Adolescent brains are not yet fully formed. But exploring and strengthening the parent-child connection can help guide kids toward full maturation.
Elisa came to me a few days before a 10-day holiday with her 21-year-old son, Thomas. They had planned to explore Portugal’s local beaches, and have time to relax and be together. But she felt uneasy, and was stressed about the trip.
Their history was not unusual. She was divorced; Thomas was an only child. As often happens when parents separate, they shared their feelings (verbally and nonverbally) with their children, imposing their point of view. Children in this situation learn quickly how to play with their parents’ feelings and turn things to their own benefit. Thomas was quite practiced at the art of manipulation and had frequently attempted to lie and deceive Elisa. Furthering Elisa’s difficulties, her former husband had remarried and fathered two girls. Thomas demonstrated a clear loss of self-worth; he obviously was looking for an identity that he was not yet able to comprehend. His father’s decision to send him to business school, disregarding his desire to be a photographer (his father was in the movie business as a film technician), did not help solve the boy’s quest to find his answer to “Who am I?”
Elisa held unabated, unconditional love for Thomas, but was always on his back trying to teach him what to do and what not to do. This was not an optimal route to follow, either.
Our session went well. Compassion, empathy, and safety resulted from our time together. I felt it would be useful to share with Elisa some insights into teenagers and young adults (defined as people between the ages of 10 and 25) and how their brains function and develop.
Because I feel it is good practice to advise and explain what’s happening in younger brains, so parents know more about what lies beneath their children’s behavior. As you surely appreciate, there’s a whole lot going on!
The Brain: A Miracle of Myelination
My own education in this field is based on many readings, but a few books are foundational on the subject: Frances E. Jensen’s The Teenager Brain, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté’s Hold On to Your Kids, and on many basic principles, Steven Porges’s Polyvagal Theory.
We typically accept that 3-year-olds have not yet developed the capacity to control themselves, but I invite you to consider that, similarly, teens and young adults are not yet in control, either. Their hormones are in full blast, and their brains have not yet figured out how to regulate their bodies in response to this new batch of chemicals. Concentrations of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone create physical changes (voice tone, facial hair, menstruation, breasts) and can provoke emotional upsurges in seconds. Testosterone is particularly active in the limbic system—it interacts with the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotion and fears and in coordinating physiological responses based on outside information (the “fight or flight” response). This hormonal activity explains, in part, why adolescents are so inconsistent and capricious, emotionally speaking. It’s not that teens have higher hormonal levels than adults—they just react in a different way. That is mere biology.
Research has shown that teenaged brains are only about 80 percent mature. The remaining 20 percent is of the utmost importance, and gives clues as to why teens and young adults react so oddly. This includes mood swings, compulsivity, impulsiveness, addictions to drugs and alcohol, and the inability to stay focused, follow through, or connect with parents.
A mature brain connects from back to front because myelination of white matter evolves. The executive brain (frontal cortex) is the last to connect; this doesn’t happen until age 20 or older. Complete myelination is key to ensure brain integration and connectivity, and three decades of life are needed for full myelination to occur. Since myelin increases the rate at which information is passed along the axons, that means that without proper myelination, when a danger signal is sent by the amygdala, the teenaged brain has problems linking up with executive brain function. The teen might put himself in danger, not knowing what to do next. The amygdala sends signals of danger, but the executive brain does not interact in the decision-making process. This results in poor decision-making.
After our first session, Elisa had a good understanding as to why and how her son might look like an adult in many ways but was unable to do certain things intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally because of biological restraints in his brain. I helped her understand the necessity of conveying clear messages to her son, including the fact that the brain may sometimes be an explanation, but is never an excuse. It was important for Elisa to set clear boundaries with Thomas.
So what should parents do when they see their beloved children try to do something without an anchor? Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté are clear on the subject: Parenting authority and love are key to fostering attachment, and attachments are key to helping children grow in the most balanced way. They write, “The disorder affecting the generations of young children and adolescents towards adulthood is rooted in the loss of orientation of children towards the nurturing adults in their lives.”
I agree. Children are looking for guidance, and too often they look for it among their peers, who are not mature themselves. Thus, they cannot possibly guide them, nor orient them in a way that allows them to get properly acquainted with this erratic and stressful, albeit beautiful, world in which they live.
The problem is that although there is a powerful, embedded need for attachment in each child, there is no inherited circuitry that pushes a child to seek attachment with the mother or father, or a teacher or mentor. There is simply an instinct to turn toward a source of authority, connection, and warmth—and this could be whoever is near.
In the orienting void created by our society, peers often take that place.
Families have exploded. They are torn apart. Mom and Dad are busy working at the office, and Grandma and Grandpa often live somewhere far away in the countryside. Peers, however, are there all the time, and become the main influence on the development of the members of the pack.
The good news is that there’s a lot that parents can do to remedy the situation.
