This is my sixth installment, as a doctor and as a mom of two kids, on a topic, which is so hot for so many of us: our teen kids. My original post, which can be found here http://dtpdoctors.com/2015/10/leave-me-alone-i-can-manage-my-own-stuff/ has stirred a lot of emotion among the parents of teenagers. Many people were sending examples of how unruly their adolescents are and begged for solutions. I was brainstorming their emails, my own life, and the scientific data and took a detour to look back at the ages 0-10, to look for the developmental “seeds of trouble”. The first of those posts is here http://dtpdoctors.com/2015/10/human-language-please-she-demanded-shutting-my-journal/ and the rest are listed chronologically on the same blog. Now we have come a full circle, returning to the troublesome teens: the 11 years of age and onwards.
We all knew when our kids hit their puberty mark: the girls’ breasts got bigger, the boys’ voices got deeper, and both suddenly had more body hair than they could handle. What we didn’t know is that around the same time: on the average at 11-12 years of age for girls and 12-13 years of age for boys, our children’s brain started undergoing explosive transformation too.
“Leave me alone!” and “You just don’t understand!” –the emotional hallmarks of this difficult transition arise from the Limbic system responsible for generating fear, sexual feelings, aggression, and excitement. It’s not that we adults don’t have the same feelings being produced by our brain. We do too, but the crucial difference is that our feelings are tempered by our well-developed critical part of the brain, while the teenager’s emotions are not.
As a result, we and our teenage kids quite literally live in different realities.
The teenagers’ reality is raw and intense. When they are upset, the volcanoes are erupting in their heads, and rivers of anger or sadness are flowing unstoppable. As a 14-year old daughter of my close friend has confided in me: “Most of the time, when I am upset, I just wanna punch something!”
When they are tempted with sex or drugs, the desire is so strong – it is practically painful and almost impossible to resist.
Where you ever in love as a teen? Dan Hill captured these feelings perfectly in his ’80ies hit “I love you so much that it hurts inside…”
Your adolescent’s feelings are enormous, boundless, and they translate into the physical cravings, pain, and love or anger. They scream at us from their reality paraphrasing Annie Lenox’s “I don’t think you know how I feel! Do you know how I feel?”
And they are right. We don’t know how they feel.
We feel that they are insane.
In fact, the changes taking place in teenage brain captured by the research MRIs are identical to what happens to schizophrenic brains, just to a lesser extent. That’s why we don’t know how they feel.
We don’t know how they feel because we have two brains peacefully cohabitating in our skull: the old emotional limbic and the new analytical prefrontal cortex.
If I, as an adult, will have an urge to drive fast, the gazillions of little interconnections between my two brains will communicate instantly. My adult prefrontal cortex is capable of critical analysis. It can make assumptions and predictions based on observations and life experiences. This ability will generate pacifying conclusions by the prefrontal that the crazy speeding in my Camaro is not worth it. The thrill will not be worth it for me because I could run over someone, or kill myself and my passengers, and shatter my car to pieces, and end my life and my dreams in an instant, and kill my parents with heart attacks over my death, and….this becomes a run-on sentence and I have to stop.
If a teenager wants to put her foot on a gas and show her friends a good time, she exists in a different reality. Her prefrontal brain has not caught up yet with his limbic counterpart, and a result, the teenager is not capable of predicting the consequences of driving like a “bad girl”.
She lives in a thrill of a moment. Think about it. Isn’t that what we all want? To seize the moment? To feel the moment fully and completely – all out of breath! The trick is that our prefrontal brain is capable of picking the moments that are suitable for this task – without hurting ourselves or our loved ones.
And so we live embedded in our reality where the filters of our advanced critical brain are restraining the risky urges of our primitive brain. We are observing our teens navigating their own reality where the old emotional brain is on fire rendering them “out of control” from where we stand.
Nowadays, we are much more estranged from our adolescent children than the parents of 100 years ago. One of the reasons for that is that the puberty onset age has changed dramatically. Just a century ago, the average onset of puberty in girls was at 16 and now it is at 11! And while 18 years of age used to be an average puberty onset for boys is now at 12! All the while, the development of prefrontal cortex – the critical part of the brain is completed around the age of 25. So, we now have a much wider gap years-wise, between “their” teenage reality and “our” adult reality. At present, this gap will span approximately 15 years of our lives.
Can we reach out to each other from our respective realities?
We should learn how to do it or suffer 15 years loaded with miscommunication and hurt.