I’m reading about the teen brain a lot lately, because much of the work I would like to is with teens. I have worked a great deal with the preteen crowd, but working with the developing brain of a true teen, and all the excitement, passion, and reward seeking behaviors that go along with it, is so fascinating to me.
When I was a teen, I lived in another country than my parents, as did many of the kids at the boarding school I was fortunate enough to attend. Right there, you might stop reading, or think – “oh, those first world problems, give me a break.” But problems are problems, and a teen who is having trouble with her peers in an affluent community is just as much at risk of harmful behaviors as a teen in poverty. Teens want friends, they are social beings. As a kid, in one of those more affluent communities, the risks I took were (not surprisingly) with drugs, alcohol, and sex. The drugs were higher priced than at some schools, I’m sure. The standard clicks weren’t there, at least standard as I had seen in the movies; it wasn’t so much the jocks and the nerds, at least in my perspective (though I was kind of both), but the kids who did coke, the kids who smoked pot, and the kids who drank.
I’m sure there were some good kids who did none of these, but I never ran into them.
Behind all of these kids was an interesting segment of the population: parents who chose to have their children leave home at fourteen or fifteen years old, to have other people keep track of them. My parents, I like to think, didn’t have much choice. There were no English speaking high schools where we were in Saudi Arabia. The oil company my dad worked for paid for most of my tuition and all of my plane fare. Tough opportunity to pass up on. And, I have to say, I do not resent them for it. I think my life course changed significantly because of the amazing adults, who were not my parents, that I formed parentified relationships with. And while I had caring adults all around me, ultimately, and maybe even more than for your average teen who has to report home each night, the decisions I made were mine alone.
Dan Siegel talks about this phase of life, a time when kids are pushing away from their parents, trying out what might look like independence, in his book Brainstorm (2013). And while independence is truly a goal of this age, there is also an intense desire to create a sort of family of choice amongst one’s peers for support. That’s exactly what I did. I found my group, and I loved my group. In fact, I still love them, and feel that they are something of a true family to me. Fortunately, I had learned enough in my first fourteen years of life to find friends who loved me back, and who looked out for me. It’s been over twenty years since I was that teenager, and yet I think so much is still the same. I went to a party at a college when I was sixteen.
I told all the college boys I was eighteen.
Of course they fell for it.
Do you see sixteen year old girls?
Honestly, I have no idea if they are fourteen or twenty-two. And I thought I was some kind of genius. I started drinking great gobs of alcohol when I was fifteen. So, after a year of such practice I felt pretty aware of how much I could consume without becoming unconscious.
For one second, just pause there. My daughter is five years away from that number.
Fifteen year olds are children.
I drank a lot that night, but when I look back on it now, I’m sure there was some kind of crazy drug in one of those drinks because I only have fragmented memories of the night that ensued. I lived. I don’t think I was sexually assaulted. That’s good news. And I have to thank the other two crazy sixteen year old girls who were with me for that. They refused to let me leave, they refused to do anything until I was by their side. I still managed to wake up with what looked like someone had punched me in both sides of my neck.
Imagine how much worse that could have been?
Friends are so important to your child’s survival. Make sure they are choosing good friends (and not that they look like good friends, but that they are good people). I went to another party the following year where the teens were drinking. That was my crowd. I tried pot, but alcohol was my drug of choice. Coke was just too serious. I’m not sure where I formed this opinion, but I’m happy I did. Alcohol was not something my brain desired an addiction to, but it is for many kids. If they have that switch, it can get turned right on. I remember a girl friend pulling some guy off my body while I tried to sleep on the couch. I remember another guy creeping his hand up my shirt while I slept on a pool table. (Why all this sleeping? Well, I was drunk and couldn’t go home.) And then he promptly ran about the party telling everyone he’d had sex with me. Jeeze.
Imagine if Instagram had been around then.
Jeeze, even phone cameras!
And the party where I had to pull a boy off of one of my friends who had blacked out. I mean, they are teens, they are driven to achieve rewards! Sex is quite the reward. But for me, sex wasn’t the goal. Being free was the goal. Being wild was the goal. Challenging everyone’s perceptions of me as a good girl was the goal. Little did I know, I didn’t have to put myself at such great risk to do that. I could have done more of my underground writing. I could have made feminist art. I could have just been myself. But, there was no one who could tell me who that was. My parents were a once every two-week phone call away. I saw them twice a year. Obviously, they weren’t going to help me form this identity. And so I formed it myself. And fortunately for me, I discovered that I could be shy and a bit introspective, but still have power, if I wrote.
I could destroy friendships with my words (some of my not-best moments).
I could retaliate against a history teacher with discreetly planted letters in all the faculty mailboxes.
Words, these things that had always tripped me up in speaking, were flowing out of me in writing. And let me tell you, I had some amazing English teachers. I can never stop thanking them for teaching me to love a good story.
But, I totally digress. Teenagers are in a phase of life that is more challenging to survive than any other. They make weird decisions all the time. They have a constant dialogue that sounds very self-focused. And they are full, and I mean, brimming, overflowing, exploding with good ideas, desires and passion! For those of you who keep your teenagers close, by choice or because we can’t all afford to send our teens to boarding school, try to remember your own teenage years. It’s confusing to push away, while still needing some advice. You’ve heard the idea of picking your battles. This is the time! Who cares if they want blue hair? Is it going to kill them? Or are you just embarrassed of how others will judge you as the parent of the blue-haired kid? Nose piercings? Maybe not your favorite. And it’s so much better than having sex with that older guy they met at the coffee shop. I’m not saying nose rings will prevent teen pregnancy, but I do believe that allowing some freedom might just save the day. And while that freedom is being dished out, remind them of how awesome they are. Celebrate their achievements!
I was never EVER told that my body was sacred.
I was never told that I was funny and smart without alcohol.
I didn’t know that I could be a writer or an artist, or both.
I was never told that falling in love could be so completely mind-blowing. I didn’t realize that when it was taken away a broken heart could hurt in a way that made my insides turn to ice and my ears crave heavy metal music, and I would never want to get out of my pathetic dorm bed again.
Being a teenager is hard work, and the best work. If given the chance, this is when the brain develops into the adult they will one day become.
Feed it, nourish it, and remember it.
And, forgive it as it makes mistakes over and over and over again. If you don’t love them and their developing teen brain, there’s a bunch of on-line predators who will.
(oooh, that was a little dark there at the end, but you get my drift)