I work with teens for a living, so I have many occasions to fall into the trap of thinking that, because their bodies look mostly grown up, their brains must be, too.
And then they do something that makes me shake my head and think, “What is wrong with you? You look like an adult and you want to be an adult, but you aren’t even close to acting like one!”
Lately, I have found that remembering myself at the age of the child whose behavior is frustrating me helps me to be more compassionate and patient because I see pieces of myself in them.
And I’m interested that my journey through adolescence matches pretty closely the developmental patterns that show up in research about the adolescent brain.
In Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Dr. Laurence Steinberg writes: “Around the time of puberty, the limbic system becomes more easily aroused. During this time teenagers become more emotional (experiencing and displaying higher ‘highs’ and lower ‘lows’), more sensitive to the opinions and evaluations of others (especially peers)….”
I remember crying through most of 7th grade.
My hair was oily, my nose and chin competed for how many blackheads they could produce between bedtime and breakfast, my clothes were never “the right clothes,” and if my best friend wasn’t paying me enough attention, I was sure she was going to desert me for someone more sophisticated!
I wanted a boyfriend but became tongue tied around any boy who came within two feet of me. The tough girls in PE ridiculed me for my coordination and coolness deficits. I went to school, to church, to ballet and cello lessons, but those events are a blur compared to the very intense memories of my inner self and social life.
According to Dr. Steinberg, “mature self-control has a ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ quality…because the relevant brain circuits aren’t fully mature. Many adolescents who display excellent judgment and good self-regulation under optimal conditions don’t when they’re stressed, fatigued, or in groups with other teenagers.”
By sophomore year, I had tired of my shy, insecure self and was determined to learn how to be assertive and outgoing. There were no magic wands to assist with that transformation, though, so I made all sorts of mistakes along the way.
My friends and I were good students, never got in trouble, held leadership positions in our respective sports and clubs…and yet we engaged in some risky behaviors that would have left our parents (had they known) gasping, “What were you thinking!?”
When I look back at why I made those choices, I can see that there was a certain excitement in breaking the rules. Stepping out of my “good girl” role made me feel daring and reckless instead of shy and careful, and there was a thrilling energy in the air that freed me from my every-day, ho-hum self!
Dr. Steinberg again: “During the late teens and early twenties, adolescents get better at controlling their impulses, thinking about the long-term consequences of their decisions, and resisting peer pressure.”
My college self gradually transitioned to making more consistently good decisions, but even as I appeared to be outwardly acting more adult-like, I couldn’t help feeling like I was pretending.
I remember grading papers as a student teacher and feeling somehow like my 7-year-old self, playing school with my siblings in the basement. It didn’t seem real, and while I knew I wanted to be a teacher, I wasn’t driven or passionate. I was going through the motions.
According to Dr. Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently, “in females the brain tends to mature in the early twenties, in males this occurs later, closer to age thirty.”
My husband and I married the summer after graduation. I was 22. It was navigating the adult world that finally pushed me into full-fledged adult thinking: teaching in my own classroom, managing money, working through marital conflicts with commitment, all gradually helped me settle into the feelings of competence and confidence that I had been searching for all my life.
My passion and drive kicked in, propelling me toward new opportunities for learning and strong opinions about who I wanted to be in the world.
My journey through adolescence was arduous at times, joyful at others, kind of like life in general. I’m sure my parents expressed worry behind closed doors, just like I have and just like every parent does.
When you get impatient with your kids’ attitudes, baffling decisions, and bumps in the road, try remembering back to who you were at that age.
Remembering that we were once where they are, and that we had to go through a process to become who we are now, can help us to be partners in their journey instead of judges of their journey.