In honor of the start of the 2017-2018 school year, yourcoachingbrain is taking a break from coaching to focus on the challenges of parenting.
Maybe it’s the start of another school year or the fact that my son at age 21 is now “officially” an adult, but I have been thinking a lot about parenting lately. Particularly in terms of how we both survived – and even thrived – during his teenage years.
And we didn’t have the easiest time at first, to be honest. At age 13 he went through an international move and his parent’s divorce. One day we’re living on 50 acres overlooking the Pacific ocean in Costa Rica and he’s going to a six-student supervised home school, and the next we’re back in Minnesota and he’s starting eighth grade at a huge junior high and splitting his time between two suburban houses with parents trying to figure out the next chapter of their own lives. Whew.
It wasn’t, shall we say, smooth sailing. My son and I bickered and yelled at each other, we hurt each other’s feelings, and we all too often missed the point of what the other really needed and was asking for. Understandable in a young teen, but I wanted to do better as an adult. And yet, it seemed no one could trigger me quite like he could, and I would lose my cool again and again. I was NOT being the mom I wanted to be and I wasn’t proud of myself. Nor did I find I was enjoying parenting—my son and I had always been incredibly close, and now I couldn’t figure out how to connect. A likable, easy-going kid had turned unpredictable and often volatile. Luckily, about this time, I started studying neuroscience, understanding the brain, and slowly (very slowly, to be honest) seeing a way forward. Here are few things I learned.
1) Don’t Expect Teenagers to Be Rational. Except When They Are. During the teenage and young adult years the highest brain, the prefrontal cortex, is finishing its development. Neural connections are being strengthened, and pathways deemed less important or unnecessary are pruned so that signal strength is stronger in others. (Hormonal surges play a role in this, not only in the development of secondary sex characteristics.)
I think of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as the executive director of the brain. It doesn’t run everything, but it manages and/or connects to many of our most critical functions. For example, a fully “online” PFC is capable of thinking things through, delaying gratification, remembering things, holding abstractions, and understanding how others think and feel.
For a teenager and young adult with a developing PFC, two things happen. One, some of these things may not yet be really operational, and in my own experience (note, this is anecdotal, I haven’t researched it), it goes in rough categories. On the one hand, some kids tend to get the empathy side of things while the logical planning and thinking things through eludes them longer. This was my own experience. I had difficulty making and following plans or focusing on long-term goals until my mid to late 20s. But I could understand others from a much younger age and was the go-to “counselor” with family and friends even before I hit my teen years. On the other hand, some have real focus and ability to work towards long term goals early on, while connection to feelings (their own and others) may be less developed. This was my son, who decided in eighth grade he would be valedictorian and never wavered from that academic path (and so he was, by the way). But when I asked him at 14 how he felt about moving from Costa Rica, he literally responded, “What are these feelings of which you speak?” However, later in his teen years he began have a deeper understanding of his friends, and now we regularly talk about how he feels.
The second thing that happens is that the process of developing these aspects is erratic. One day they may exhibit great concern for and interest in you, the next be totally and completely self-focused. One day they may rationally and logically plan for their future and the next do a completely stupid and self-destructive thing.
And so one of the things that really helped me as a parent is not to expect my son to be at a different place developmentally than where he was – and to have a great deal of patience with the up and down nature of this. In other words, frame my expectations for who he was being in the moment, with the understanding that it was like a spring weather system in Minnesota, highly changeable. So take an umbrella just in case.
2) If You Honor Their Brilliance it’s Easier to Share Your Wisdom. The paradoxical thing about our wonderful prefrontal cortices is that at the same time they in the late stages of development, they are also at their best. The neural connections are fresh and there are more of them. Thinking in new ways is natural, because the pathways we establish with repetition and reward are not as well-worn as they are in later years. And so, it is natural that powerfully creative and innovative thinking comes from young people. This deserves to be nurtured, celebrated, expected and rewarded.
I think of the countless deep conversations I had with my son during his high school years. One of the parenting blessings of being trained as a coach was the ability to listen with curiosity and ask questions that helped him understand his own thinking, rather than jumping in with my solution. There were times I could almost literally see the neurons firing and connecting in his brain as he pondered some important issue out loud and I managed to restrain myself and really listen. As I realized more and more his capacity for subtle thinking, I even brought him challenges I was encountering in my neuroscience studies and was astounded by his ability to help me make sense of things. His neurons were often simply quicker and more creative than mine!
