Walking a Tightrope

“We like to think that maturation is based a lot on experience, but even in adolescence we also have to recognize that learning may not count as much so much until the underlying brain structures are in place,” Peter Jensen, a former head of child and adolescent research at the National Institutes of Mental Health says.

While waiting for those structures to develop- and perhaps helping them get set up right in the first place- Jensen says parents of teenagers often have to “walk a tightrope.” On the one hand, they have to respect and encourage their teenagers’ need for autonomy because, in adolescence, “that’s where the action is.” But sometimes they also need to step in, offer a road map, and help those teenagers point their size ten feet down the right path.

To do that effectively, he says, parents might take tips from some of the ways psychiatrists, through the years, have found to deal with teenagers. Parents, says Jensen, might try acting a bit like the psychiatrist played by Judd Hirsch in the movie Ordinary People, talking through possibilities and options. They have to function like a surrogate set of frontal lobes, as “auxiliary problem solver.”

“With little kids you can tell them what the best thing to do is and then offer them a reward.. But with tennagers that’s not often a productive approach. If you just flat out tell a teenager what to do, you can lose that kid. You have to cut them some slack, but you can’t just leave them there, you also have to to help them figure out things themselves. You can say, ‘What do you think the consequences will be if you act a certain way?’ for instance, or ‘What will happen if you are rejected by your peers if you reject drugs?”

Barbara Strauch, The Primal Teen