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.