Why Do Perfectly Normal Kids Go Crazy When They Become Teens?
Shannon can’t believe her daughter, Liza, is in high school. It seems like just yesterday Liza was a toddler stumbling around their house, saying things that made everyone laugh. As Liza has grown up, Shannon proudly tells her friends how close the two of them are; they talk about everything.
Shannon hoped their relationship would stay the same through the dreaded teen years, but lately she’s been worried. Liza’s math teacher called to say she hasn’t turned in an assignment on time in a couple of weeks. When Shannon tried to ask Liza what was going on, she slammed her bedroom door shut. Minutes later, Shannon heard Liza speaking calmly to a friend on the phone.
Why is Liza acting so… well—crazy?
As your child grows older, it can be confusing to see her appear more and more like an adult, yet act in a way that feels more immature than ever before.
Maybe when you talk to your friends or spouse, they attribute a lot of her behavior to hormones, famous hijackers of emotional stability. Let’s say your teenager gets in trouble at school, for something you didn’t think she was capable of doing. “Can it really just be hormones?” you might wonder.
You have a right to feel confused. Maybe you even feel a sense of loss. Where did that loving, carefree child from a year ago run off to? Did something happen while you weren’t paying attention?
The relieving news is that many of the changes your teenager is undergoing are necessary milestones to becoming a healthy, normal adult—but she’s not an adult yet. On top of the fact that your teenager is rapidly changing is the reality that these changes are coming from all directions: social pressures, environmental influences, and chemical changes in the brain ensure that your child’s teen years will be an eventful ride.
The social pressure to fit in, and be a part of an identifiable group, isn’t silly to teenagers; it’s dire. The social drama that plays out in your teenager’s life is the stage on which she figures out who she is as a person. What are her values? What is she good at? How do others respond to different expressions of self?
One of the most difficult things to experience as a parent is your child’s defiant assertions of independence as a teen. “What have I done so wrong?” you might think. In truth, your child’s push away from her parents doesn’t necessarily have anything at all to do with you. She is learning who she is apart from you—something that’s just as hard for her, as it is for you.
Changes in her brain
Different parts of the brain mature at different rates. The mental center, which doles out rewards for behavior, is up and running before structures that will eventually help inhibit risky impulses. In other words, when your teen considers a potential situation, reward speaks up, while consequence stays quiet.
Scientists are also learning that the amygdala, the area of the brain processing fear, develops earlier than the area that allows your teen to reason and control her emotions.
What this means is that your newly-unrecognizable teenager is likely experiencing more impulsivity, and more anxiety, than she has the tools to manage.
Perhaps your teen becomes over-emotional during a conversation you view as perfectly normal. Maybe you think the gravity she places on relationships at school, or on a comment you made, are disproportionate. Yet to her, the abundance of emotions–often fearful–she’s feeling is real.
If your teenager is making decisions that make you uncomfortable, it can help to understand that she doesn’t have the same faculties you use to weigh a potential action.
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