Sunday, 7 July 2013

Parenting with a Teenage Brain

Maybe it's the crazy weather. Maybe it's the fact that my "vacation" from the kids is coming to an end. And I miss them dearly! Maybe it's that I am tired of having conversations with myself - like I am doing right now in writing this blog. But I am just in this mood where I feel like being reckless - not feckless, but downright irresponsible.

So I started fantasizing about what types of things could I do that would be totally reckless, and would the consequences actually be that bad? I recently saw a movie where one character says to the other: "Are you stupid?" Her response was "yes". And I really took to that. However - easier said than done! I may have the desire, but I no longer have a teenage brain. My friends may beg to differ, but I am pretty sure I am wiser than I appear.

Lately I have seen a lot of attention paid to the topic of "the teenage brain", and whether teens in-fact behave they way they do because they are hard-wired for it. If I could find where I stashed all those National Geographic magazines my "pre-teen but acts like a teen" daughter never reads I might be able to describe the findings more articulately. She probably hid that one from me because she doesn't want to me to know or even try to understand. But, from what I can remember, and a little Google search there are a few elements that help drive classified risky behaviour:

1. The brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 (NIH study), and

2. Teens are more likely to take risks that have unknown consequences because they do not understand the "gist" of it, which may in fact also help them leave home because they are not afraid to venture into the unknown (http://healthland.time.com/2012/10/02/why-the-teen-brain-is-drawn-to-risk/)

So...while I know I must prepare for the onslaught of raging hormones and illogical arguments that will be my destiny for the next 7 years, the thought stream in my subconscious of how I might best prevent the things I don't want to happen to her plus my own current desire for recklessness, made me think: what if some of those things were to happen to me? Like, right now?

For example - what if I got pregnant? It would be risk of a different kind. More risk to the baby than to myself which is the opposite of what would happen if my daughter got pregnant as a teenager. Her risks would be mostly mental. Mine physical. Both of us - unsupported. A poor consequence for her, so full of potential, and not being able to fully explore it. On the other hand, despite the physical risks,  I would see it as a gift of potential - and I would know what to do with it.

It makes one wonder though, if the brain does not mature until the age of 25, then why is it possible for girls to "make babies" as early as the age of 10? Would you not think menstruation would be delayed until the brain could make better, less risky decisions that would help protect offspring? 

And if biology did not make a mistake, and part of the teenage brain is about being comfortable with blind risks, then how can I apply that to better parenting when I no longer possess the teenage brain? Some of the research cited in the link above talks about teaching teenagers how to understand the "gist" of a consequence and how not to over or underestimate actual risk - a little lesson in statistics and outcomes. But if one were to apply the opposite thinking, what is it that I need to do to also show them that the unknown is not something to be afraid of, if that is something I don't practice myself and I am potentially no longer capable of thinking like that?

I think from early on, the monster hiding in the closet or under the bed is really a version of the unknown for our children. We either say "don't be scared - monsters don't exist" or we put a night light on for them. How that even makes sense, escapes me, because all that does is allow you to see the monster! So, do the monsters go away when your teenage brain comes into power? And if so, why do we need to teach them about risk and quantifying the unknown? Not all things can be quantified. You can't see the monster in the dark.

The researchers talk about why teenagers take risks like unprotected sex, etc. which they mistake for unknown or incorrect probabilities when those risks are actually quantifiable. But, for me, as a parent, it's the emotional risks that are much more difficult to teach. A condom will protect you from STDs and pregnancy, but it won't protect you from the hurt that may come from being "dumped" after you gave away your virginity to someone you thought "loved you" in that most awesome, dramatic, dreamy teenage version of it.

So what can I do to help them survive the emotional unknown? Well, on small scale I can show them how to try. I have started painting. I have an idea how it might turnout, but for the most part it's an unknown. And it may turn out to be a piece of ugly crap. What I am showing them is that I am not afraid of the good or bad consequences in this case - it's a small risk that really won't hurt anything other than potentially my ego.

It really goes back to my earlier blog: The Heart Chain and the risks and benefits of being vulnerable. I have also shown my children the consequences of vulnerability on a larger scale, and I have been criticized by friends, parents, and therapists for doing so. For example, I let my children see me upset and crying after a relationship ended. I wanted them to see me like that, to show that I took the risk, that recovery was possible, and that emotions are acceptable. And, to let them know that eventually I would try again - adventuring into another unknown, another potential for failure, but also a potential for success. I think and I hope that this will be one of the most important lessons I teach them to keep that part of their teenage brain active throughout their adult lives.

And I will end with quotes from the thoroughly enjoyable teenage read of the Twilight series, which brought me back to the lovely state of teenage everything:

Edward Cullen: I only said it would be better if we weren't friends, not that I didn't want to be.
Isabella Swan: What does that mean?
Edward Cullen: It means if you're smart... you'll stay away from me.
Isabella Swan: Okay, let's say for argument's sake that I'm not smart.

"Edward had drawn many careful lines for our physical relationship, with the intent being to keep me alive. Though I respected the need for maintaining a safe distance between my skin and his razor-sharp, venom-coated teeth, I tended to forget about trivial things like that when he was kissing me".
-Bella Swan, New Moon, Chapter 1, p.16

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