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

when children ask why

Children not only need to hear our conclusions (Do this! Do that!) they need to know the thought process that got us to those conclusions (Here's why you should do this or that). They need context. If you only offer orders and rules, then we are not teaching, not serving them as parents. We are just pontificating.

It's hard work articulating why we believe what we believe. We may hesitate, out of fear, to tell our children the honest "whys." Perhaps if we share, they will discover our secret weaknesses or find flaws in our reasoning. But rather than hiding our imperfections, if we let them know we are fallible as they are, we share with them a common bond and a true honesty. Rather than just trying to pour truth into their heads, we can help them make the marvelous discovery that they have something to contribute to our lives as well. We are fellow struggles, learning how to live right in a confusing and challenging world.

Stephen Goforth

Boredom and Cowardice

Teenagers and their younger siblings grow bored quickly. It's their job to figure out how not to be bored.

Life is filled with dull meetings and duller people and many empty moments. Either you hate a large part of your duties in life or you figure out ways to make that time interesting for you. Boredom is a wake up call for us to get involved in process of life.

As Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, "Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs." Embracing what we are handed and then turning it into something worthwhile is a lifelong struggle. We all face it.

It isn't the job of parents to keep children entertained. The kids' job is take charge of their own situation to figure out what captivates them.  Parents just need to provide opportunities for their kids and a sense of direction to help them discover what works.

If we are not in the hunt for the compelling, we are not in the game and will certainly be miserable people. There's no one to blame but ourselves. There are many escape attempts from the dullness of life that can temporarily distract us. It takes something meaningful and awe-filling to engage us over the long run.

Stephen Goforth