Steps Toward Family Attachment
First, Elisa needs to trust in her son’s desire to be good, honest, and trustworthy. Even if it is normal for Elisa to react by saying, “How can I trust a kid who is constantly lying to me?”, it is nonetheless crucial to trust his desire to be good, and to treasure and nurture that desire in him. Indeed, it is not the child’s ability to perform to parent expectations, but the desire to be good to the parents, that must justify the parent’s trust.
I know this is tough. But it so important!
Of course, we don’t want Thomas to be locked in immaturity. The problem here is that physical growth is not automatically accompanied by psychological and emotional maturation.
Peer orientation is often the culprit. The earlier children begin to orient toward their peers, the greater their likelihood of being doomed to perpetual immaturity. Of course, maturation cannot be commanded. One cannot teach children how to be individuals, or train them to embrace their own identities. This is the work of maturation, and maturation alone. We can help the process, provide the right environment, and remove most obstacles. But we can’t order a child to grow up, any more than we could ask a plant in our garden to grow up. No shortcut is available here.
The challenge for Elisa is going to be helping her son to grow up, because for the time being, he merely looks like a grownup.
The key ingredient to activate maturation is attachment. That is a rather straightforward and self-evident fact. Attachment is the first priority in all living things. Give children love so they can be seen, felt, and heard, and they will flourish. We must provide children with a sense of belonging, and keep them close with contact and connection, even if they are not seeking it. When they ask for a hug, we need to give them a warmer one than the one they are giving us.
There is a paradox here. As Neufeld and Maté write, “Dependence and attachment foster independence and separation.”
Psychologist Carl Rogers refers to “unconditional positive regard,” a regard that is not possessive, and demands no personal gratification.
Unconditional positive regard and love are the indispensable ingredients that promote healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child’s heart for the certainty that he is precisely the person that the parent wants and loves. He does not have to do anything, or be different, to earn that certainty. There’s nothing he can do, because that love cannot be won or lost.
Elisa’s challenge is to convey to Thomas the unacceptability of certain behaviors without making her son feel unacceptable. Children need to experience enough security and unconditional love to provide the required energy to grow and to mature. Elisa needs to give her son what peers cannot: the freedom to be himself in the context of loving acceptance.
Elisa’s top priority will be to collect her son, making him want to belong to her and be with her. Despite today’s chaotic family environment, she needs to spend time with her son, repeatedly, until he is old enough to function as an independent being. The good news is that most mothers seem instinctively to know how to do this.
The starting point and primary goal with her son ought to be the relationship itself, not his conduct or behavior. It seems that the older children become, the more mothers choose to confront their children when something goes wrong. At the active toddler stage, 90 percent of maternal behavior consists of affection, play, and caregiving, with only 5 percent designed to prohibit the toddler from ongoing activity.
Remember to never forego the courtship behavior. It is a mistake in adult attachment, and a disaster with children. Elisa will need to keep confronting her son when things need to be addressed, but she must do so in ways that are warranted and inviting, that keep enticing him to stay in relationship with her.
I often invite parents to recall the nature of most of their contact with their children. Most often, they address their children in order to get them to do something, to teach them something, or have them change their behavior. How often is the connection about being together and merely enjoying one another’s company?
Unless we can connect with our children (in a world where we often are separated), not much will go right. Unfortunately, there’s no by-the-book prescription that fits all families. Finding the right path requires trial and error. I also remind parents to reconnect with their children after a tense experience or argument. If an emotional separation occurs after a fight or argument, the parenting connection will be lost unless the parent moves to restore what psychologist Gershon Kaufman calls the “interpersonal bridge.” Rebuilding that bridge is always the parent’s responsibility. Never, ever expect children to do it. They simply do not have the maturity to do so.
The bottom line is that emotional warmth, gladness, and nurturing are at the top of the list as effective activators of attachment. Children must know they are wanted, special, significant, seen, recognized, missed, heard, and loved.
I admit that it often takes a saint to not feel withdrawn and separated by the pretentiousness, huffiness, and disloyalty of our teenagers. And when the relationship becomes heated, staying in the game and not becoming alienated are the most important things we can do for our children’s sake, and for ours.
Often, in an act of despair, parents will send their child an ultimatum. It rarely works. It might work sometimes, but only if there is a strong enough attachment.
But sometimes children trigger their parents into emotionally uncontrolled reactions. Temporary ruptures in relationships are unavoidable, and are not harmful, per se. The real harm is inflicted when parents neglect to reconnect with their children, thus conveying the message that the relationship is not important to them.
As I told Elisa, “At one point, you will always need to come back and be able to say, ‘I am still your mom and always will be. I know it is hard to remember that I love you when I am mad, and sometimes I may even forget it myself for a moment or two, but I always come back to my senses. I am glad our connections are strong.'”
A Final Note
Elisa later reported to me that she and Thomas were having a marvelous holiday together. Their re-collection and reconnection had been amazingly positive.