thinking is not always better thinking.  "The price of everything, the value of nothing." There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, brain volume increases one to four years earlier in females than in males.  Second, the emotional brain grows faster than the thinking brain.  Then, late maturation of the prefrontal cortex means conscience and judgment are delayed until the twenties.  Teenagers tend to give more weight to the reward over the risk even when they overestimate the risk.  However, adolescents are capable of more abstract and critical thinking, applying memory and meaning to problem solving.  What teenagers require to make this successful is context, more thorough explanations, concrete examples, practice and positive feedback.  They are also motivated by self interest, "What's in it for me?"  So appeals to standing out, fitting in, measuring up, and personal goals are likely to work better than, "Because I said so."

     Relationships also undergo considerable strain during this time.  Teenagers' efforts to achieve independence from parents often result in conflict. Good peer and sibling relationships can modulate the anxiety of separation from parents, but a good parent-child relationship can rebound in the late teen years.  Peers and siblings can be both positive and negative models with young teens most susceptible.  Female siblings often experience distancing from each other in middle adolescence and then come back together while male siblings stay close during middle adolescence then exhibit less emotional closeness later.  Romantic relationships contribute to identity, status, affection, and conflict resolution.  Social media creates opportunities for self expression and social interactions but also leads to pseudo-intimacy and anxiety.  Life satisfaction decreases for most early to middle teens, but parental admiration and family values are buffers.
     As adolescents negotiate their ethnic, gender, sexual, and social identities through challenges like sex, drugs, and mental illness some parenting techniques are protective and others increase risk.  Protective factors include monitoring, warmth, tolerating conflict, encouragement, communication, consistent discipline, and family closeness.  Factors that leave a teenager at risk are low monitoring, negative criticism, chronic conflict, poor communication, coercion and shaming, inconsistent discipline, and family conflict.  Close relationships are protective.  Teenagers need authoritative, consultative not authoritarian, parents.  They learn best through vicarious experience, story telling, parent modeling, positive feedback, reasonable expectations, and warmth.  Perhaps the most interesting finding confirmed by the brain research leads to rethinking treatment of boys and girls.  Traditional parenting focuses on protecting females and encouraging independence in males.  What works is more independence for girls and more emotional support and adult interaction for boys.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Celebrating Success

     On a daily basis, parents are working hard to provide for their children and help them grow up to be productive citizens.  Among them are parents of foster and adoptive children who face additional challenges.  The trauma of abuse, neglect, and abandonment has left them wounded and unable to trust.  The six-year-old girl hits her grandmother and refuses to sleep in her own bed.  The five-year-old boy runs into the street and gets kicked out of preschool.  The 10-year-old girl cries when asked to do chores or when her parents welcome guests.  These tired parents ask, "Why is this happening?" "What can I do?"  "How long will it last?" "Will this child ever be 'normal'?"
     It is helpful and heartening, then, to witness success stories.  An angry, demanding, bossy little three year old with a mentally ill biological mother and four failed adoptive placements graduates from high school with a full scholarship to a major university.  Her whole family including her bio-mom watch her receive her diploma.  A once quiet, sly twin removed in diapers first from a substance using mother then older sister is reunited with siblings and completes high school with lots of friends and family.  Brothers abandoned by immigrant parents are excited to have their own rooms and a big back yard since they are moving, for the first time, with their adoptive parents.  A teenager dropped off at ten by her mother at the shelter is turning her story into performance art.  Another teenager adopted from a group home once tore up the house is now building homes for the poor on mission with his father.
     These success stories have several things in common in addition to the children's once strange behavior.  Their parents have worked hard to develop several characteristics that are essential for helping their children heal and grow.
  • Each has an openness to learning, changing, asking for help, and receiving support.
  • Each has an interest in the child as a unique individual separate from their personal concerns.
  • They have an appreciation for the child's biological family and honor those relationships.
  • These parents have tolerance for conflict, emotional and otherwise, and stand up for their kids.
  • Each has learned to keep perspective, to take the long view, and know that growth takes time.
      Parents still in the middle of the mess ask, "Will it get better?"  "Will it get easier?"  The simple answer is probably.  The honest question is, what are you willing to change if it does not?  Children, particularly those suffering from trauma, are counting on parents who are willing to learn how to help them.  Nothing is more satisfying than celebrating a child's successes, both large and small, and knowing the things you did, both large and small, made all the difference in the world.