Have you heard that expression, ‘the golden years’? Sometimes it is applied to the years after our kids move out of home when we seemingly will have hours in the day to roam freely through fields of yellow tulips and spend sun-drenched moments with gorgeous relatives around tables filled with food, a string of coloured lights hanging above, in our generous and pristinely landscaped yards. Or perhaps you know the ‘the golden years’ as they apply to the years in our children’s lives between around five and eleven: between complete dependence and the often-dreaded phenomenon of the teenager.
Prior to World War II people in between childhood and adulthood were called ‘youths’ or ‘adolescents’ rather than the force-of-nature we call ‘the teenager’ these days. Back then, young women and men were ostensibly conscious of becoming adults and looked to the future as their inevitable, grown-up destination. My own grandfather went to work in the 1940s at the age of 13 when his father died and his mother and sister needed supporting. He smoked and played chess to appear older, as he still looked about… well, 13. The word teenager doesn’t in fact even appear in dictionaries until the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In our current zeitgeist we seem to have adopted the idea of the broody unhinged teen wholeheartedly. Parents talk in hushed tones about the years when their kids will surely withdraw from their parents’ affections and run wild with their unruly friends only stalking home to eat and sleep. We speak of teenage attitude like it is only one single personality that all people between the ages of 13 and 19 have in common.
As a parent, I too have been guilty of this. I began to develop a kind of phobia for any kind of untoward attitude from my young man as if it was a sign that the feared teenage thing was happening. I had built up in my mind a fear of the impending doom of his adolescence, as if he would from one day to the next mystically turn from my loving son to an emotionally unavailable tenant in our home.
On further research however, I have discovered that it is more complex than I first assumed. Current science-based beliefs around the brain-in-development tell us that some parts of the cortex mature at different rates to others.
Straightforward functions such as sensory awareness, information processing, and movement are controlled by the parts of the brain that are earlier to mature however impulse control and planning (considered more adult abilities) are not actually fully developed until people reach their early 20s. This suggests that some teenage capabilities, for example the emotional response, are potentially even more active in teens than adults while others, such as the ability to regulate these responses and impulses, remain less functional (more about this here).
So when my son forgets to tell me where he needs me to pick him up and I drive around from friend’s place to friend’s place looking for him I find it helpful to remember he sometimes just isn’t capable of realising the importance of communicating such details. Fortunately, when this actually happened (yesterday in fact), I was able to reconcile my own anger at missing my karate class with the recognition of his honest obliviousness and tell him how I felt rather than yell it at him really loudly (like I wanted to at first). This allowed him to learn, feel and express remorse, and potentially lessen the impact of his actions by keeping a conflict and an altercation out of the equation. I too learned that the details are up to me for now.
Thankfully the research also indicates that learning capacity, an emphasis on socialising, and an inclination to explore and test limits “…may all, to some extent, be reflections of age-related biology”. So what does this mean to me, the parent? It means that equipped with this information I may be able to regulate my own responses to sometimes frustrating situations with my son to allow them to be a lesson in mutual understanding, that we may meet each other where we are at right here, right now.
Translated that means that the trust between my son and I, for now at least, remains in tact. This week I have been able to apply these ideas and I have noticed just a little bit less of the head-spinning around, pop-culture “teen” behaviour, zero eye-rolling, and quite a bit more of the cuddles and appreciation that I absolutely love to receive from him. I am starting to see how my careful attention and encouragement and decisive attempts to understand him are allowing us to remain close. Not too close that he can’t do his all-important growing up, but close enough that I can help him navigate his way to his burgeoning maturity.
You’ll find more on this in my next article about an even more empowering and alternative way to view our young-folk that promotes closeness and healthy family relationships.
Just maybe this teen thing is more than survivable after all.