At the same time, there is an important role for the wisdom we accumulate through experience. We learn, for example, that much of life isn’t black and white, that emotions tend to rule logic, and that humans are endlessly complex. I found that the more I honored and respected my son’s brilliance, the more open he was to my wisdom. One of the ways I know we got through the teenage years ok is that he now calls me from college to get my perspective and advice. Yay!
3) Design Your Relationship (When You Are Both Calm). My son and I had a really bad dynamic when he was about 14 and 15. He’d get upset and angry about something and I would react. We’d both go to a state that Dan Goleman (of emotional intelligence fame) dubs an “amygdala hijack.” In other words, both of our PFCs would be very much offline, and all that was available to either of us was fight, flight, or freeze. It didn’t matter at that point whether his upset was rational, we were just two reactions bumping against each other. My son tends to be a fighter by nature, while I am more of a fleer. This sometimes meant him following me around the house trying his best to engage me in an argument while I just wanted to get the heck away. It was, to be honest, awful.
Because of my neuroscience studies, at some point I realized what was actually happening and that I could do nothing productive in the middle of the hijack. So one day when we were at dinner and all was calm and connected, I said, “You know, hon, sometimes it seems like we get into a bad dynamic and I get triggered and reactive. When this happens, my natural response is to want to get away, and I sense this is frustrating for you because you want to talk to me about something. But if you can give me ten minutes or so to calm down, I think I can talk about whatever it is you want to discuss. Could we try this?” (My idea was, of course, that in the time I was on my own calming down, he would be as well, but this framing of the issue as mine would be easier for him to take than me pointing a finger at his reactive state.)
This changed everything for us. Not right away, and not perfectly, because we would still both get triggered, but it gave us a tiny handhold on the mountain to pull ourselves up to a higher state. I’d remind him of our agreement as calmly as I could (not at all calmly in the beginning) and he’d persist a bit, but over time he started to let go more and more quickly. It sometimes helped when I reiterated that I WOULD discuss whatever he was upset about, I just needed a few minutes.
Funny thing is, I actually don’t remember ever actually talking about the issue, because I guess by the time we both got our PFCs back online, there really wasn’t one.
4) Be the Person You Want Face in the Mirror. Your young person’s brain is wiring in patterns for life, and part of creating this wiring is how the people around them respond. If you can work (and work and work) at remaining reasonably calm in the midst of stress and their age-appropriate irrationality, lack of preparation, self-focus and poor decisions, you help their brains wire for emotional intelligence.
To me, this is a thoughtful balance of speaking up, letting go, and trust. When my son was unkind I did my best to say “it’s not ok to talk to me like that,” or some version thereof, and then let it go, trusting that this was part of his development. Same with other developmental areas, such as thinking ahead. When he got stuck his sophomore year without a summer job, I did my best to first help him find some sort of solution, then worked with him around what would have been a better strategy so that he had more conscious awareness for the next year, let it go and helped him financially that summer, and trusted he would develop this skill. The next year I just checked in a couple of times and when it was clear he had really learned from the past year, told him I was proud of him and let it go.
The speaking up honors my own values and keeps me active in the game. It also serves as a reminder of where we want the neural patterning to develop. The letting go honors where the young person is and what they are capable of right now, and the trust honors that what is happening is a developmental process.
One caveat to all of this parenting is that not all brains are what we would call “neurotypical.” Humans come with a wide array of challenges and gifts, and parenting some kids is honestly harder than others. But they all have things to help us discover in our own development as well. I often would refer to my son as my Zen master, especially during those early high school years. People would think I meant he was very calm and wise. “No,” I’d say, “he’s more like one of those Zen masters who hit you over the head with a 2×4 and see how you respond. He is master of teaching me patience, perspective and love.”
He’s also one of my most favorite human beings in the world, and I am ever grateful for what I’ve learned with, from and because of him.
BEabove Leadership offers a two-day communication workshop, the Seven Levels Human Relationships Program, focused on increasing connection and decreasing stress in all relationships. We offer practical tools for all relationships (business, romantic and family and friends) based on neuroscience and the Seven Levels of Effectiveness. Join us in the San Francisco December 9 and 10, 2017, and Ottowa Canada spring 2018. http://www.beaboveleadership.com/seven-levels-human-relationships-program/