Yes, Your Teen Is…Crazy!

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“Your kid is crazy.” “Adolescents are temporarily brain-damaged.” “S[he]’s not a bad person…just brain-challenged.” These are the opening–and arresting–statements by psychologist Michael J. Bradley, Ed.D in the Introduction of his book, Yes, Your Teen is Crazy! (2003) – a book I’ve recommended to more than a few hair-pulling, at-wits-end parents of teenagers. The image is a familiar one to therapists: anxious, agitated, animated parent(s), accompanied to the counseling office by sullen, surly, slouchy teenager. What therapist in their right mind wouldn’t relish the opportunity to unite these warring parties in blissful harmony?

Utilizing research from the neuroscience revolution of the past fifteen + years, Dr. Bradley organizes the book into three parts: Part One: The New-Millennium Adolescent; Part Two: The New-Millennium Parents; and, Part Three: Field-Tested Strategies for Effectively Parenting Your Adolescent.

Part One: The New-Millennium Adolescent

First, a joke that psychologists have told for years:

Parent: “I want you to evaluate my 13-year-old son.”

Doctor: “OK. He’s suffering from a transient psychosis with an intermittent rage disorder, punctuated by episodic radical mood swings, but his prognosis is good for a full recovery.”

Parent: “What does all that mean?”

Doctor: “He’s 13.”

Parent: “How can you say all that without even meeting him?”

Doctor: “He’s 13.”

“The first step in retraining (parents for the new-millennium adolescent) is to learn how your kid’s brain works.” Dr. Bradley writes:

“Starting in 1991, Dr. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), started taking pictures of kids’ brains over a nine-year span. He was curious to know to what extent children’s crazy behavior is willful, and to what extent it is beyond their control. He and his colleagues at UCLA and McGill University in Canada used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study exactly how a child’s brain grows from ages 3 to 18. They studied almost 1,000 ‘normal’ kids at intervals ranging from two weeks to four years. What they found was nothing short of astonishing, and it completely rewrote our understanding of the adolescent brain.

First…they saw that throughout the teen years and into the twenties, substantial growth occurs in a brain structure called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a set of nerves that connects all the parts of the brain that must work together to function efficiently, as in making good decisions….With amazement, they also found that the prefrontal cortex of the brain goes through a wild growth spurt that coincides with the onset of adolescence. In fact, they found that this part of the brain does the bulk of its maturation between the ages of 12 and 20. The prefrontal cortex is where the most sophisticated of our abilities reside. Emotional control, impulse restraint, and rational decision-making are all gifts to us from our prefrontal cortex, gifts your kid hasn’t yet received.” That’s worth repeating.

 Emotional control, impulse restraint, and rational decision-making are all gifts to us from our prefrontal cortex, gifts your kid hasn’t yet received.

 You can see where this is leading (swallow hard). Enter:

 Part Two: New Millennium Parents

Once again from the Introduction: “These brain imagings of your kid’s head tell us that your parenting training is obsolete – that being what you thought was a good parent actually can create problems for your at-risk kid. We adults must now rethink who we are as parents in light of the new data.”

I’m reminded of a statement by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, M.D., in her book The Female Brain (2006; see earlier blog): “As a parent of teens, you have the job of ignoring much of what they say. Don’t take any impulsive or emotional tirades seriously. Stay calm. Teens state their intentions—and feel them—with such passion – that you can be persuaded in spite of yourself. Just remember, your teen(‘s) impulse-control circuits can’t handle the input. Like it or not, you must provide the control while (their) brain cannot.” That last sentence is also worth repeating, and captures the essence of Bradley’s Part Two for parents:

Like it or not, you (parent) must provide the control while (their) brain cannot.

 The extremely helpful chapters in this section include: “Grieving the Death of Your Sweet, Compliant Child,” “Parental Self-Examination: How Your Behavior and Personality Affect Who Your Adolescent Is”, and “Parent Teamwork, Divorce, Single Parenting, and Blended Families.”

Part Three: Field-Tested Strategies for Effectively Parenting Your Adolescent

 It’s one thing to understand better what teens are capable of neurologically and therefore behaviorally. It’s another matter entirely to understand how to implement specific parenting strategies. This is one of the most helpful contributions Bradley makes, and is the essence of brain-based parenting in Part Three. Topics include: aggression, appearance, curfews, driving, the Internet, music, peers, religion, school, privacy, dating, sex, drugs, etcetera, etcetera; the usual easy and harmless issues parents of adolescents are faced with. I conclude with a book section called: “The Rage-Response System: Where Winning Feels a Lot Like Losing”:

“In the face of true rage from your kid, the first thing to do is decide not to do all those things that feel so right to you in the moment, like screaming back, tearfully pleading, or punching her lights out. The second thing to do is switch your control center from your heart to your head: Become that dispassionate cop….As your kid starts screaming, talk more quietly, and with very few words in very short sentences…..Confront her with the insanity of her own behavior by isolating and contrasting it with your own quiet responses. Dispassionately refuse to talk to her if she continues to rage, and try to withdraw from the room. Don’t try to handle an entire rage episode on the spot. There are many parts to this process, including eventual discussion and consequences, but that’s tomorrow’s work. Your immediate goal is to help your kid safely get his internal control back.”

(At this point, Bradley includes a sample dialogue (diatribe) that includes a lot of “F-words” by the teenager – which I’ll omit for the sake of a PG-blog rating.) Bradley continues: “If your child follows you and makes aggressive physical contact with you, look him straight in the eyes and quietly tell him, one time, that if the pushing continues, you must call the police. If it persists, make the 911 call without further warnings. DO NOT GET PHYSICAL IN RETURN. Leave the house, if you must. If he demands that you rescind that call, refuse, dispassionately saying, ‘I love you too much to have violence between us. If we’re this far gone, we need emergency help.’ The flashing red lights in the driveway are embarrassing, but you must make this dramatic statement to your child that if the family (not just your child) resorts to violence to settle differences, then it is truly out of control and needs help. If he calms down and asks for an explanation, repeat that you love him too much to have violence in his home, and that under no circumstances is violence acceptable. If is simply never, ever OK.”

An extreme example? Yes, thankfully, in most families. But, such adolescent aggression is common. More than a few parents know that. I know that too, as I have witnessed it recently in the therapy office.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs

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